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Ambassador of Thailand visits the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth to open new Siam exhibition

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Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1865-1866)
Victorian Photography of Siam: John Thomson’s Captivating Journey Through Thailand and Cambodia Unveiled at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth

On Wednesday 25 October 2023 the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum had a visit from His Excellency, Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi to open their brand new exhibition, Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson. The exhibition opening was met with tremendous excitement as these unique photographs tell the story of one of the first photographers to explore and document Thailand and Cambodia in the 19th Century.

Left to right; Stuart Bartholomew, Sarah Newman, Narisa Chakrabongse, Curator of Exhibition, Betty Yao Curator of Exhibition, H.E Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, Madame Noppanuch Thongphakdi, Cllr Lesley Dedman, Chairman of BCP Council, Cllr Anne Filer, Mayor of Bournemouth, Cllr Andy Martin

Local Thai women of Bournemouth visit the exhibition and meet H.E Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi

Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson

  • An exhibition of photographs taken by John Thomson, one of 19th century’s greatest photographers, a pioneer of photojournalism.
  • Legendary Scottish photographer and travel writer John Thomson (1837-1921) set off for Asia in 1862 and over the next ten years he undertook numerous journeys photographing countries in Asia including Siam, Cambodia, Vietnam and many areas in China.
  • Curated from the renowned collection of glass negatives at the Wellcome Collection, London.
  • A programme of events, talks and workshops exploring the historical context and wet- collodion photography process.

21 October 2023 to 14 April 2024 at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
Step back in time and immerse yourself in the wonders of 19th-century Southeast Asia as seen through the lens of the intrepid adventurer and photographer, John Thomson. The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum is proud to present an enchanting new exhibition Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson on display from 21 October 2023 to 14 April 2024, inviting visitors to embark on a captivating journey through time and space. This extraordinary showcase offers a unique glimpse into the captivating landscapes, diverse cultures, and fascinating history of Southeast Asia, as captured by the illustrious Scottish Victorian photographer, John Thomson.


A British photographer with an exceptional eye for detail, Thomson embarked on a groundbreaking journey to Siam during the late Victorian era, with a fairly new invention in those days: photography, capturing scenes that had been scarcely witnessed before in the Western world. Throughout his remarkable career, Thomson ventured into uncharted territories and documented the exotic beauty and cultural richness of Thailand and Cambodia in stunning detail. His evocative photographs offer an invaluable historical record and a testament to his artistic sensibility and his photographic vision marks him out as one of history’s most important travel photographers.


The founders of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes travelled extensively in their lifetime, bringing back crates full of ‘objets d’art’,as Merton described them in his memoirs. These were to fill almost every room of the house alongside Merton’s vast art collection and, in some cases, inspired the Russell-Cotes to alter and adapt rooms to a particular theme. As they visited almost every continent during their grand worldwide tours, it is only fitting that this exhibition works in collaboration with the vast collections from around the world on display at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum today. Annie and Merton witnessed similar scenes to John Thomson, but chose to collect objects, rather than images.


Featuring dramatic images developed from negatives preserved in London’s Wellcome Collection, this exhibition introduces the sights and people of nineteenth-century Thailand and Cambodia as witnessed by Thomson first hand. In this new exhibition, visitors to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum will have the privilege of witnessing many meticulously preserved photographs taken by Thomson during his travels, carefully curated to provide an insightful narrative of his exploration. Each image tells a story of its own, serving as a bridge between the past and the present, enabling visitors to forge a deeper connection with the cultures and history of Thailand and Cambodia.


The photographs on display encompass a diverse range of subjects, including awe-inspiring temples, architectural marvels, picturesque landscapes, and enchanting portraits of everyday life, ceremonies royalty, tradition, and customs. Each photograph serves as a testament to Thomson’s skill as a storyteller, highlighting the allurement of these distant lands. Thomson also received special permission to visit Angkor Wat (then under Siam’s control), becoming the first to photograph its famous ruins.


He used the wet-collodion process as his method for taking photographs, so called because an exposure was made onto a glass negative. His process had to be carried out in complete darkness, requiring a portable darkroom tent and a large amount of equipment. He travelled around Siam with many crates of glass negatives and bottles of potentially harmful chemicals, which was remarkable considering the difficult terrain and unfamiliar regions he often visited. Despite these challenges, Thomson was able to capture the natural beauty of the land as well as the daily lives of the people he encountered. His style has been described as “photo-journalistic,” a term which acknowledges his ability to capture authentic and natural moments through his photography.


Manager at the Russell-Cotes Sarah Newman, expressed excitement, stating, “We are delighted to showcase John Thomson’s masterful photography at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum. His work allows us to experience a time and place that has shaped the fabric of Southeast Asian history. It is a true honour to present this exceptional collection and share Thomson’s fascinating perspective with our visitors.”


Helen Ivaldi, the museum’s Programme Officer said “Thomson’s photographs not only offer a glimpse into the culture and traditions of Thailand and Cambodia during the 19th century but also serve as an essential record of these nations’ history. We are thrilled to share these remarkable images with our visitors and provide a unique perspective on these beautiful countries.”


The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum has long been renowned for its commitment to presenting diverse and enriching exhibitions, and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson continues that
tradition. In addition to the captivating photographs, the exhibition will also feature informative panels, present day photographs and an exciting calendar of insightful talks and workshops. Visitors will have the opportunity to engage with historical context of the time and gain insights into Thomson’s wet collodion photography methods and techniques to understand the cultural significance of his work in Southeast Asia and the world of photography.


Join us for an unforgettable journey to Siam, where cultures and histories intertwine, and where the past comes alive through the lens of John Thomson. Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson promises to be a captivating experience for art enthusiasts, photographers, history aficionados, and travellers alike.

For more information, please visit here

Join us in this unforgettable voyage through time and across continents as we delve into the mesmerising world of John Thomson’s photography.

Exhibition is included with museum admission ticket, to book your visit click here


Contact details
Ella Shepard, Marketing and Development Officer, Ella.Shepard@bcpcouncil.gov.uk

Betty Yao, Exhibition Organiser and Curator MBE, betty@credential-arts.com


Associated Events for 2023

Tuesday 1 November 2023, 11am: Online Talk: The Collodion Revolution: The process that transformed 19th century photography click here

Tuesday 14th November 2023, 10.30am -5pm: Wet Plate Collodion Workshop: click here

Thursday 16th November 2023 Museum Late 5pm – 8pm: Thailand and Beyond click here

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