William Thomas Saunders was born in the London borough of Woolwich on August 27, 1832. He was the eldest of four children (and the only son) born to William Charles and Jane Saunders. Little is known about Mr. Saunders’s childhood or formal education (including his photographic instruction) until his arrival in Shanghai around 1860, which was reportedly a work-related engineering trip. However, he immediately fell in love with the landscape, the people, and the culture, and within two years had opened a photography studio in the heart of Shanghai’s Bund district.
Not content to merely focus his large-format camera on neighboring surroundings, Mr. Saunders traveled to Japan in the summer of 1862. During his ten-week visit, he is believed to have captured nearly 100 images, with surprisingly only a few being identified, and those are now part of the Clark Worswick Collection.
By 1863, the Saunders studio was the earliest commercial entity in Asia to produce color photographs of China, likely the West’s first glimpses of daily life during the late Qing dynasty. According to American collector Stephan Loewentheil, “His photographs offer an intimate view of the diverse inhabitants of Shanghai and their traditional ways of life.” Shanghai and its people were beginning their transition from peasantry to commercialism, and Mr. Saunders was there to document it all. His genre scenes include wagon-pulling merchants, opium smokers, and foot-bound women. One memorable image revealed the ingenuity of one Chinese taxi driver who averted a bridge toll by disassembling his taxi to carry over his shoulder, thus avoiding the charge.
Mr. Saunders sought to introduce the West to Asian life as he saw it, which required the critical visual element of color. He employed local artisans to hand-paint his photographs, which allowed them to continue their livelihoods in rapidly changing times. This hand coloring involved ink stones, porcelain bowls, and working on wooden tables. It was an extremely exacting and labor-intensive process, with no more than three prints being completed daily. In 1871, Mr. Saunders published his Portfolio of Sketches of Chinese Life and Character, which was primarily purchased by curious Westerners. His extensive photographic repertoire included large-format stereo views, multiple-plate panoramas, and the cartes-de-visite that were tourist favorites.
Despite his great success, Mr. Saunders sold his inventory and equipment to return to England and get married. However, within a year he was again living in and working in Shanghai, with his gallery resuming its lavish production of souvenir photograph compilations of landscapes and genre scenes for tourists and foreign dignitaries. After the death of his wife in 1887, Mr. Saunders closed his 25-year-old studio’s doors for the last time and retired to England. During a vacation to Shanghai, Mr. Saunders contracted bronchitis and died on December 30, 1892, leaving an estate of nearly $1,000,000 U.S. dollars. Although the name of William Saunders does not have the recognition of some of his Western contemporaries – most notably Felice Beato – his hand-colored plates collectively serve as an important historical record of the Chinese way of life during the bygone Qing dynasty era.
2011 Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China edited by Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute), pp. 38-39.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 1244.
2013 Photography and China by Claire Roberts (London: Reaktion Books Ltd), p. 30.
2006 Photography in Japan 1853-1912 by Terry Bennett (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing), pp. 98-102.
2016 Rare Hand-Colored Photos From 19th Century Shanghai by Jessica Stewart (URL: https://mymodernmet.com/william-saunders-qing-dynasty-shanghai).
2016 Taking a Trip Back to Early Shanghai (URL: http://www.pressreader.com/china/china-daily-european-weekly/20160812/281938837311116).
2013 Visualising China, 1845-1965 edited by Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill NV), p. 103.
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