An early photographic album which has sold for a record-breaking £290,000 came into the hands of its first owner 140 years ago as a prize – for winning a pigeon-shooting competition.
The copy of John Thomson's Foochow and
the River Min of 1873 trebled its estimate at
Sotheby's at the end of last year.
After coming into the possession of Oliver
Latham (1841-84), thanks to his sharp-shooting skills, it passed
down through direct family descent.
Edinburgh-born Thomson had joined his elder
brother in 1862 to run a successful chronometer and nautical
instrument business in Singapore but, having a keen interest in
photography, he also set up a portrait studio and spent many years
travelling with his camera in Siam, Cambodia, Vietnam and China -
often with his dog, Spot.
Thomson travelled extensively in the Fuzhou
(Foochow) region in 1870-71, in this instance accompanied by an
American missionary, Rev Justus Doolittle. He travelled up the
River Min from Fuzhou to Nanping, covering almost 160 miles and
documenting the land, architecture and people of Fukien
Foochow was established as a treaty port in
the early 1840s, became a thriving centre of trade following the
Taiping Rebellion and by the 1850s was the world's largest
The photographs from this trip were
published by subscription only, just 46 copies being printed in
1873 by the Autotype Fine Art Co of London, under Thomson's
As the introductory text explains, the 40
large and 40 smaller carbon prints (mounted on 50 leaves) that make
up the album were intended to appeal primarily to the "foreign
residents" of Foochow - tea-planters, missionaries, merchants and
officials. Latham was one of those engaged in the tea trade.
Above: Oliver Latham, who won the
Thomson album in a shooting contest.
The manner in which it first came into the
family is perhaps the most appealing part of the story. The
pigeon-shooting competition on April 22, 1873, was a social event
organised by a friend and former colleague from Latham's days
working for tea merchants Fussell.
The 'Sheppard's Pigeon Match - Handicap
Stakes' saw 11 competitors take part, each paying an entrance fee
of £5. Competitors and their scores are all listed in a note on the
title page, and by consulting The Chronicle & Directory for
China, Japan & the Philippines for 1872, Richard
Fattorini of Sotheby's was able to identify nearly all of them as
Foochow clerks, tea inspectors, brokers, agents, merchants or, in
one case, a pilot. He also speculates, perhaps a little
mischievously, that Sheppard, who scored nine out of ten hits, may
have fancied himself the best marksman and hoped to secure the big
prize. It was not to be: Latham produced a perfect 10.
Born in Cork, Latham was the youngest of 14
children of parents who had at one time owned two Irish estates,
but who by the 1850s had been forced by hard economic times to sell
With little left to inherit, four sons left
Ireland to find their own fortunes. Oliver, in 1859, voyaged to
Shanghai on a ship commanded and part-owned by his brother-in-law,
With Brooks' help, Latham obtained a
position with Fussell and in 1867, following his employer's sudden
death, became a tea broker.
By 1881 he and his wife Janie had moved to
London, where he is recorded as an "East Indian China
A few years after Oliver's early death,
Janie married an Australian, Captain Alexander Henry Rourke, and
they settled in Brisbane in 1894.
The Thomson album, in its original
dark-green half morocco gilt binding, lived for some 40 years under
a piano in the home of Margaret Ann Latham, Oliver's grand-daughter
- who, the family tell me, had become chief custodian of family
history and heirlooms.
In 2012, Margaret Ann gave the album and
other heirlooms to her descendants in a living will, and though few
in the family had ever seen it before, they recognised its
historical interest and began to research it. They first took it to
Bay East Auctions of Sydney, but the Australian auctioneers advised
that if it was to be sold, then it might be handled to greater
financial effect by their UK associates, Sotheby's - and how right
they were. The price on November 15 was highest ever seen at
auction for a copy of the album by some distance.
And what of the other recorded surviving
Well, as long ago as 1984, his personal
copy, which contained an additional 30 carbon prints of Formosa,
was sold at Sotheby's Belgravia and is now in the Tokyo Fuji Art
Another copy, sold at Sotheby's in 1991 for
£9000, was the subject of an export block when it was realised that
no copy was held in any English institution, and was subsequently
acquired for the National Museum of Photography, Film &
Television in Bradford.
In 2005, a copy seen at Bonhams made £85,000
and the following year another example, the photographs all framed
up but accompanied by the binding, plate list, introduction, etc,
made $150,000 (then £84,270) at Sotheby's New York.
Two other copies, one bound and one unbound, are at the Peabody
Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
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