photos and stories from the Powerhouse Museum
This photograph is of Lam Qua, one of the most famous Chinese artists resident in Hong Kong in the 1870s. Taken by John Thomson around 1872 it shows Lam Qua working on a Chinese group portrait in a style that was copied by many lesser known artists of the day.
In fact most Chinese artists in Hong Kong made their money from copying others work or from photographs at so much per square foot. A good source of income was through making enlargements of photographs in the possession of foreign sailors. To get this business they employed a person to scour the harbour with examples of their work and then make an arrangement with a customer to deliver the copy framed and ready for sea in as little as 24 hours. To speed up the process the painters divide their labour with the apprentice doing bodies and hands, while the master executes the faces. In an interesting comment on the problems of copying from photographs Thomson says the pictures would be fair work s of art “but all the distortions of badly taken photographs are faithfully reproduced on an enlarged scale”. He also notes that this trade closely aligned with miniature painting has all but disappeared in Europe due to the cheapness and ease of taking photographic reproductions.
Photography by John Thompson
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Post by Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator