The 14 mounted albumen prints that made up Views on the North River comprised the first of the photographically illustrated works on China and its people to be produced by John Thomson, a man whose name is today almost synonymous with such collections.
Printed and published in Hong Kong in 1870 by Noronha & Sons, a Portuguese firm which was also the official government printer at the time, its circulation among English-speaking communities of Hong Kong and the Treaty Ports was limited and in England its existence seems to have gone un-noticed, or at least unreported.
In a Photography: East to East sale held by Dominic Winter (20% buyer’s premium) on October 3, however, a nowadays exceptionally rare copy of the work*, in its original printed covers, sold for £48,000.
The very next lot to be offered was an album of Thomson’s photographs of Hong Kong, dating from the same early period of 1868-70, that sold for £38,000.
There were 38 large albumen prints in the album, at least two of which were views taken on a very large Chinese ship.
This collection, and several lots featuring works by other photographers working in China, had the same provenance as the …North River album: that of the family and descendants of George Dods, who was working as Acting Colonial Surgeon in Hong Kong at the time.
From a different source came a copy of a four-volume first edition in original gilt decorated maroon cloth of Thomson’s Illustrations of China and its People, which sold for £20,000.
Published in England in 1873-74, this well-known work contains 96 photographic illustrations interleaved with descriptive text and was inspired by Thomson’s travels around China in the years 1868-72.
Other very successful lots included one offering just three albumen prints of street traders. Said to have come from an album dated 1857 but with no indication of the photographer’s name, it nevertheless made a 10-times high estimate £5000.
* Given the rarity of Thomson’s …North River album, it is a remarkable coincidence that another copy is to be offered by Sotheby’s as part of its travel and natural history sale of November 12. Sotheby’s cites the last copy sold at auction as one that made £1500 in its old Belgravia rooms in 1981, but has estimated this upcoming example at £20,000-30,000.