Groundbreaking early photographs of Shanghai head for London

By Samantha Vadas(
Updated: 2016-08-10 13:49:38

Portrait of a woman

When New York-based Raymond Watt came across an article on the BBC news website about a Chinese photography exhibition in the UK last November, he was shocked, to say the least.

The story about a collection of rare photographs of Beijing from the late 1800s, on show in London's Chinatown, included a number of images from the exhibit - one of which set Watt back on his heels.

"It was a picture I had never seen before and my instinct told me that the subjects could be my great grandparents," he told China Daily.

The article explained how British photographer, Thomas Child, who had moved to China as an engineer, captured marriage ceremonies during the late Qing dynasty - which spanned from 1644 to 1912.

It detailed how one particular photograph in the series depicted the daughter of the famous Chinese statesman, Zeng Guofan.

"My great, great grandfather was Zeng Guofan," Watt said.

The 79-year-old never expected when he was browsing the internet that day that he would uncover a piece of family history dating back some 140 years. Not to mention, in an exhibition some 3,500 miles away from where he lived.

According to Watt, the unique wedding photograph documents the moment of the start of the prominent Nie family in China.

"The family rose in importance in Shanghai from the late Qing dynasty into the twentieth century and went through more than 70 years of ups and downs until 1950," he said.

"The groom, Nie Jigui, served as Shanghai's Governor from 1890 to 1893, died in 1911 and was buried in Hunan, while the bride, Zeng Jifen, died in 1942 and was buried in Shanghai."

The display of Child's work at the China Exchange, an organization in London, was the first time US-based collector, Stephan Loewentheil, had shared the original images of life during the Qing dynasty in Peking, now known as Beijing.

While Watt's reaction to the never-before-seen photographs was by far the most compelling, the exhibition in Soho's Gerrard Street attracted worldwide attention, making headlines in the UK, the US, Europe and China.

"The success of the show reflected the increasing global interest in China's people and culture, as well as the interest of the people of China in preserving and studying their own history," said Loewentheil, who's Historical Photography of China Collection is the largest holding of late Qing dynasty photographs of China in private hands.

"Today, Beijing is a vastly different place and the early photographs presented a perspective on the city which had never been previously available."

Portrait of a wedding

Building on the success of the Qing Dynasty Peking Exhibition, Loewentheil will showcase another rare collection of prints in London in November - this time, displaying images of Shanghai.

The latest exhibition is the first devoted to the work of William Saunders, who, similarly to Child, was a British engineer who became a photographer after traveling to China in 1860. He is now recognized as one of the most important photographers of nineteenth century China.

Saunders made his photographs - some of the earliest of the city and its people - at a critical time in Chinese history; just as Shanghai was emerging as an international commercial city.

"His photographs offer an intimate view of the diverse inhabitants of Shanghai and their traditional ways of life, as the city began to emerge as the global economic dynamo it has become today," Loewentheil said.

"This unprecedented photographic exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Shanghai and its people as they were at the historical moment before the epochal transformations of the 20th century."

Of the very few 19th century British photographers who traveled to China, only Saunders set up a professional photographic studio in Shanghai, that remained in business for over a quarter of a century, according to the exhibition's US-based curator, Stacey Lambrow.

"The early photographers who established studios in China generally stayed in the country for only a few years, whereas Saunders owned and operated the longest running nineteenth century photographic studio in Shanghai belonging to a westerner," she said.

"As a photographer and businessman, Saunders had remarkable ambition - the sheer audacity of setting up his studio in Shanghai at that time was extraordinary."

Saunders was one of the first photographers to produce hand-colored photographs of the Far East, at a time when many Chinese artists in China were transitioning from painting to photography.

"Early photographers sought to convey an accurate representation of visual reality and color was a crucial component," said Lambrow.

"Saunders used applied paint to accomplish this for his clients."

Hand carriage

In mid nineteenth century China, photography threatened the careers of the portrait and trade painters in the port cities.

Consequently, Chinese artisans adapted to keep their livelihoods – becoming photographers themselves or taking up jobs as colorists for established photographers like Saunders.

"The artists worked on wooden tables, and their supplies included brushes, ink stones, and porcelain bowls," said Lambrow.

"Coloring a photograph was a precise and time-consuming process - colorists typically produced no more than three finished prints a day."

The tinted prints - which were hugely popular among the 'well-to-do' throughout the world - were ahead of their time, according to Lambrow.

"There is no record of such prints having been seen before in Shanghai or anywhere else," she said.

The exhibition in November will include many hand colored photographic prints from a portfolio Saunders created called Chinese Life and Character, in which he used 'genre' art.

The style – which Saunders imported from Europe - is an artistic convention that transcends the limitations of a specific time and culture.

The images portray types of people, occupations and trades and customs in Shanghai at the time.

"Only a handful of private collectors have assembled enough of Saunders's prints to support an exhibition devoted to his work," said Lambrow.

"Now, Stephan Loewentheil has taken the initiative to launch this project."

The exhibition will be held at the China Exchange in London's Chinatown from November 3–11.

"Last year's show connected Raymond Watt to his family history when he recognized his family members in a portrait - a historical exchange," Chief Executive Officer of China Exchange, Freya Aitken-Turff, said.

"I am very excited to see what sorts of exchanges take place this year during the second beautiful exhibition of nineteenth-century photography at China Exchange."

Samantha Vadas is a freelance writer. She contributed this to China Daily.

Portrait of a Shanghai woman and child


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