China: Through the Lens of John Thomson


Opening this fall at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1868-1872) will provide a fascinating window into imperial China rich textile tradition through images taken by Scottish photographer John Thomson.

Thomson’s photographs will be displayed alongside pieces from The Textile Museum’s collection of Qing dynasty garments, costume accessories and textile furnishings. The textiles are similar to those seen in Mr. Thomson’s photos and will bring his powerful black-and-white images to life.

Over the course of four years, John Thomson traversed vast expanses of China with his camera in tow. His photos document diverse landscapes, architecture, communities and customs during China’s late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), as well as people from all levels of society, from high officials and wealth businessmen to brides, boat women and monks.

Thomson gain unprecedented access to photograph upper class women, who typically remained unseen by any men outside their families. Thomson’s photographs of women provide a valuable visual record of late Qing fashions in clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles.

Lee Talbot, curator at The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, provided insight to many of the fashions and textiles that will accompany the  exhibit.

“A Manchu Lady after having her Face Painted” taken in Beijing in 1871-72, presents impeccably dressed ladies of two different ethnicities. The lady on the left, shown in profile, is wearing a wide-sleeved jacket and skirt ensemble favored by the Han, China’s largest ethnic group. The woman on the right, facing the camera, is in a long gown often worn by the Manchu, a non-Chinese group that conquered China and established the Qing dynasty in 1644. To prevent full assimilation into Chinese society, early Qing rulers forbade their Manchu brethren from adopting Han sartorial styles, but the photographs and garments on view in the exhibition reveal that by the late Qing period distinctions between fashionable Manchu and Han Chinese dress had begun to blur.

While Thomson’s two-dimensional, black-and-white photographs show that women’s garments could be intricately patterned, extant examples in the exhibition illustrate in full color and three dimensions the vivid hues, varied textures, and fine workmanship that characterized fine clothing at the time. For formal and festive occasions, both Manchu and Han women wore elaborately decorated outerwear in colors and patterns deeply imbued with many layers of social, cultural, and cosmological significance. Cosmological beliefs widespread at the time associated the color red with happiness, summer and the prime of life, so red garments were appropriate for wear during joyful events such as New Year celebrations, weddings, and birthdays. For the jacket, the red damask ground fabric, self-patterned with the attributes of the eight Daoist immortals, was further embellished with colorfully embroidered auspicious imagery. The “one hundred antiquities,” including ancient bronze mirrors and censers, as well as scholarly attributes such as scrolls and calligraphy brushes, connoted the wearer’s cultural refinement and literary accomplishment.

The exhibition, on view at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum from Sept. 19 through Feb. 14, will provide an intellectually and aesthetically engaging overview of a vanished imperial China. The photographs and textiles each enhance understanding and appreciation of the other, and their pairing in the exhibition helps to build a rich cultural context that brings China’s past to life for today’s audiences. During his lifetime, Thomson actively endeavored to advance public knowledge of East Asia, so doubtless he would be delighted to know that in the 21st century his work continues to cultivate deeper understanding of China and its people.