China’s Last Empire Through Lens of Western Photographer

Exhibition of Photographs, Textiles and Accessories at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum Focuses on People and Landscapes of Qing Dynasty China

September 19, 2015

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John Thomson, A Manchu lady after having her face painted, Beijing, 1871–72. The Wellcome Library, London.

Kurie Fitzgerald: [email protected], 202-994-6461
Maralee Csellar: [email protected], 202-994-7564
WASHINGTON (Sept. 19, 2015)—The new George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum's first exhibition since its grand opening last spring, China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1868-1872) (Saturday to Feb. 14, 2016), presents a rare window into late 19th century China through photographs and period textiles.
Born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype, John Thomson was a pioneer of photojournalism who traversed vast expanses of China in the second half of the 19th century. The photographs he took along the way faithfully capture scenes and people from all walks of life—from high officials and wealthy businessmen to brides, boat women and monks—providing a lasting record of China’s landscapes, architecture, communities and customs. 
Co-curated by Lee Talbot, museum curator, and Betty Yao, member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and of Credential International Arts Management, the exhibition features more than 90 of Mr. Thomson’s photographs enlarged from the original glass-plate negatives—some to more than life-size. These photographs, on loan from the Wellcome Library’s collection in London, are paired with garments, accessories and furnishings from The Textile Museum’s Qing dynasty collection. Together with commentary by Mr. Thomson and present-day Chinese, European and American scholars, these objects and images reveal a fragile empire on the brink of tremendous change. 
“The remarkable volume and scope of Thomson’s work during his five years in China attest to his deep fascination with the country. His respect and sympathy for the Chinese people are evident in the beauty and sensitivity of his portraiture,” said Lee Talbot, museum curator. “Upon returning to Britain, Thomson actively informed the public about China through illustrated lectures, articles and publications. This body of work contributed significantly to public awareness and understanding of East Asia.” 
Mr. Thomson astutely developed a network of western and Chinese contacts that helped him gain access to people and places typically off limits to the general public. For example, upper-class women in Qing dynasty China were expected to remain within the “inner quarters” of the home, unseen by any men outside the family, but Mr. Thomson’s photos show mothers, daughters and maids going about their daily routines. 
Exhibition Sponsors
This exhibition and related programming are made possible through major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Coby Foundation, and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. The GW Confucius Institute and the Council for International Cooperation of Washington, D.C., provided additional support.
Related Programs
China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1868–1872) will be complemented by numerous public programs, including gallery talks, curator-led tours, films, and the fall symposium Picturing China: Qing-Dynasty Photography and Fashion. For the most up-to-date calendar of programs, visit
Upcoming Exhibitions at the Museum
Oct. 10, 2015–May 29, 2016
For millennia, Central Asia’s turbulent history and pivotal geographic position have exposed the region’s diverse peoples to varied artistic traditions. In the 20th century, artists across this region were strongly influenced by Soviet political rule, creating images that both embraced modernity and idealized the past. 
Old Patterns, New Order examines the socialist realist art movement in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and others areas of Central Asia, pairing 20th century paintings with examples of the traditional textiles they depict. This exhibition was organized in partnership with GW's Central Asia Program.
Nov. 21, 2015–Summer 2016 
Albert H. Small, a third-generation Washingtonian, first became interested in historical collecting after serving in the Navy during World War II. In 2011, Albert H. Small donated his unrivaled Washingtoniana collection—some 60 years in the making—to GW. This collection documents the formation, development and history of D.C. from the late 17th to the mid-20th century, and includes 1,000 maps and prints, rare letters, photographs and drawings. 
A Collector’s Vision presents pieces that truly shaped Mr. Small’s collection, including his first acquisition and other items that explore what motivates an individual to collect. 
Nov. 21, 2015–Summer 2016 
Co-produced and co-curated with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., this exhibition explores the career and artwork of watercolorist and journalist Lily Spandorf (1914-2000). 
Working with pen, ink, watercolor and gouache, Ms. Spandorf became known for the news illustrations she created for the Washington Star, the Christian Science Monitor, and Washington Post, among many other periodicals. Late in her career she became celebrated for passionately recording the transformation of D.C.’s urban landscape, especially the many redbrick, late-19th century buildings facing demolition, being demolished, or whose historical contexts were erased for modern construction.  
Visit the museum’s website for the latest information and details on this fall’s exhibitions and related educational programs
About the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum 
The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum opened on March 21 on GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus. The custom-built museum displays The Textile Museum’s globally recognized collections of nearly 20,000 textiles and related objects, and artworks owned by the university, including the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection of 1,000 artifacts documenting the history of Washington, D.C.
Admission is free for museum members, children and current GW students, faculty and staff. A suggested donation of $8 for non-members will support the museum’s exhibitions, collections and educational programs. The museum is open Monday, Wednesday–Friday 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m.