A British Photographer’s Rare Photos of 19th Century Peking


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.


Thomas Child, No. 153 – ‘Ming Tombs Marble P’ailou’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. This magnificent memorial arch at the entrance to the Ming Tombs outside of Peking is the largest and most famous archway in the capital and one of the greatest in China. Child lavishes the edifice with praise: ‘this P’ailou is said to be the finest in China … it is made entirely of white marbles, beautifully ornamented with sculptured work…’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.


Thomas Child, No. 181 ‘Bridal Chair’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. In this photograph Child documents the ancient Chinese custom of the bridal sedan chair. The bridal chair Child photographed was extravagantly decorated. Bridal chairs were used to carry the bride for a wedding. The bride would sit inside of the chair on her journey to meet the man she was to marry. The chair was carried by male porters, and on arrival the bride was helped down by a woman who had been lucky in marriage. The passage in the chair represents the bride’s transition from childhood to adulthood and from one family to another. Child writes, ‘In this kind of Sedan chair borne by eight men, the bride is conveyed closely shut up, from her parents’ house to the bridegroom’s, accompanied by music and a large procession, according to their means’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.


Thomas Child, No. 206  ‘Fountain Gate’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. Child took this photograph of Fountain Gate in Yuan Ming Yuan before it was further destroyed in the Boxer War.  Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.


Thomas Child, No. 52. ‘Observatory, Bronze Celestial Globe’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. This is Child’s view of the bronze celestial globe and an astrolabe at the Imperial Astronomical Observatory. In relief, the celestial globe shows the apparent positions of the stars in the sky. It was used to determine when celestial bodies rose and set as well as the altitude and azimuth of them at any given time. Child points out that the celestial globe was made by Ferdinand Verbiest and cast in 1674.  Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.


Thomas Child, No. 105. ‘Tobacco Shop, Peking’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. Child captures this dramatic street scene in front of an enormous and ornate wooden late Qing dynasty tobacco shop in the quarter of Peking known as the Chinese City. He writes: ‘The most important part of the shops in Peking is the outside, much ingenuity is concentrated on the shop front, and large sums are expended in elaborate decoration … many of the shops have a great reputation for their wares, they have been established for centuries and their signs are well known landmarks’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.


Thomas Child, No. 192 ‘Mongolian Lama’, 1870s. Albumen silver print. This is one of the earliest photographic portraits of a religious figure in Peking. In the 19th century, the term ‘lama’ referred to any Tibetan Buddhist monk or teacher. The lama and his pupil both hold prayer beads and bundles of sutras in their laps. Displayed neatly on the table are bronze sculptures and sacred Tibetan ritual objects including a skull cup with a bronze Buddha and a statue Kali, the goddess of Time, Power, and Destruction. This image is among the earliest photographic depictions of such sacred objects, and provides a valuable record of religious practice in the period. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.”

Thomas Child, No. 106 'New Shop Peking'

In this image, Child captures the grand opening of an elaborate 19th-century shop in Peking. He explains, ‘It is a usual thing upon a new shop commencing business to erect a large structure of poles extending across the front of the shop and well into the street, the whole is covered with red cloth on which are stuck gold characters, lauding their wares higher than the structure. The inside is hung with lanterns and pictures which attract great crowds … a good trade is done for a few days, and the shop is duly advertised’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 19 'Summer Palace,

This is one of Child’s views of the Seventeen Arch Bridge on the grounds of the Summer Palace. It is the largest bridge of any imperial garden. Child’s photograph of the bridge includes the Bronze Ox overlooking Kunming Lake. Cast in 1755, the Bronze Ox was positioned on the lake in hope of preventing floods, as the ox is said to possess special power over water. Inscribed on the back of the ox in seal characters – the most ancient form of Chinese script – is the famous ode ‘Inscription on the Golden Ox’ by the Emperor Qianlong. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 191'Buddhist Priest'

This portrait of a Buddhist priest, like Child’s portrait of the Mongolian Lama, is one of the earliest photographs of a religious figure in Peking. Child notes that the priests were among ‘the fattest and best clothe[d] in Peking’ and this one is no exception. The priest’s attendant holds a bound manuscript of sutras. Child’s portraits of religious figures are significant cultural survivals as they illustrate different religious practices in 19th- century Peking. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 49 'Observatory, Bronze Astronomical Instrument

The Imperial Astronomical Observatory is a pretelescopic observatory built during the Ming dynasty and expanded during the Qing dynasty. The observatory was a research centre for some of the Ming and Qing dynasties' most important scholars. As an engineer Child is quick to note early Chinese ingenuity and craftsmanship. In his description of this photograph of this early astronomical instrument, Child states that the instrument is one of the finest pieces of bronze in China and ‘being made in the 13th century enhances its merit and adds further proof of the skill of the ancient Chinese’. The intricate bronze instrument is an example of the pre-modern technological heritage of Chinese society. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 195 'Parade of Camels'

This is one of the earliest photographs depicting 19th-century travelers of the Silk Road in China. Child explains that the Bactrian camels, distinguished by their double humps, were used to ‘carry coal and lime into the City from the Western Hills, and merchandise between Peking and Mongolia’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 142 'Great Wall of China'

The photograph provides evidence of the removal of forest for building materials and security. The Chinese government has reversed that policy, and this portion of the wall is now surrounded by trees on both sides. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 154 'Ming Tombs Avenue of Stone Figures'

This is a view of Spirit Way at the Imperial Tombs outside Peking. The avenue lined with solid stone sculptures, symbolizes the road leading to heaven. It is lined with twenty-four animal figures, twelve standing and twelve recumbent. Each is carved from a block of marble. In addition, there are 12 sculptures of human figures along the road. The camel and elephant sculptures represent the vast territory controlled by the court. As Child notes, the placing of the heavy solid stone sculptures required ‘no small engineering skill’. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 204 'Prince's Porch'

This is a rare photograph of Prince’s Porch in Yuan Ming Yuan, or the Garden of Perfect Brightness. The structure, damaged in the Second Opium War, was further destroyed in the Boxer War, making this image by Child a valuable record for Chinese architectural history. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 144 ,View of Nankou Pass,

This photograph depicts the challenging terrain 19th century travelers faced at Juyong Pass when journeying to the Great Wall. Child had the additional burden of his fragile photographic equipment. Child describes his approach to the wall: “After travelling over the roughest of roads, made longer by the path winding round huge boulders that have rolled down from the mountains that bored the pass, we arrive in sight of the haven of our hopes, the Great Wall of China.” Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 164 'Corean Gentleman. Peking.'

19th century portraits of Korean people are extremely scarce. Child took this portrait of a Korean gentleman in Peking in the 1870s. The man was most likely a Korean diplomat visiting the city on official business. Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 58 'Last Lock of the Grand Canal'

This is a view of the most important canal in Peking. The canal was not photographed by other early photographers. The waterway was used to transport goods, such as grain, between the city of T’ung-Chow, and Peking. The image depicts how the Qing dynasty’s capital was maintained. Child points out that the “canal was made in the 13th century and extends as a direct water-way for more than 650 miles.” Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

Thomas Child, No. 157 'Ming Tombs. Yung Lo’s Tomb'

This is a photograph of the exterior of an Imperial tomb within the Ming Tombs. Child was most impressed by the hall within this building. He states: “Beyond the entrance hall the splendid building shown in this view, 220 ft long by 90 ft wide; the roof is supported by 32 teak wood pillars, over 4 ft thick and 30 add ft high, they were brought from Burmah, and evince the amount of labour, and skill required in transporting them. It is perhaps, the finest Hall in China.” Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection.

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.