Rare early photographs of Peking by Thomas Child in the exhibit, “Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs,” at China Exchange in London.

The Rare Foreigner Who Could Capture the Essence of Ancient Peking

The Rare Foreigner Who Could Capture the Essence of Ancient Peking

Behold
The Photo Blog
Nov. 10 2015 10:14 AM

The Rare Foreigner Who Could Capture the Essence of Ancient Peking

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Thomas Child. No. 16. Bridge. 1870s. This is an early photograph of Jade Belt Bridge, or Moon Bridge, located on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing on the western shore of Kunming Lake. The arch was constructed high enough to allow passage of the Emperor’s dragon boat.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

In 1870, 29-year-old Thomas Child packed his camera and traveled to Peking (now known as Beijing) for a five-year contract as a gas engineer with the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, leaving behind a wife and three children in England. Before 1861, the city was almost entirely closed to foreigners, and by the time Child arrived, there were still only around 100 foreigners living there. The city was rarely photographed.

Over the course of two decades in the Chinese capital, Child managed an incredible feat, taking nearly 200 photographs—the earliest comprehensive survey of Peking and its surroundings—in his free time. The photos show shops and crowds, important architectural features, trade and commerce, and marriage and funeral rituals. Images from the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Collection of China Photography, which includes the finest collection of Child’s Peking photographs, are on display in the exhibit “Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs” at London’s China Exchange from Nov. 10–15.

“Clearly Child was an explorer, and it is obvious he wanted to share his understanding of Chinese culture,” Stacey Lambrow, the show’s curator, said via email.

BrideandGrooms
Thomas Child. No. 182. Bride and Groom. 1870s. Child took a series of three photographs relating to late–Qing dynasty marriage customs.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 85. Peking Streets. 1870s. This photograph depicts late–Qing dynasty commerce in the Chinese city of Peking.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 138. Pe-Yun-Tze, Azure Cloud Temple. 1870s. This temple, constructed during the Yuan dynasty, is located on the eastern slope of Fragrant Hill in west Beijing.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 13. Stone Junk, Summer Palace. 1870s. Child took this photograph of the Marble Boat, or the Boat of Purity and Ease, in the 1870s, after it suffered damage from the Second Opium War.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Child was unique among early foreign photographers of the city, Lambrow said. He learned to speak Chinese, he spent time with Chinese people, and he shared his knowledge of photography with Chinese residents in the city. 

“Unlike photographers that passed through Peking, Child was a resident, and his intimate understanding of the city comes across in his work. Much of the photography you see by early roving photographers is repetitive in that they captured similar views of the city’s most notable architecture and a larger visual context is missing. [Italian-British photographer] Felice Beato took a very important series of photographs of Peking, but his images document imperialism rather than life and culture in China,” Lambrow said.

It’s not clear how Child learned to photograph, but it’s known that he took photographs before arriving in China. In Peking, he used the collodion process to produce albumen silver prints and sold them by word of mouth from his studio. He also sold them commercially through Far East magazine

Child left China when Peking was on the brink of the Boxer War. Much of what Child photographed was altered by that war, making his photos a unique and valuable record of the ancient city. 

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“Beijing is an ever-evolving city. It is important to know the city’s history.”

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Thomas Child. No. 195. Parade of Camels. 1870s. This is one of the earliest photographs depicting 19th-century travelers of the Silk Road in China.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 62. Great Pure Gate. 1870s. This is a 19th-century view of the front gate of the Imperial City. Child explains in his description of the photographs that the gate “only opened on special state occasions for the Emperor to pass through.”

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 49. Observatory, Bronze Astronomical Instrument. 1870s. In his description of this photograph of an early astronomical instrument, Child states that the instrument is one of the finest pieces of bronze in China: “Being made in the 13th century enhances its merit and adds further proof of the skill of the ancient Chinese.”

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

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Thomas Child. No. 142. Great Wall of China. 1870s. This is an early photograph of an expansive portion of the Great Wall of China that leads to Mongolia.

Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.