Call Him an Early Adopter: Thomas Child, a 19th-Century Photographer in China

The Jade Belt Bridge at the Summer Palace in Beijing in an 1870 photograph by Thomas Child.

Thomas Child, a British engineer, traveled to China in 1870 for work but was so entranced by the scenery and culture that he stayed for nearly two decades. He imported cameras to set up a sideline business as a portrait and landscape photographer, and his works were published in magazines and books. He also marketed them to tourists and dignitaries. The accompanying texts were a mix of admiration and condescension for traditions that Westerners of the time considered primitive.

The Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection, which belongs to photo dealers in Brooklyn, has reunited hundreds of Mr. Child’s works and traced the descendants of people who posed for him. An exhibition of part of the Loewentheil holdings, “Qing Dynasty Peking: Thomas Child’s Photographs,” opens Friday at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College in Manhattan.

Stephan and Jacob Loewentheil, a father-and-son team, own about 15,000 photographs of China taken before the 1910s. The show’s curator, Stacey Lambrow, and Jacob Loewentheil are writing a book about Mr. Child. (It is partly based on Mr. Child’s diaries, which were preserved by Terry Bennett, a British historian who has long specialized in photos of 19th-century China.)

Mr. Child, a Shropshire native, left England at 29, leaving behind his wife, Ellen, and three children, though they eventually joined him. His assignment was to inspect gasworks for a government agency at a time of conflict between the Chinese and foreign powers. It is not known how he trained as a photographer. In China, the technology was so unfamiliar that people gathered when he took pictures.

Mr. Child photographed the Great Wall as well as pagodas, temples, bridges, crowded harbors, roadsides lined with stone sculptures and humble storefronts. He documented the practice of dismantling palace walls damaged by decay or war and recycling the stones for other construction. In his captions, letters and journals he complained about dirty streets, insects and rat infestations. He gently mocked local superstitions, the sound of temple bells that rang in “harmonious discord” and funeral rituals that “excel in pomp and expenditure.”

He photographed peddlers, beggars, religious leaders, and a young aristocratic bride and groom named Zeng Ji Fen and Nie Ji Gui on their wedding day. Raymond Watt, a descendant of that couple, is a retiree living in Queens. He said in an interview that he did not know the photo existed until the Loewentheils showed it last year in London. He is scheduled to attend the exhibition opening and meet some of Mr. Child’s descendants.

With the portrait, Mr. Watt said, “we get back the memory and refresh the history.”

In 1889, Mr. Child returned to England. He remained infatuated with China, and he gave his family home at the outskirts of London a Chinese name that has been roughly translated as Studio of Everlasting Tranquillity. He was killed in 1898 when his horse-drawn carriage overturned. His family kept some of his paperwork, but few other records survive. His photos sometimes turn up unlabeled at auctions; properly attributed, they can sell for thousands of dollars. They have also ended up in institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.; and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Collections of early photos of China at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington will be covered in a book due out early next year, “Painting With Light: Photography at the Freer/Sackler.” David Hogge, one of the authors, said the photos are treasured partly as documentation of buildings and artworks that were later destroyed by looters or warfare, or taken to American or European museums.

The art historian Roberta Wue, who is an editor of a coming book about early photographs from China and Japan, said scholarship in the field has burgeoned in recent years despite the widespread destruction of archives in China. Evidence has surfaced that Chinese photographers quickly adapted the equipment brought in by Westerners, and that their clients, including prostitutes, began commissioning photos of themselves as advertisements.

The Loewentheils have been building their collection partly through auctions. In 2014, at Cordier Auctions & Appraisals in Harrisburg, Pa., they paid about $500,000 for an album of China images from 1860 by the Italian-born photographer Felice Beato. In November, at the China Exchange in London, the Loewentheils will exhibit hand-tinted 19th-century photos of Shanghai by William Saunders, a British engineer. Stephan Loewentheil wrote in an email that his family’s holdings are still growing and are not for sale. “I hope to place my collection into a worthy location intact,” he wrote.

The Meadows Museum in Dallas has acquired a long-forgotten portrait of a Spanish aristocratic girl from the 1760s dressed in blue ruffles, carrying a pug and clutching a doughnut-shaped pastry called a rosquilla. For centuries the work was titled “The Girl With the Rosquilla,” and it was attributed to the German artist Anton Raphael Mengs. In 2014, when it came up for auction in Spain, inscriptions were found on the canvas identifying the girl as María Teresa del Castillo. (The auction estimate was around $157,000, but the Meadows Museum purchased it before the sale could take place, for an undisclosed amount.) Experts now attribute the work to one of Mengs’s Spanish disciples, Francisco Bayeu y Subías, whose sister Josefa was married to Goya.

Nicole Atzbach, a curator at the Meadows Museum, said the painting hangs near works by Goya and by Francisco and Josefa’s brother Ramón. Little information has surfaced about María, and because there seems to be no archival trail of her reaching adulthood, researchers suspect she died young.

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