Princes Porch, Old Summer Palace (Yuangmingyuan), Beijing
29 cm x 22 cm
Many of Thomas Child’s views are the only surviving photographic records of iconic historic and architectural masterpieces before their destruction. Foremost among these are his images of Yuanmingyuan. Despite the catastrophic losses at Yuanmingyuan, Child preserved the site’s beauty and unparalleled grandeur. His camera preserved images of the last vestiges of what remains an icon of Chinese national identity. When he made these photographs in the 1870s, Child may not have been fully aware of the place of Yuanmingyuan in the cultural heritage of China, but it was his intention to preserve images of unique monuments.
The Princes Porch was one of two gates connecting the European and Chinese sections of Yuanmingyuan to the Palace and was likely a popular meeting point for Manchu noblemen. This rare photograph depicts one of two elaborately carved and embellished marble gates that served as an entrance to the stone screen of Guanshuifa. In the “20 Views of the European Palaces,” the gateway appears in engraving no. 16, Guanshuifa zhengmian 16, (Viewing the Great Fountain main façade). As the scholar Vera Schwarcz states, Child’s photograph “stands as an eternal monument to a moment of lost greatness”.
Jade Belt Bridge
22 cm x 29 cm
The famous Jade Belt Bridge was built in the 1750s during the Qianlong Emperor’s dramatic expansion of the Yuanmingyuan’s grounds. In Thomas Child’s masterly photograph, the arch of the bridge stands silhouetted against a clear white sky, as three dark figures ascend upwards, seemingly to the heavens. The underside of one half of the bridge appears in inky shadow, joining its mirror reflection to create a blackened crescent moon.
In Child’s great photographic image the sky and surface of the water under the arch of the bridge render as pure white; the land dissolving into bands of horizontal lines like brush strokes, and culminating in the distant shore, suffused with mist. Sky, mist, and water are shown the same way, as flat, unpigmented planes. The emptiness of space and the metaphorical relationship between sky, mist and water so magically captured in this photograph reflects an enduring focus of important traditions of revered Chinese literati painting.
Panorama of Beijing
23 cm x 173 cm
Felice Beato made the earliest known photographs of China’s capital city, Beijing. His photographs, taken in 1860 and 1861, are irreplaceable visual records of Chinese history. Scholars consider Beato’s sweeping panoramic views to be among the greatest achievements of early photography in China.
This stunning multi-print panorama of Beijing is the most prized of the artist’s photographs. The photographer’s unparalleled skill allowed him to capture the grandeur of the ancient city Beijing using the new technology of photography. The elongated format and striking use of perspective owe a debt to traditional Chinese handscrolls.
City Walls, Beijing
22 cm x 29 cm
This view conveys the immensity of the imposing city walls of Beijing. In his unpublished journal Thomas Child wrote, “[The wall] is [actually] built of two walls 18 inches thick of unburnt bricks; in between these walls it is filled in with dirt and paved with bricks on the top. The gates are closed every night at dark and opened at daylight, in the morning. There is a watch house at the foot of each gate full of soldiers. The wall is ascended by a slope on each side of the gates. From the top of the wall [one can] overlook the whole city, the housing being only one story high. The only high places that meet the eye are the emperor’s pleasure grounds, the Drum tower + the bell tower.”