Stunning images of China taken by Victorian photography icon to arrive at city museum

Published: Tuesday, 13th October 2020

An internationally-acclaimed photography exhibition which reveals rare images of 19th century China is coming to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

China: Through The Lens Of John Thomson (1868-1872) has attracted almost one million visitors during an international tour of 24 cities including Washington DC and Stockholm.

The display of photographic prints, which are made from original glass negatives that are about 150 years old, will come to Stoke-on-Trent from Saturday, October 17.

Described by experts as ‘unique’ and ‘beautiful’, each image by the iconic travel photographer captures fascinating details from the long-lost world of imperial China.

The exhibition is the first new display to arrive at the museum since the site reopened in September following a temporary closure due to national coronavirus restrictions.

Born in 1837, John Thomson was a pioneer of photojournalism and one of the first European members of his profession to travel extensively in the Far East. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest photographers of his generation.

Thomson established a portrait studio in Singapore in 1862 before moving to Hong Kong in 1868.

Between 1870 and 1872, he travelled vast distances around mainland China, capturing images from the Pearl River, Min River and Yangtze River and from Fuzhou to Beijing.

Thomson had to travel with a plate camera which was the size of a small fridge, as well as a portable darkroom, glass negatives, and bottles of highly flammable and poisonous chemicals.

Despite these challenges, the Scottish traveller produced 650 glass negatives before returning to Britain where he published many photographic and written works on China.

Thomson’s portrait photographs cover people from all walks of life, including the young, old, brides, street sellers, soldiers, and even powerful Mandarin bureaucrats. 

Each backdrop also reveals more about the streets, back yards, gardens, palaces, architecture, clothes and customs of the time.

His landscapes include a large junk sailing ship on the South China Sea, the Great Sacrifice Hall containing Ming tombs and temples among wooded glades.

Thomson went on to be appointed photographer to the British royal family by Queen Victoria. After his death in 1921, the glass negatives from China were bought by the Wellcome Library in London.

Now some of the photographic prints from them are due to be displayed at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery from October 17 2020 to February 14 2021.

Thomson’s photographs will be complemented by a display of Chinese artefacts selected from the museums’ own collections; including 18th and 19th-century jade and ivory carvings, embroidered textiles and ceramics.

Tickets to the exhibition are £5, with concessions costing £3 and children under 16 can attend for free.

Councillor Lorraine Beardmore, Stoke-on-Trent City Council cabinet member for culture, leisure and public health, said: “This exhibition is truly stunning and it’s fascinating to spend time looking at all of the small details in those incredible photographs. The fact that John Thomson produced such beautiful pictures, despite the technology available and the many challenges he faced, is really remarkable.  

“This is a fantastic example of the calibre of exhibitions which we’re now attracting in Stoke-on-Trent and we’d urge everyone not to miss out on the opportunity to see these photographs in person. We’re proud to be one of the driving forces behind the amazing range of culture available in Stoke-on-Trent, which is attracting more visitors to the area and helping to power up this great city.”

Events are also being organised to coincide with the display. These include:

•           The Empress And Me on Sunday, November 15 2020. Red Dragonfly Productions will portray the amazing true story of the Princess Der Ling who, following her unique experience of life at the Manchu court and close relationship with the Empress Dowager, became an international celebrity.

•           John Thomson: The Intrepid Traveller And The Survival Of His Photographic Collection on Sunday, November 29 2020. Betty Yao MBE will examine the life of John Thomson and reveal the 150-year story behind the survival of this valuable collection.

•           Informal Costume And Dress Accessories Of The Chinese Imperial Court – Dressed To Impress on Sunday, January 24 2021. This lecture by David Rosier will explore the costume, and dress accessories that fell beyond the scope of Chinese court costume regulations.

All the events start at 1pm. Pre-booking is essential and numbers are limited. Event tickets are £12 and include a cream tea.

Events are subject to national government guidelines at the time and may have to be cancelled or postponed at short notice.

To help to limit the numbers inside the museum and comply with social distancing, people must pre-book a time slot for any visit by calling 01782 232323.

For more information, visit


• Following national guidance and the latest coronavirus updates from the government, the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery reopened for pre-booked visits from September 28 2020 with a number of measures in place to ensure the site is covid-secure. These include:

- A maximum of six people only per booking;

- Visitors must arrive 10 minutes before their admission time;

- Hand-sanitising stations located throughout the building;

- All visitors must wear a face covering unless exempt, except when seated in the café;

- A one-way system will be in place on walkways, stairways, and in the galleries.

The museum has been awarded Visit England ‘Good To Go’ status – a UK-wide, industry standard consumer mark which confirms that an attraction is adhering to government and public health guidance. Previous opening times at the museum still apply: Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm and on Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Visits are a recommended two hours and staff are on hand to help with any questions. For more information, please visit

• The exhibition, China: Through the Lens of John Thompson 1868 -1872 has been organised by Betty Yao MBE, Credential International Arts Management.

• The Wellcome Trust is one of the largest charities in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending over £600 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing. The Wellcome Trust's former headquarters, the Wellcome Building on London's Euston Road, has been redesigned by Hopkins Architects to become a new £30 million public venue. Free to all, the Wellcome Collection explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future. The building comprises three galleries, a public events space, the Wellcome Library, a café, a bookshop, conference facilities and a members' club.