PHOTOGRAPHS OF PEKING, CHINA 1861-1908: An Inventory and Description of the Yetts Collection at the University of Durham – “Through Peking with a Camera”

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This book provides an addition to the small but growing body of literature on the practices of photography in China. Using a collection of a surviving nineteenth century photographs of Beijing held in the collection of the Oriental Museum, University of Durham, the author explores both the cityscape as it was recorded by two Scottish photographers and the interplay of personality and professional identities within the Foreign Legation quarter during a thirty-five year period.

Three people are central to the book: the professional photographer John Thomson, the amateur photographer and missionary doctor, John Dudgeon and Stephen Bushell, physician to the British Legation, pioneer historian of Chinese art and original owner of the collection of the photographs. They provide the context and practice and provenance for the photographs and offer insight into the life of the small contingent of Westerners who resided within the walls of China’s capital.

The lives and activities of John Dudgeon and Stephen Bushell are explored here for the first time, the former revealed as an important contributor to the development of photography in China, the latter a major influence on the formation and interpretation of a number of important collections of a Chinese art in Britain and America.

This book will be of interest to historians of photography, art, architecture and China during the late nineteenth century.


“… it is extremely rare for the original photographs of any work of art history to survive from such an early date, and this study is therefore a valuable contribution to our understanding of the ways the technology of the photograph was deployed and manipulated to create a new art historical practice of looking. This new type of visuality has been much less thoroughly studied than the colonial gaze, with art historians too often being willing to accept the fiction that the illustrations in the books they write and read merely ‘reproduce’ the works of art. The fascinating evidence given here for the production process of cropping and retouching does much to advance our understanding of art history’s relationships to its technological base, and the extent to which it is the photograph which generates the art history, rather than the art history the photograph … The pleasure of this volume is that it … moves us on from seeing the camera as the instrument of single imperial gaze to reveal the complexities of response on the part of those before and behind the lens.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Craig Clunas, Percival Chair of Chinese and Asian Art, University of London

“There is a collection of photographs of Peking in the 1870s in the Oriental Museum in Durham. Views of deserted, weed-filled temple courtyards, jade-belt bridges seen across lotus lakes and the Ming tombs against bare hills show imperial China in decline, the walled imperial enclosures gradually opening to a few western visitors equipped with tripods, cameras and glass plates. Taking these photographs of Peking as his starting point, Nick Pearce has created a rich and complex picture of the city and its culture seen in the 1870s through the works of a group of creative men, including the professional photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) and a trio of doctors.

The photographs were acquired from Walter Percival Yetts (1878-1957), in later life one of the first British historians of Chinese art, who was trained as a doctor and served as physician to the British Legation in Peking in 1912-1914. He had apparently acquired the album from the widow of one of his predecessors, Dr Stephen Bushell (1844-1908), who had served as Medical Attendant to the British Legation in Peking from 1868 to 1899, but who also wrote the first significant book on Chinese art to be published in Britain. The photographs include many taken by John Thomson on a trip to Peking in 1871-2, and others which Pearce demonstrates convincingly were probably taken by yet another doctor, John Dudgeon (1837-1901) who worked in the London Missionary Society’s Peking Hospital and wrote one of the first books on photography to be published in China, Tuoying qiguan or ‘How to Take Wonderful Photographs’ (1873).

In his analysis of the photographs themselves, Pearce includes research into the collection of Thomson’s glass plates in the Wellcome Institute in London, into Bushell’s extensive collecting activities and the use of photography in his printed works, and comparisons with Osvald Siren’s Walls and Gates of Peking (1924) and Imperial Palaces of Peking (1926) and an album in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem which Pearce concludes belonged to Hugh Frazer, a British diplomat and contemporary of Stephen Bushell’s.

This is an extraordinarily rich and thoroughly researched work which reveals much about such varied themes as the changing appearance of the city of Peking, of the scientific and cultural interests of some of the city’s earliest western inhabitants, of the relationship between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ in the field of early photography and the use of illustration in early 20th century art history.” – Dr. Frances Wood, Head of Chinese Collections, The British Library

“In this understated yet erudite study, the author has captured the magic of early photography at the intersection of science, art and commerce … When he is done with his research … the mysteries of the last decades of the Chinese empire reveal themselves hauntingly to the reader. For this reason, this book is of interest not only to art historians, but also to historians of China and of comparative colonialisms.” –Dorothy Ko, Professor of Chinese History, Columbia University

Table of Contents

List of plates
Commendatory Preface
Part 1
1. The Collection
2. The Photographers
3. The Collector
Part 2 Catalogue
Walls, Gates and Streets of Peking
Temples in the City
Western Park, Imperial City
The Peking Observatory
The Imperial Summer Palace
Temples in the Western Hills
The Ming Tombs
Nankou Pass and the Great Wall
Other Sites in Peking

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