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Canton (Guangzhou), Kwangtung province, China: a lady's maid. Photograph by John Thomson, 1869.

  • Thomson, J. (John), 1837-1921.
  • Pictures

Selected images from this work

About this work


A woman holding a large plain fan and a round flat-sided lacquered vessel with a handle (a make-up box?), standing in a room with a European-style column set in the wall behind her. The photographer John Thomson described her as follows: "The lady's maid. This maid is a slave girl, bought in China for a trifling sum from her poor parents, as female children are at a sad discount in many parts of China, where infanticide is still practised. This girl has been reared in the bosom of the family, and trained to wait on the ladies of the household, to attend to the children and to make herself generally useful. In this picture she is represented on her way to market, the slave enjoying more freedom in going abroad than does her mistress. In her left hand she holds a small lacquered-ware case for cakes and confections, and in her right a huge fan to screen her from the sun ... the fan is employed as a sunshade, as well as keeping down the temperature of the body; excessive heat and cold being considered two of the leading causes of disease ..."--Thomson, loc. cit.

Ordinary individuals remained a central focus of Thomson’s work. When portraying lower-class people Thomson attempted to show their human side, their true characters, their contradictions, and often their charm. Here we have a maid on her way to market. According to Thomson her slave status gave her more freedom than her mistress enjoyed. In her right hand she holds a huge fan to protect her from the sun. Here the fan is an object of fascination for Thomson, as it symbolized another "Chinese contradiction": he reported that the Chinese generally dislike shadows on their faces when they have their photographs taken, "yet all of them carry fans in order to secure that very shade so essential to existence in the south of China". Here the maid’s face is clearly marked by shadows, which add to her charm and beauty. It shows Thomson did not always bow to the Chinese portraiture tradition



Physical description

1 photograph : glass photonegative, wet collodion : stereograph


Canton Chinese maid


This is one of a collection of original glass negatives made by John Thomson. The negatives, made between 1868 and 1872, were purchased from Thomson by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1921

References note

John Thomson, Illustrations of China and its people, London, 1873-4, vol. I, pl. XV, "The Lady's Maid"
China through the lens of John Thomson, 1868-1872, Beijing: Beijing World Art Museum, 2009, p. 149 (reproduced)

Lettering note

Bears Thomson's negative number: "677"


Wellcome Library no. 19596i


  • English

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