Back in 2017, we ran a feature on the Victorian travel and social documentary photographer, John Thomson (1837 – 1921), who was the first person to photograph Angkor Wat, as well as taking stunning images of Qing dynasty China. We reported at the time that a Just Giving campaign was underway to restore Thomson’s neglected grave in Streatham Cemetery, and the re-erection of the headstone took place earlier this month.
Although he was a product of his time, John Thomson, shown working in China above, treated his subjects with respect and dignity, regardless of their social status (which actually made him quite unusual for the time). AP deputy editor Geoff Harris, a proud member of the grave restoration committee, attended the ceremony along with Thomson’s descendants and other committee members, including Dr. Michael Pritchard from the RPS, Asian photography expert Terry Bennett, Jamie Carstairs, who manages the Historical Projects of China project, and curator, Betty Yao MBE (below).
Betty, who organised the 2017 exhibition and helped published several new books on Thomson, has worked tirelessly to restore his profile. As she explains, the process of sorting out the grave was nearly as challenging as Thomson’s epic journeys. “Until 2017 we had no idea where the grave was, as the family wasn’t sure. It was Terry Bennett who located it in the cemetery after a lot of research. It was in a sorry state.”
Making a new headstone would have been expensive and complicated, but after a lot of bureaucratic wrangling and gaining the support of the Friends of Streatham Cemetery, Betty found a way to get the stone repaired at a reasonable cost. “After the book and exhibition, I thought it was the least we could do to clean up the grave,” she explains. “Thomson had a great affinity with the Chinese, and taking care of somebody’s final resting place is very important in Chinese culture.”
The Streatham Cemetery plot is at Lot 545, Block F, and Thomson’s images, including this unforgettable image of a Cantonese boatwoman above, can be enjoyed here. Congratulations to everyone involved in the restoration, including the committee, John Thomson’s descendants and other well wishers keen to preserve the memory of this amazing photographer (shown below).