Photo pioneer’s album to be snapped up for £60,000

A Chinese shop in Hong Kong photographed by John Thomson
A Chinese shop in Hong Kong photographed by John Thomson
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AN album of pictures taken by a pioneering Edinburgh photographer in Hong Kong during the 1860s is expected to fetch up to £60,000 at auction.

John Thomson was one of the first photographers to travel to the Far East, documenting the people, landscapes and artefacts of its cultures.

A Hong Kong street scene from Mercer's collection

A Hong Kong street scene from Mercer's collection

He presented the album to William Thomas Mercer of Gorthy, Perth, as a gift to mark his retirement as Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong in 1868.

The album has descended through the Mercer family and will go under the hammer at Christie’s Topographical Sale in London on Thursday, where it is expected to attract bids of £40,000 to £60,000.

Nick Lambourn, Christie’s head of topographical pictures, said: “John Thomson was the most important pioneer photographer in Asia and is celebrated in Hong Kong.

“Thomson has captured some of the first pictures of these landscapes and people – and a glimpse of a Hong Kong mostly unseen by modern visitors. A long-gone world.

These pictures will attract interest from Asia and Hong Kong, but we could also see a museum in America or an institution in Scotland go after it.”

Among the 38 prints are images of the Happy Valley racecourse, Victoria Peak, street and garden views, Chinese shopfronts, villagers and dragon processions, as well as portraits of Mercer’s pony, Tommy.

In the 1860s, Thomson would likely have used a daguerreotype camera – a heavy, bulky instrument with a large plate at the back. They required long exposure and were almost always used on a tripod.

This period in the 19th century saw Hong Kong and its population grow considerably, and Scots were quick to realise the commercial and social opportunities to be had in the colony.

While Thomson, the son of an Edinburgh tobacco spinner, went on to become a portrait photographer of high society in Mayfair, the Mercers were distinguished by their service in British colonial history in the 18th and 19th centuries. Members of the family were prominent in military campaigns, civil administration and commerce in the Americas, Australia, India and the Far East.

The Thomson album, accompanied by William Thomas Mercer’s family scrapbook, is one of four being sold by his descendants.

The others, which could also fetch tens of thousands of pounds, include early photographs of India, where both William Thomas’s father George Dempster Mercer and younger brother Charles McWhirter Mercer served. They also include early views of Penang and Singapore also by John Thomson, who had established his first studios in the east in Penang in 1862, and Singapore in 1863.