The Bloomsbury Colleges | PhD Studentships | Studentships 2016 | The John Thomson (1837-1921) Photo Archive: Framing China and Southeast Asia (SOAS) & (BBK)
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The John Thomson (1837-1921) Photo Archive: Framing China and Southeast Asia

Principle Supervisor: Professor Shane McCausland (SOAS)

Co-supervisor: Dr Patrizia di Bello (Bbk)

This project will represent the first monographic academic study of John Thomson’s photographic practice. Its particular focus, coinciding with the SOAS Brunei Gallery exhibition of John Thomson's photographs of China and mainland Southeast Asia, to be mounted in the early summer of 2018, is on his activities in that region, where he photographed sites of major cultural significance like Angkor Wat; took portraits, many of figures who were less visible within their cultures, including women in Beijing, Fujian and south China; and photographed urban scenes of everyday life, predating his street photography in London in the 1870s for which he is now better known. The framing of ‘the East’ via Thomson’s dissemination of his work following his return to London in a variety of publications could also be explored. Proposals are sought that will focus on and develop an aspect of this wider project.

The photographs in the John Thomson exhibition at the Brunei Gallery at SOAS are loaned by the Wellcome Collection library, which is undertaking a major programme of digitization of the Thomson archive with also the provision of web-based access to the resulting database. The exhibition will take place during the second year of the studentship, when the doctoral researcher will undertake fieldwork and data collection.

The aims of the project include: reaching a fuller understanding of the photographic practice and the 'period eye' of John Thomson as a pioneering Scottish photographer of his time; understanding the role of his exploration of the sites and people of East and Southeast Asia in the development of photographic ways of looking, seeing and recording; and understanding the impact of visual and material cultures of East and Southeast Asia on Thomson’s photographs, and on Western photographic culture.

Candidate Requirements

The successful candidate will have an excellent academic track record with a strong humanities and/or area studies focus. S/he will hold a good BA degree and an MA degree in the History of Art or a related discipline, with merit or higher. A specialisation in the history and theory of photography will be an advantage. Good understanding of visual cultures of late Qing China, nineteenth-century Southeast Asia and/or Victorian Britain will be an advantage. Appropriate linguistic knowledge will also be expected, depending on the specific approach proposed by the candidate.

The candidate will participate in the doctoral training programmes at SOAS and Birkbeck and will be able to attend relevant academic training courses offered through both colleges, such as the University of London's ReSkIN programme. S/he would also likely be nominated as a CHASE doctoral researcher. SOAS and Birkbeck offer excellent research infrastructures in Chinese and South-east Asian art history and in photography with frequent events and seminars, a high concentration of scholarship and excellent resources.

The studentship is open to both Home/EU and also Overseas candidates and includes a stipend which is awarded at the level recommended by Research Councils UK (RCUK). The studentship also covers fees to the level of a Home/EU student. Overseas candidates will be expected to indicate in their applications how they would resource the difference between Home/EU and Overseas fees.

Key References

The main methodologies will be visual analytical and interpretive methods from histories of art and of photography as social and material practices, including post-formalism, e.g., David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London, 2003), and historical contextualization and anthropologically-informed methods such as 'art and agency' (Alfred Gell, e.g., as applied by Osborne and Tanner, eds, Art's Agency and Art History). Other relevant references include:

- Roberta Wue, Art Worlds: Artists, Images, and Audiences in Late Nineteenth-Century Shanghai (Hong Kong, 2014);

- Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-century London (New Haven and London, 2000).

Further details about the project may be obtained from:

Principle Supervisor: Professor Shane McCausland (


Co-Supervisor: Dr Patrizia di Bello (


Further information about PhDs at SOAS and Birkbeck is available from:

Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

Applicants should follow two steps:

STEP 1: Apply for the SOAS MPhil/PhD programme in History of Art and Archaeology (full time):

Applicants must submit a COMPLETE online application for admission to the MPhil/PhD in History of Art and Archaeology programme as soon as possible but no later than the studentship deadline (17:00 UK time, 22nd February 2016). It is recommended to apply for the programme, if possible, about three weeks before the studentship deadline (that is, by 1st February 2016), if not earlier.

A complete application for admission includes transcripts, an explanation of the grading system for any degrees obtained outside the UK, two references (academic references preferred), CV, a research proposal and a personal statement. Please state in the application for admissions that you wish to be considered for the Bloomsbury Colleges scholarship on 'The John Thomson (1837-1921) Photo Archive: Framing China and Southeast Asia '. In your research proposal, include your reasons for applying to work on this project and outline the particular research you propose to undertake within it.

The panel will be considering your scholarship application TOGETHER with your online application for admission. Please note that a complete application for admission can take up to 4 weeks to be considered by the Department, although this duration can vary depending on the time of year. You should be prepared to wait up to 6 weeks in busy periods. For any queries regarding the programme application procedure, please see or email

STEP 2: Apply for the scholarship:

You must apply for this studentship via the online scholarship application form.

For any queries regarding the studentship application procedure, please email

Closing date for application is:

Monday 22nd February 2016, at 5pm

We aim to conduct interviews in the week beginning 14th March 2016.