In 1870, when Peking, now known as Beijing, was mostly closed to foreigners, Thomas Child was one of approximately one hundred who lived in the Chinese capital. Sent to China as a gas engineer by his employer, the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, on a five-year contract, he resided in China for two decades and was among the first to create a photographic record of the capital and its surrounding areas. His over 200 photographs were taken during his free time and sold through his studio to the public and Far East, a Shanghai-based international art publication. His works are now recognized as one of the most comprehensive visual survey of late Qing Dynasty China. Now in the collection of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Collection of China Photography, Child’s photographs on exhibit for the first time in New York at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College through October 25.
The over forty photographs in Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs are a diverse selection that show the architecture in and around the city, social customs, and people and objects of the period. Many of the photographs evoke the perpetuity of Chinese culture. Familiar sites, like the Great Wall of China, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) at the Temple of Heaven, and the Forbidden City, as well as lesser known, but majestic, structures like pagodas, stone bridges at the Summer Palace, and archways at the Ming Tombs appear today nearly as they did in Child’s collodion photographs nearly 150 years ago.
A series of matrimonial photographs demonstrate how certain wedding traditions in China have continued. The character xi 喜, often seen as part of the double happiness ligature 囍, is prominent in the photograph of a courtyard arranged to host a wedding reception and in one of the highlights of the exhibition, an elegant portrait of a bride and groom. Noting the color red in matrimonial ceremony with curiosity, Child said of this photograph, “Weddings are one of the stock ceremonies of the world, and every country has its own customs. In China the bridal colour is scarlet. This bride wore a scarlet satin coat embroidered with gold thread, with a skirt to match, her head dress was a mass of scarlet, gold and pearls.” As it turns out, a descendant of the couple resides in Queens, NY and did not know about the photograph until it was exhibited in London last year. He was scheduled to attend the opening in NY and meet Child’s descendants.
However, the photographs also remind us of China’s tumultuous history. Child’s time in China was bookended by two devastating conflicts, the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) the Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901), during both of which many civilian lives were lost and sites were destroyed. A number of photographs show structures and places that survived the Second Opium War but were later destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion. The exhibition includes the only known photographs of the wooden buildings on the surrounding Azure Cloud Temple (碧云寺) and of the Prince’s Porch in the Old Summer Palace (圆明园). One structure at the imperial retreat preserved in photograph is the Fountain Gate, which was part of Western Mansions, the section of the imperial retreat constructed by Chinese artisans but emulated Western design.
China’s long history of cultural exchange with the West can also be seen in a series of photographs taken at the Imperial Astronomical Observatory. Among the astronomical instruments Child photographed is a bronze celestial globe mapped the stars and tracked other celestial bodies across the sky was the result of combined astronomical knowledge of Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest, and Xu Guangxi, European and Chinese scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Child’s photographs are also a record of a daily life in and the people of 19th century China. Photographs of various shops, roads within and outside of the city, and camels used for transport reflect the commercial activity of the city. We catch glimpses of crowds of people on the street, some of who shied away from the camera, but for the most part were curious about the technology. Rare portraits of lesser royalty, a Korean diplomat, and religious figures, suggest Child’s recognition as a photographer and privileged access.
Child spoke Chinese and built personal relationships with the locals. Descriptions that reflected his understanding of the history and culture of Chinese people accompanied his photographs, but as The New York Times notes, the handwritten comments were “a mix of admiration and condescension for traditions that Westerners of the time considered primitive.” Nevertheless, Child was fully enamoured with China. When he returned to England in 1889, he gave his family home outside of London the name 长安堂 which translates to “Studio of Everlasting Tranquillity”.
Child’s photographs became a reference for Chinese architecture to illustrations in books and magazines published during and after his time in China. But, illustrators often let their imagination distort the reality of the photographs. For example, roof were drawn with slanted Japanese roofs and city walls and camels became North African in origin. Engravers, too, created from different sources composite images like one of the Emperor sledding. In her book, Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces, Regine Thiriez said of these inaccuracies, “This image of China, revised by the common denominator of exoticism, is an interesting illustration of the dangers of indoor reconstruction.”
Proposing the signficance of Child’s legacy, Thiriez says, “[H]e provided a framework for any real or imaginary conception of China. This is why her remains current today, while the typical scenes so popular with other early photographers of China have become mostly symbols of a time when John Chinaman was no more than an object of curiosity, if not contempt, to the ‘enlighted’ Westerner.”
Curator Stacey Lambrow told Slate, “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.”
Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs is on view at Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College, 35 E 22nd St., New York, NY
Photo captions provided by the Sidney Mishkin Gallery.