A couple of weeks ago I was in London and had a few hours to kill in the Bloomsbury area. Normally I would make a beeline for the British Museum, but I decided to try something different this time. I asked Google Maps what other galleries and museums were nearby, and found a lovely gem of a gallery on campus at SOAS, University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies).
The Brunei Gallery was a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, and exhibits art and culture from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The current exhibition is “China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson”, showing a selection of the Scottish photographer’s work during his time living and travelling in East Asia in the 1860s.
The photographs in the exhibition have been hugely enlarged and are wonderful to simply look at, while the descriptions accompanying the exhibits give just the right balance of general information, historical commentary, photography technique, and insight from Thomson’s own notes. The gallery website also has a selection of the photographs online.
Thomson formed a relationship with King Mongkut of Siam and gained unique access to the Thai Royal household and functions, but he also faithfully recorded ordinary people going about their lives and occupations, which is particularly seen in the China exhibits. Beyond just documenting scenes, he was a talented portrait photographer, and captured the dynamism of his subjects. He returned to Britain in 1872, joined the Royal Photographic Society, and left a legacy as a pioneer of photojournalism.
I particularly loved the diverse range of women he captured, and in this exhibition there is a section dedicated to his portraits of Chinese women. From the photos themselves, and his notes, you can sense his curiosity and appreciation of humanity, and appreciation of these women’s lives and worth as well as their beauty and elaborate costumes.
I’m so pleased to have found this gallery – it’s a great way to spend an hour or two, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for future exhibitions. Do pop in if you’re in the area.
The Brunei Gallery is open to the public for free, and the John Thomson exhibition is on until 23rd June.