John Thomson (British, 1837-1921) The magic lantern peepshow
Lot 53
John Thomson, FRGS (British, 1837-1921) 'Magic Lantern' Peep Show
Sold for £21,600 (US$ 36,134) inc. premium
Auction Details
Lot Details
John Thomson, FRGS (British, 1837-1921)
'Magic Lantern' Peep Show
signed and dated 'J. Thomson/F.R.G.S./1877' (lower right)
oil on canvas
51 x 61cm (20 1/16 x 24in).


  • Born in Edinburgh, Thomson departed for Singapore, where his elder brother William worked as a watchmaker, in 1862. John and his brother jointly operated a successful chronometer and nautical instrument business, and it was during this period that he started to explore the rural settlements, taking a keen interest in photographing the populace engaged in their daily activities. He briefly returned to England, where he was elected to the Royal Geographical Society in 1866, but left again for Singapore in 1867.

    From late 1870 to early 1871 Thomson travelled extensively in the Fuzhou (Foochow) region; he travelled up the River Min with the American missionary the Rev. Justus Doolittle and then to Amoy and Swatow. An album of eighty photographs were published privately by subscription (London, 1873), one of which was sold in these rooms on 10 May 2005. One of the best-known of these images, and a very similar composition, bears the same title as the present lot and is also reproduced in his 1899 publication Through China with a Camera as Peking Peep Show.

    Thomson describes the busy city street: "there are peep-shows, jugglers, lottery-men, ballad-singers and story-tellers" (p.243). "Magic lantern" shows were a novelty in China at this time and attracted a mass popular audience. People in China who had never travelled could learn about foreign places through the slide show, discovering the world beyond the confines of their home village or region. Often a showman delivered a running commentary on the mysterious scenes as he introduced them; sometimes there was even music accompaniment. To attract customers, many presenters also included a few images of naked women in the middle or at the end of a show: "and as for the peep-shows — well, the less one says about them the better; they certainly would not be tolerated in any public thoroughfare in Europe" (Ibid. p.244).

Saleroom notices

  • PROVENANCE: David McLean (1833-1908), first manager of the Shanghai office of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank 1865-1873 and manager of the bank's London office 1873-1899, and thence by descent to the current owner