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Gregory Scott on Chinese Religious Spaces in the Historical Photographs of China collections


Dr Gregory Adam Scott is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and from September 2017 will take up the post of Lecturer in Chinese Cultural History at the University of Manchester.

For the most part, Western visitors to China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries regarded Chinese temples, monasteries, shrines, and other religious spaces with a mix of fascination and horror. [i]

Fascination stemmed from the fact that these spaces were often ornately decorated and situated in majestic landscapes, the power of which was palpable and unmediated by barriers or language or culture. Horror was produced because the depiction of deities in a concrete form, especially when the observer was largely ignorant of their identity and symbolism, was extremely alien to the religious sensibilities of many foreign visitors. In spite of this, the photographic and textual archive that they helped create is filled with depictions of Chinese religion. Until quite recently, these types of sites were only rarely photographed, and thus any photograph of a Chinese sacred site from this period is of great value to historians interested in the layout, construction, and artistry of these spaces. Mission archives have proved to be especially rich in this regard, likely because missionaries were professionally interested in religion, and thus paid particular attention to Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, popular religions, and so on.

The Historical Photographs of China collections include images of temple grounds, religious structures, religious images, and religious professionals. The religious spaces depicted therein range from temples for Imperial sacrifice to Buddhist monasteries, from ancestral shrines to a temple converted into a church, and reflect the great range of religious diversity in China, as true today as it was in the period of the photographic record. [ii]

Of the numerous images in the collections that depict Chinese religious spaces, a few in particular stand out:

The Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings at Tien-dong (Heavenly Child Temple), near Ningpo

The Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings at Tien-dong (Heavenly Child Temple), near Ningpo, Edward Bowra collection, Bo01-012, © 2008 Royal Society for Asian Affairs

The founding of Tiantong Monastery 天童寺 near Ningbo 寧波 dates back to as early as the fourth century CE, but it was completely destroyed as a result of fighting during the Taiping Civil War (1850 – 1864). This photograph depicts the hall of the Four Heavenly Kings (sida tianwang 四大天王), a building normally located just inside the main gate of a Chinese Buddhist monastery, in front of the main Dharma hall. If the date range of this image is accurate (ca. 1870), it depicts the first generation of reconstruction following the Taiping war. Since the temple was again destroyed by fire and reconstructed in the early 1930s, it provides a glimpse of the monastery’s history not visible today.

Qiniandian, Temple of Heaven, Peking

Qiniandian, Temple of Heaven, Peking. Photograph by G. Warren Swire. G. Warren Swire Collection, Sw16-013, © 2007 John Swire & Sons Ltd

Qiniandian, Temple of Heaven, Peking

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (Qinian dian 祈年殿) is one of the most striking, and likely one of the most photographed, structures in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. At the time of this photograph (1911-1912) the ceremonies normally conducted there by the Emperor would have been suspended due to the Republican Revolution, and the site was briefly open to the public until the short-lived attempt by Yuan Shikai to assume the imperial role. The overgrown grounds are testiment to its having been briefly abandoned as a ritual site.

Lingyin Temple, Hangchow

Lingyin Temple, Hangchow. William Armstrong Collection, Ar01-042, © 2007 Adam Scott Armstrong

Like Tiantong Temple, Lingyin Monastery 靈隱寺 in Hangzhou 杭州 was destroyed during the Taiping Civil War. It was not rebuilt until the final decades of the Qing, and the main hall, pictured here, would have just recently been completed when this photograph was taken in 1911. The timbers used to rebuild the temple were imported from America and had originally been intended for use in repairing the Summer Palace near Beijing. These buildings were later damaged during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and further reconstruction work occurred in the 1950s under the new People’s Republic of China.

Large bell on the site of a temple

Large bell on the site of a temple. Banister family Collection, © 2008 Peter Lockhart Smith

While the location of this photograph is not identified, I find it striking as a depiction of the aftermath of the destruction of a sacred site. Thousands of such sites were threatened with destruction in the late Qing and early Republican eras, as a result of warfare, natural disaster, or even anti-religious campaigns. The wood and tiles of this particular religious institution have long since disappeared, leaving only this freestanding bronze bell as evidence that a sacred site used to stand here.

Monks at Silver Island Temple, Ching-Kiang

Monks at Silver Island Temple, Ching-Kiang. Edward Wilkinson Collection, Wi01-04, © 2008 Audrey Gregg

Jiaoshan 焦山 in Zhenjiang 鎮江, known as “Silver Island” in English-language sources, was one of three important Buddhist mountain sites in Zhenjiang, the others being Beigu shan 北固山 and Jinshan 金山 or “Golden Island.” While the temples on Jinshan were destroyed several times during the Opium War and the Taiping Civil War, Jiaoshan largely escaped damage. According to one account, the Buddhist monk Liaochan 了禪 and his disciple Wuchun 悟春 steadfastly refused to leave Jiaoshan even when Taiping forces approached. Their bravery so impressed the Taiping military leader that Jiaoshan was spared the destruction of its monasteries. [iii]

Pagoda, Longxing temple, near Chengdu, Sichuan

Pagoda, Longxing temple, near Chengdu, Sichuan. Oliver Hulme Collection, OH02-27, © 2012 Charles Poolton

This temple, located in Pengzhou, Sichuan, dates back to the fourth century. The stone stupa pictured here in ca. 1905-1915 had evidently been badly damaged for some time, but present-day photographs show that it has since been repaired. The contrast between the bustling, blurry crowd of people, who seem to only be barely held back from the photographer’s line of sight, and the ancient stone structure make this image quite striking.

Group on Temple Steps

Group on Temple Steps. John Sullivan Collection, Su01-33, © 2010 John Sullivan

This photograph, perhaps taken around 1910, is an especially evocative depiction of one important aspect of the relationship between Western visitors and Chinese sacred spaces during this period. A group of five men, who were likely members of the Shanghai Municipal Police force based on the collection of which is image is a part, sit or lie supine on the stone steps of a temple building. A Buddhist religious image has been brought out onto the edge of the top step, and the Stetson-style hat belonging to one of the men has been placed on its head. Most of the men are smiling, and a camera and a bag can be seen.

On the face of it, this image depicts an extremely irreverent act on the part of visitors to the temple, one that the men clearly believe has made for an amusing souvenir photograph. It reflects the widespread lack of respect for local customs that caused a great deal of social friction during the Western presence in China. We do not, however, know what role the temple caretakers played in staging this photograph. Perhaps they agreed to help the tourists to set up this image in exchange for a donation, or were happy to help the odd request of visitors in order to be hospitable. Foreign groups regularly arranged with temples to hold events such as picnics or retreats there, and foreign visitors were welcomed at many temples under the same terms as lay Chinese visitors. [iv]

I do not wish to downplay the serious lack of respect for local religion evidenced in this photograph; indeed this image would be an excellent example to use in a classroom discussion about issues of power, representation, and intercultural (mis)understandings in modern China. Another photograph (HR01-069) from the early 1910s, “Idols inside temple, Canton”, depicts two ‘idols’ in a temple in Guangzhou, and the temple wall behind them is covered with Latin-character graffiti. Yet we will likely never know the whole story behind the creation of this image, and it is important to remember that Westerners were often welcomed as visitors to Chinese sacred spaces, and normally conducted themselves somewhat better than is depicted here.

[i] Gregory Adam Scott, “The Dharma Through a Glass Darkly: On the Study of Modern Chinese Buddhism through Protestant Missionary Sources 彷彿對著鏡子觀看的佛法:藉由基督教傳教士的史料研究現代中國佛教,” Shengyan yanjiu 聖嚴研究 (Sheng Yen Studies), Vol. 2 (July, 2011): 47-73.

[ii] See the 2014 Pew Research Center on religious diversity around the world:

[iii] Jiang Weiqiao 蔣維喬, Zhongguo Fojiao shi 中國佛教史 (Shanghai: The Commercial Press, 1933), fasc. 4, p. 38a.

[iv] See for example the account of a visit to Tiantong Temple in the 1840s or 1850s in W. Tyrone Power, Recollections of a Three Years’ Residence in China (London: R. Bentley, 1853), chapter 25.

The Kodak comes to Peking


Dr Andrew Hillier has been looking at the unpublished letters of a British Student Interpreter, later Consul, Walter Clennell. The correspondence highlights the importance of photography to Legation life in Beijing in the late 1880s. Andrew recently completed his PhD at the University of Bristol.

‘The photography goes on unchecked in the Legation. Mrs Wingfield, the two Walshams, Mortimore and Brady are all constantly at it, if it is not too cold, and they talk of very little else when they are indoors’. So wrote the student interpreter, Walter Clennell, in one of a number of letters sent home during his first eighteen months in Peking, in 1888-89, in which he enthused about this new hobby and enclosed copies of the photographs he had acquired. Whilst none of those pictures have been traced, the letters provide important evidence of how amateur photography became a popular pastime amongst the Legation staff in the late 1880s in a way which has been little recognised until now.[i]

Although we do not have the pictures, we do know where Clennell was able to buy many of them: in one letter, he explains how he had asked Mr Child if he could ‘look over his collection. He had about 200, all views of the city, or neighbourhood as far as the Great Wall. A good many were interesting enough.’[ii] By this time, Thomas Child had long established his reputation as more than just an amateur photographer but was about to leave his job as a gas engineer in the Chinese Maritime Customs and return to England with his family. Having made his selection, Clennell inserted them into lengths of bamboo, in order to keep them safe and dry, even if this meant they had to be unrolled and smoothed out on arrival. [iii]

1. Mule litter, Peking, estimated 1870-1890. An unusual example of Thomas Child’s Peking photographs in showing street life. National Archives Collection, NA01-91 © Crown copyright 2011

Whilst we cannot be sure, it is possible that that this enthusiasm had been prompted by the arrival of ‘the Kodak’, the camera which George Eastman had brought onto the market in August the previous year, accompanied by the slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’.[iv] Given the numbers of people taking pictures and the ease with which they were doing so, they must certainly have been using an ‘instant camera’ with film rather than glass plate negatives. Portable and easy to operate, this new device could be taken on walks through the city and expeditions further afield. As the North China Herald pointed out when suggesting it as a Christmas present the following year, ‘At this time … when so many people go up country, photographic cameras are very handy’.[v] Another of Clennell’s letters describes how ‘the three Irishmen of Peking, Messrs Jordan, Oliver and Brady, went on a trip to the Ming Tombs and ‘Brady took six photographs’.[vi] Herbert Brady, the Legation’s accountant and Chief Assistant had already amassed a considerable collection and would eventually compile two albums of pictures spanning his years in the consular service.[vii]

Clennell mentions a number of other talented amateur photographers in Peking at the time. Dr Dudgeon, whose family he came to know well, had already established himself as an expert, publishing a book in Chinese on how to take photographs. However, the letters make no reference to him taking any pictures, which is frustrating since, as Nick Pearce says, there is little evidence of Dudgeon ever actually using a camera’ although it is clear he did so. [viii]

2. Street in Peking. Photograph by Walter Hillier. Probably taken in the late 1880s before Hillier’s appointment as Consul-General to Korea in 1890 (Royal Geographical Society, SOOO25562).

Walter Hillier, the Chinese Secretary, whom the spell-bound Clennell ‘supposed was probably the greatest Chinese scholar that the English race has produced’, also had a substantial collection, including ‘some grand photographs of places near Darjeeling, amongst them the only photo of Mount Everest that has ever been taken (seen from nearly a hundred miles away)’.[ix] Whilst he had obviously purchased these pictures, Hillier was also a keen photographer, later using coloured lantern slides to illustrate his talks about China and Korea, which he gave following his retirement from the Consular Service in 1896.[x]

Hillier’s brother, Guy, whom Clennell met shortly after his appointment as the Hongkong Bank’s Peking agent, took a number of photographs with an instant camera when visiting a remote monastery in the mountains of south-west Ichang – ‘the wildest and most desolate place I have ever found myself in’, as he described it in a talk read to the Manchester Geographical Society later that year (see plates 3 and 4).[xi]

3. The Mission Station at Szu ku-shan: Father Braun and some of his flock, 1890. Photograph by Guy Hillier (Author’s collection).

4. Guy Hillier’s travelling companion, Gordon, warming himself at the fire. Photograph by Guy Hillier. (Author’s Collection).

Clennell’s letters reflect not only a general enthusiasm for photography amongst the Legation staff but also the way the hobby cemented what was obviously an easy-going atmosphere at all levels. The Minister, Sir John Walsham, and his wife seem to have had an unusually relaxed approach, there is little sense of hierarchy and family life thrived, with the Legation children being both seen and heard, and pastimes, including skating, shooting, amateur theatricals and fancy dress balls, being captured in photographs.

In one letter, by way of ‘a birthday present for Papa’, Clennell inserts ‘two photos of the Legation people’ with captions. In another, he describes having dinner at Brady’s which was ‘as nice an entertainment as could be wished’; apart from his ‘almost endless collection of photographs’, he kept ‘a very pretty “bachelor’s” house’, albeit not for much longer, as, by the end of the year, he would become engaged to Gina Hole, the half-sister of Walter Hillier, a romance which Clennell observed with interest, if not envy, describing her as ‘a very nice young lady of about twenty, of the jolly, communicative sort’. [xii]

5. The ‘jolly and communicative’ Gina Marshall Hole, photographed shortly before leaving for China in 1888. She later married Herbert Brady. Photograph by Boning and Small. Andrew Hillier Collection, Hi-s143, © 2014 Andrew Hillier.

6. Consul Clennell, 1903. (Private Collection).

The enthusiasm also reflects the interest being taken in Peking as a city, which, despite its drawbacks – the dirt, the smell, the dust in summer – Clennell found fascinating, describing how, in one of the photographs he sent home,

you see the Chinese city, with the Temple of Heaven right away in the distance to the left, and the top of a gate to the right. There is a rather good specimen of a wooden p’ailou, or arch, over the street. There are p’ailous in nearly all the chief streets, with inscriptions in Chinese and Manchurian. The street itself is rather characteristic too, with booths and stalls along both sides.[xiii]

In the main, however, the Chinese do not feature in these pictures. Child tended to concentrate on buildings rather than street life and the relationships which Clennell describes are cordial but remote, with even his teacher refusing to acknowledge him if they should meet in the street. Nonetheless, it was a time when Sino-British relations were slowly beginning to improve and, whilst professional photographers such as John Thomson had already published substantial collections in England, the practice of enclosing photographs in letters home, glossed with detailed narratives, was an important and novel way of visualising Britain’s presence in China on a more intimate level.[xiv]

However, this relaxed atmosphere would not last, China’s defeat by Japan in 1895 heralding a more aggressive approach by the Western powers, which ultimately led to the Boxer Uprising. Whilst those events would also be recorded in detail, the images would be of a very different character to the ones which the young and enthusiastic Walter Clennell sent to his family in his early days in Peking.

[i] Letter, Walter Clennell to his sister, Trixie (Beatrice), 21 December 1889, Walter James Clennell, ‘Destination Peking: A Young Man’s Journey into China, 1888 – 1889’, unpublished manuscript, 2008 (Private Collection), at p. 341. I am very grateful to Jonathan Clennell for allowing me to draw on these letters and to reproduce the photograph of Walter Clennell.

[ii] Letter, Clennell to Trixie, 22 February 1889, at p.186.

[iii] For details of Child’s life and work see Regine Thiriez, Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1998), pp.75-84, Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China: Western Photographs, 1861-1879 (London: Quaritch, 2010), pp. 56-78; see also Historical Photographs of China,

[iv] Helmut Gernsheim in collaboration with Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography: from the camera obscura to the beginning of the modern era (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969), pp. 405 and 413.

[v] ‘Christmas Show at the Stores’, North China Herald, 13 December 1889, p.726 and see also 20 December 1889, p.758. I am grateful to Terry Bennett for this reference and for his comments generally.

[vi] Letter, Clennell to his brother, Harold, 12 February 1889, at p. 182; see also

[vii] Herbert Francis Brady, Bo Ian Zhonghua tu zhi (Pictorial Journal of Viewing China), c. 1873-1906, Getty Research Institute,; cf. Jeffrey Cody and Frances W. Terpak, Brush & Shutter: early photography in China (Exhibition, 2011: Los Angeles, Calif., J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, Calif.: Getty Research Institute, 2011), p.40 and Plates 22 (Kiang-si Guild, Hankou) and 23 (Chinese Actors and Fire Brigade, Peking).

[viii] Touying qiguan; see Chen Shen et al., Zhongguo shying shi (A History of Chinese Photography) (Taibei: Photographer Publications, 1990), pp.65-66, Nick Pearce, ‘A Life in Peking: The Peabody Albums’, History of Photography, 31 (2007), pp. 276-293 and Bennett, History of Photography in China, pp.37-55; see also and

[ix] Letter, Clennell to his mother, 28 December, 1888, at p.143.

[x] See Collection of Sir Walter Hillier, Royal Geographical Society Picture Library.

[xi] Guy Hillier, ‘A Mountain District of Central China’, Journal of the Manchester Geographical Society 6 (1890), pp. 370 – 380. For the Hilliers in China, see Visualising China Blog, my post, 22 September 2016.

[xii] Clennell to Harold, 5 December 1888 at p.124.

[xiii] Letter, Clennell to Trixie, 26 February 1889, at p.186.

[xiv] John Thomson, Travels and adventures of a nineteenth century photographer, with an introduction and new illustration selection by Judith Balmer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); cf. Robert Bickers, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2011), pp. 218-20).

Is it a mouse, is it a cat?


Gerald and Donald Johns wearing mice fancy dress, Dalian. Thomas Johns Collection Jo01-22 © 2011 Jeremy Rowett Johns.

It’s a cat, Felix the Cat to be precise. To continue my discussion about dates, identifications and being corrected, I can provide a little demonstration of the power of crowd-sourcing data-annotation. Well, that is the technical term. In practical terms, an environmental historian of China queried a January 1928 date we had attributed to the photograph below, because in the caption we had said the children were holding a Mickey Mouse toy. But the might mouse, he pointed out, did not debut until 1928. It was unlikely that he had made his way across the Pacific quite so rapidly. Why not check the accuracy of the date, an art-historian with an expertise in the Ming suggested. We went back to the album page.

We checked the pencilled and overwritten date, which as you can see (perhaps) really is very unclear. But we revised our reading to January 1929.

Ah, said the art historian, having looked again more closely, but that is not Mickey Mouse. It is the trickster cat, Felix. And of course it is. Felix the Cat made his debut in a 1919 animation, and even Dalian (Dairen, Dalny) would have known of him by 1928, or 1929. He was a regular feature on Chinese movie programmes by 1924. Here is from the South China Morning Post in January that year.

So hello there, Felix. We have learned a great deal over ten years of looking at China through these photographs. Buildings, streets, bridges, shops have become familiar (for there is much repetition and predicability in the would be photographer’s gaze). We do as much research as is sensible with each photographer in order to provide a reasonable minimum of metadata to allow images to be found through searches. But sometimes, in fact probably often, we have missed the feline obvious, not recognised the building, not identified the individual, misunderstood the context. Do let us have your suggestions. They are not always right, but more often than not they are, as the combined expertise of our community of users far exceeds our own.

Felix the Cat joins our roster of notable and influential individuals in Historical Photographs of China, joining Chiang Kai-shek, Rabindranath Tagore, Sir Robert Hart and Song Qingling.


New year … new platform: introducing


Today marks the launch of a new platform for ‘Historical Photographs of China’, complete with a new address,, an additional 1,400 images from 9 new collections, and another 4 starting to be brought online. After ten years of the current platform we felt that it was time for a change. We could not remain more grateful to our colleagues Professor Christian Henriot, and Dr Gérald Foliot, who have provided support and server space since the project launched in 2006. We concluded, however, a couple of years ago, that long-term sustainability of the archive (currently three times as large as the collections available online), meant that we should develop a repository hosted at Bristol. The new platform also allows us to streamline the process in a way that cuts out one stage in the technical processing of images and metadata. This will, we hope, allow us to release more of our backlog of digitised collections through the site.

Keeping it simple remains the motto. Our only obvious new additional function is a ‘Lucky Dip’ page, providing a random sampling from the collections. You really will never know quite what you might chance on there. Certainly, regular visitors may notice our new collections, including a large and diverse selection of photographs from Shanghai-based news photographer Malcolm Rosholt, the family photographs of Sikh life and work in Shanghai in the Ranjit Singh Sangha collection, and some of Felice Beato’s photographs of the bloody 1860 North China Campaign. Mao Zedong, Rabindranath Tagore, the Tenth Panchen Lama, General Sir Robert Napier, Father Jacquinot, Kong Lingyi (a 76th generation lineal descendant of Confucius), and sometime North China Daily News editor R.W. Little join the cast of personalities. The new images range from 1860 (with some earlier ones on their way soon), to 1949 (with some later ones on their way in the not too distant future). A less obvious new feature is a ‘Related Photographs’ link that provides thumbnails of photographs obviously linked to the one displayed. We cannot say that coverage through this is comprehensive, but we are linking photographs where we can (where, for example, they might be split across albums, media (negatives and prints for example), or even collections.

So please update your bookmarks, and do please tell us what you think — you can email us at — we are always interested to hear how you use the site.

Developing the platform has been supported by awards from the British Academy, the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, and Swire Trust, and with vital support from the University of Bristol’s IT Services. We are grateful to its Director Darrell Sturley, Deputy-Director Rachel Bence, and to our colleagues who have co-ordinated or who have built the new platform: Dr Simon Price, Pete Boere, Mike Jones, Paul Smith, Virginia Knight, Tessa Alexander, Damian Steer. As well as their technical expertise, our colleagues have also brought a great deal of enthusiasm and commitment to the initiative. And of course we remain grateful to the scores of families who have contacted us and offered collections.

Next up: an overhaul for This platform, unveiled five years ago now, with funding from JISC, searches across different repositories, but the underlying technology is creaking. This will be rebuilt using the same system that has powered the new Historical Photographs of China.

Introducing the Ranjit Singh Sangha Collection


Singha family group, with amah, 29 November 1939. Photograph by Cardon, Shanghai, 29 November 1939, Ranjit Singh Sangha Collection, Jn-s20.

This small but evocative new collection was sent to us by Jaskaran Sangha, whose grandfather, Kartar Singh lived in Shanghai from 1920 to 1960, where he worked for the Chinese Maritime Custom Service. The set of 47 photographs includes portraits of the Singha family, and servants, Singh and his colleagues in the Customs, friends in the Shanghai Municipal Police, and community events, such as a gathering to mark the visit to the city of Rabindranath Tagore in 1924.

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali polymath and poet on a visit to Shanghai, 1920s. Ranjit Singh Sangha Collection, Jn-s42.

Unusually, Kartar Singh did not leave China in the immediate aftermath of the Communist takeover. He continued working for the Customs until 1 November 1952, and then stayed on until 1960. Singh owned property in the city, but the new authorities made it difficult for him to collect rent or sell it. The new courts did not support his efforts to secure redress. He had lived in Shanghai for four decades since he was 21 years old, but finally he decided to leave in 1960, with one of the last groups of Indian residents who left the city. The collection is named for Kartan Singh’s son, Ranjit Singh Sangha, who was born in Shanghai’s French Concession in 1932.

Nachhattar Kaur Sangha, with two other women – a rare photograph of Sikh women in Shanghai. Photograph by Cardon, Shanghai, 1930s. Ranjit Singh Sangha Collection, Jn-s36.

The photographs give a rare flavour of family and community life amongst Sikhs in Shanghai. The usual image of the masculine world of Sikh work in China is tempered here by photographs of Sikh women. There are also shots of a visitor from Kartan Singha’s home district, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala; of Indian nationalist leader, Subhas Chandra Bose; and of a family friend, Bishan Singh, who joined Bose’s Indian National Army and who fought the British Army in Burma during WW II. Singh was caught and imprisoned in Singapore till India attained independence in 1947.

We are pleased to be able to add to our collection these windows on to a different history of Shanghai. To learn more about the story you can explore Meena Vathyam’s Sikhs in Shanghai blog and Facebook page.

Introducing the Malcolm Rosholt Collection


Malcolm Rosholt working at The China Press, summer 1940, Rosholt Collection, Ro-s001.

Today we are able to unveil a significant new addition to our collections that is now available for viewing: the photographs of Malcolm Rosholt. Born in Wisconsin in 1907, Malcolm Rosholt arrived in China in 1931 with the intention of undertaking graduate work at Yenching University in Beijing. Instead he parlayed some journalistic experience into what became a seven-year stint as a staff writer on the American-run China Press newspaper in Shanghai. He returned for a few months in late 1940, and in October 1944 arrived in Kunming assigned to work with the US Fourteenth Air Force. The majority of the 1,086 photographs date from his earlier stint, and in particular from the August-November 1937 conflict where, as Rosholt later put it, ‘I covered the battlefronts and press conferences and took a stack of pictures with the Leica, some of which were used in the China Press and others I sold to the Associated Press and New York Times.’

The original prints and negatives were given by Rosholt’s daughter Mei-fei Elrick to Tess Johnston, and then shared with us. As well as their interest as a historic record, the collection is also interesting as the archive of a working press photographer. Many of the negatives are marked up, with croppings indicated to strengthen the image. And we have variant shots, showing the journalist at work behind the camera. For example, how might this shot be made more powerful?

Woman and children in temporary shelter, Shanghai, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0384.

Answer: in the next frame, remove the smiling child.

Women and children in temporary shelter, Shanghai, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0385.

And how might a Sikh watching the fires of Pudong be best framed? Horizontally? (There are three versions of this photograph).

Sikh man looking over Huangpu towards fires in Pudong, Shanghai, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0382.

Or vertically? I think vertically (and this might better have suited some print layouts).

Sikh man looking over Huangpu towards fires in Pudong, Shanghai, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0344.

Rosholt’s stint in US air force intelligence provides a few photographs here, but most cover the bloody months in 1937 when Chiang Kai-shek took a gamble, and threw his best-trained forces into a confrontation with the Japanese in full view of the world’s press. China won the moral victory, helped not a little by the work of photographers like Rosholt, but Chiang’s forces were shattered on the city’s battlefields.

Rosholt wrote about his life in a memoir, Rainbow Around the Moon (lgpress, 2004). Amongst other books, he returned to China with Days of the ching pao: A photographic record of the Flying Tigers-14th Air Force in China in World War II (1986), and The Press Corps of Old Shanghai (1994).

Found object


Some of the photographs and negatives we are presented with are beyond salvage, but it can be worth persevering. The following episode has no China connection, but perhaps indicates what might be done with any seemingly hopeless case. It is also an example of what might be done with a found object. A favourite shop of mine sits on West Allington on the western edge of Bridport town centre in Dorset. D. Palmer, trading online as ‘Film Is Fine’, is stuffed with old film and photographs, cameras and projectors, postcards and associated ephemera. It’s a wonderful shop.

On a bright summer’s day earlier this year I noted a glass 3 x 4 glass negative in the window. For £1 ‘(as found)’ it provided a tempting technical challenge.

When taken from the plastic wallet the emulsion film on the surface of the glass mount immediately rolled itself up.

Here it is side on:

We nudged it back open and flat, and placed a glass plate over it. Then using a lightbox we photographed the negative, and then reversed it to positive. And this below is what we found (without any further photoshopping). It’s an atmospheric topographical composition, taken on a sunny late morning on Westminister Bridge. The shop had provided a ‘probable’ attribution to John Stabb, as it came with a bundle of other work by him. Stabb was apparently very active in the 1880s and 1890s working for the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, although he is best known for his record of old Devon churches.

Atr. John Stabb, Westminster Bridge and Palace of Westminster

The view seems just about contemporary with this one below, but I think Stabb’s is rather more striking.

From George Birch, The Descriptive Album of London, c.1896, via

A similar shot today, taken from just a little further along the bridge, and later in the day:

The moral of the story: don’t give up hope. And always take a gamble on ‘as found’.

Spotted: James Hudson Taylor


Children and staff, Chefoo Girls’ School. Carrall Family Collection, Ca01-007 © 2008 Queen’s University Belfast

A correspondent recently wrote to us, correcting a date and identifying in a photograph  two of the China missionary enterprise’s most notable figures. This photograph, above, showing staff and pupils of the Chefoo Girls School includes, we now know, James Hudson Taylor (Director General of the China Inland Mission, CIM) and his wife Jennie Hudson Taylor, both in Chinese dress, sitting in the centre.

We had not noticed them, and we had also dated the photograph to 1893, following the date given in the original album. But our correspondent points out that ‘Taylor was out of China for nearly two years from May 1892 to April 1894 (he toured Canada, returned to Britain and then travelled back to China via the United States)’.  However, Taylor and his wife did visit Chefoo (properly Yantai: 烟台in September 1891, saw the Mission’s schools there, and Jenny Taylor wrote about the visit in a report published in the CIM’s magazine China’s Millions. Taylor visited Chefoo again in September 1894, but on that occasion he travelled on his own.  The older woman on the left of Jennie Taylor in the photograph, our correspondent tells us, is probably Louisa Hibberd who arrived in China in 1885, and who in 1891 was principal of the girls school.

So, as well as adding to our stock of knowledge about this group portrait, we are also reminded that those compiling albums were sometimes themselves unsure about dates, places, people and events. Most of the photographs in this album date from 1896 or later, so that fact suggests that the compiler was making a slightly incorrect guess when the photograph was taken. (And it may have been retained and then pasted in at a later date precisely because it marked the visit of the Taylors). And such informed guessing is at times what we have to do ourselves when we add metadata to images. A very large number of our photographs have little accompanying information, and many of them none at all. We might know that the original owner was in such and such a place in this period, for example, and of course we can now recognise many familiar places or buildings, or people, although not, it turns out, James Hudson Taylor.

(My thanks to our correspondent, whose message I have, with permission, freely adapted here).