Culture | A rich tapestry: images of Shanghai in the 1860s
Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

A rich tapestry: images of Shanghai in the 1860s

An exhibition entitled 'Qing Dynasty Shanghai: The Photographs of William Saunders' offers an intimate view of the diverse inhabitants of a city in flux

November 1, 2016 7:47 PM (UTC+8)

William Saunders was the pre-eminent photographer in Shanghai during the late Qing dynasty era. Believed to be the first person to produce hand-colored photos of China, his studio stood next to the famous Astor House Hotel on the Bund. His work was published in Far East Magazine, and engravings of it appeared in the Illustrated London News and other leading journals.

However, since that time it has never been publicly exhibited. Until now, that is. Curated by Stacey Lambrow, ‘Qing Dynasty Shanghai: The Photographs of William Saunders’ features a selection of original 19th Century albumen silver prints by Saunders from Stephan Loewentheil’s Historical Photography of China Collection, the largest holding of historical photographs of the country in private hands.

The exhibition will run at London’s China Exchange from November 4-12 as part of Asian Art in London and will also feature a re-creation of Saunders’ Shanghai studio.

Saunders’ pictures offer an intimate view of the diverse inhabitants of Shanghai — already by the mid 19th Century a thriving port city, cultural hub and meeting place of merchants and travelers from far and wide — and their ways of life in this transitional era.

An Englishman who originally traveled to China as an engineer in 1860, his studio offered portraiture and sold architectural and topographical compositions, as well as photographs of war and conflict in the country, important Chinese events, and genre photographs of Chinese people.

His tinted prints reflect the egalitarian impact of photography: many of them offer representations of tradespeople and other subjects not otherwise commonly portrayed in more traditional art forms.

Shanghai not only attracted foreign businesspeople but also immigrants from other parts of China. Saunders’ portraits often featured props signifying the trades or social status of their subjects, but in this case a young woman from Guangzhou stands beside a floor vase holding only a parasol. Her unbound feet and headscarf were typical of the women of Canton (modern-day Guangdong province) in the late Qing era. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
A Young Lady from Canton: Shanghai not only attracted foreign business people but also immigrants from other parts of China. Saunders’ portraits often featured props signifying the trades or social status of their subjects, but in this case a young woman from Guangzhou stands beside a floor vase holding only a parasol. Her unbound feet and headscarf were typical of the women of Canton (modern-day Guangdong province) in the late Qing era. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
This woman and girl are said to be from Keangsoo (Jiangsu) province, north of Shanghai. Their hairstyles are typical of the region, while their bound feet indicate how the practise was spread among a wider range of social classes than is often thought. Parasols, which were considered accoutrements of the nobility in ancient China were in high fashion in late Qing dynasty Shanghai. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Shanghai Woman and Child: This woman and girl are said to be from Keangsoo (Jiangsu) province, north of Shanghai. Their hairstyles are typical of the region, while their bound feet indicate how the practise was spread among a wider range of social classes than is often thought. Parasols, which were considered accoutrements of the nobility in ancient China were in high fashion in late Qing dynasty Shanghai. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Saunders was fascinated by traditional Chinese technology, much of which he believed predated similar inventions in the West. In this photograph, two men pose on a man-powered vehicle – a wheelbarrow, essentially. The driver stands at the rear. The assertive gazes of the three men suggests an ease in front of the camera that was seemingly rare at the time in China. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
The Hand Carriage: Saunders was fascinated by traditional Chinese technology, much of which he believed predated similar inventions in the West. In this photograph, two men pose on a man-powered vehicle — a wheelbarrow, essentially. The driver stands at the rear. The assertive gazes of the three men suggests an ease in front of the camera that was seemingly rare at the time in China. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
The woman in this portrait, though wearing the traditional silk dress of her native Guangzhou, sits in a Western-style chair in profile – a Western photographic compositional portrait format. Although Shanghai had its own walled Chinese city, many residents chose to live in the foreign settlements. Thus began a mixing of cultures that shaped Shanghai's openness to foreign influence. Saunders clearly took particular interest in this woman’s elaborate hairstyle, fine clothing, and slippered, unbound feet. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
A Canton Woman: The woman in this portrait, though wearing the traditional silk dress of her native Guangzhou, sits in a Western-style chair in profile — a Western photographic compositional portrait format. Although Shanghai had its own walled Chinese city, many residents chose to live in the foreign settlements. Thus began a mixing of cultures that shaped Shanghai’s openness to foreign influence. Saunders clearly took particular interest in this woman’s elaborate hairstyle, fine clothing, and slippered, unbound feet. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
According to Saunders, the woman in this portrait, a resident of Shanghai who is seen wearing a typical spring dress, consented to his request to show her unbandaged bound foot. Her feet feature prominently as she sits in a Western-style chair, fixing the camera with a direct, proud gaze. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China collection
Shanghai Woman: According to Saunders, the woman in this portrait, a resident of Shanghai who is seen wearing a typical spring dress, consented to his request to show her unbandaged bound foot. Her feet feature prominently as she sits in a Western-style chair, fixing the camera with a direct, proud gaze. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China collection
This photograph, one of Saunders’ studio portraits of Shanghai tradespeople, depicts a 'brush seller' — or, more accurately, a seller of feather dusters. Small merchants like Saunders' subject here were a fixture of 19th Century Shanghai street life. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
The Brush Seller: This photograph, one of Saunders’ studio portraits of Shanghai tradespeople, depicts a ‘brush seller’ — or, more accurately, a seller of feather dusters. Small merchants like Saunders’ subject here were a fixture of 19th Century Shanghai street life. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Barbering flourished under the Qing dynasty. Barbers not only cut hair but also administered herbal medicines. This outdoor portrait shows two barbers, one shaving the top of a man’s head, the other braiding a customer’s hair. Under the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty, the traditional Han topknot was banned in favour of the queue, a style in which the front of the head was shaved and the remaining hair gathered in a long braid. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Itinerant Barbers: Barbering flourished under the Qing dynasty. Barbers not only cut hair but also administered herbal medicines. This outdoor portrait shows two barbers, one shaving the top of a man’s head, the other braiding a customer’s hair. Under the Manchus of the Qing Dynasty, the traditional Han topknot was banned in favor of the queue, a style in which the front of the head was shaved and the remaining hair gathered in a long braid. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
This striking group portrait shows a troupe of Chinese actors in elaborate costume. As Saunders notes, the conventional costumes of Chinese theatre recalled much earlier, classical dress made of rich silks and lavished with intricate embroidery. Those playing villains often wore grotesque masks. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Actors: This striking group portrait shows a troupe of Chinese actors in elaborate costume. As Saunders notes, the conventional costumes of Chinese theater recalled much earlier, classical dress made of rich silks and lavished with intricate embroidery. Those playing villains often wore grotesque masks. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
In this portrait, a man dressed as a Qing Dynasty official looks confidently toward the camera, his left hand steadying a snuff bottle on the table. Rather unusually, he is relaxed and looks to be smiling his portrait is taken. Saunders photographed a comprehensive range of social classes in 19th Century China. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
A Civil Mandarin: In this portrait, a man dressed as a Qing Dynasty official looks confidently toward the camera, his left hand steadying a snuff bottle on the table. Rather unusually, he is relaxed and looks to be smiling his portrait is taken. Saunders photographed a comprehensive range of social classes in 19th Century China. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Saunders’ fondness for the ingenuity of Chinese workers is evident in this photograph. It shows how the driver of a wheelbarrow-type taxi could disassemble his rig in order to avoid paying the taxes levied on wheeled vehicles crossing certain bridges. The composition, which foregrounds the vehicle while obscuring the identity of its owner, betrays the anonymity of such workers in Shanghai at the time. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
Ingenious Device: Saunders’ fondness for the ingenuity of Chinese workers is evident in this photograph. It shows how the driver of a wheelbarrow-type taxi could disassemble his rig in order to avoid paying the taxes levied on wheeled vehicles crossing certain bridges. The composition, which foregrounds the vehicle while obscuring the identity of its owner, betrays the anonymity of such workers in Shanghai at the time. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
This portrait of a mother and children from Ningpo (Ningbo), on the coast south of Shanghai, shows the typical dress and hairstyles of the region. Both the mother and her young daughter avert their gaze from the camera, while the seated boy directs an inquisitive look at the lens. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection
A Ningbo Family: This portrait of a mother and her children from Ningbo, on the coast south of Shanghai, shows the typical dress and hairstyles of the region. Both the mother and her young daughter avert their gaze from the camera, while the seated boy directs an inquisitive look at the lens. Image courtesy of the Stephan Loewentheil Historical Photography of China Collection

Qing Dynasty Shanghai: The Photographs of William Saunders will run as part of Asian Art in London from November 4-12 at the China Exchange, 32a Gerrard Street, London. Admission is free. The exhibition is sponsored by the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, Brooklyn, New York. Asian Art In London brings together over 60 of the world’s top dealers, major auction houses and museums for an annual ten-day celebration of the finest Asian art.

Comments