William Thomas Saunders
William Saunders, one of the finest photographers to work in nineteenth-century China,was born in Woolwich,London on 27th August 1832,the son of a shipwright.He has three younger sisters.It is possible, therefore, that William and his parents live aboard for a time.
In 1860, William Saunders traveled to Shanghai.A ‘W.Saunders’ is listed as a Tidewaiter employed by Imperial Maritime Customs from December 1860 until his resignation in March 1861.
William Saunders opened one of Shanghai's first photography studios in January 1862. Although chiefly a portrait photographer, Saunders' fascination with China led him to photograph current events, local scenery and the local population.
The Japan Weekly Mail ,14th January,1893,had this comment on William Saunders“The only photographer in Shanghai and North China,who had broad respect and high evaluation, Saunders died last night.He had come to Shanghai in 1860 on the old paddle streamer “Lea Moon”.He went back to the U.K. to study photography and brought back a set of “wet-plate” photographs which were called “black magic” at the time.In a few years he had taken many pictures of Pekin for the first time.He traveled in Japan also,in its Emperor and Samurai period. Nowadays one can find,almost all over the world,many scenic photos of Japan.But he must be the first person to set the camera to it.”
Although many of Saunders' scenes of everyday Chinese life were posed due to limitations of photographic processes, they provide accurate reflections of life in nineteenth century China, and contributed to the spreading of knowledge of Chinese customs and traditions throughout the West.
A selection of William Saunders' photographs was published in an early series of 50 prints published in 1871 as a Portfolio of Sketches of Chinese Life and Character. Saunders also contributed regularly to Western publications such as the Far East and the Illustrated London News. He also photographed local ports in China and Japan, including Yokohama where he settled for three months in August 1862. Many of his prints, especially scenes of execution, were considered as being timeless and were used decades later to illustrate current events.
William Saunders' photographs were very popular throughout China where they were sold by other photographers. His photographs are characteristic in their rectangular shape with rounded corners and oval vignettes.
By about 1870, William Saunders had complied a number set of fifty portraits and genre scenes which he offered for sale either as single prints in albums.A complete set was sold by Chisties; South Kensington,London on 18th June 1981.Each image was approximately 10*8 inches(25.5*20cm) and half of them were trimmed to an oval shape.Seven had rounded corners and all had a printed paper label giving the series number,title and explanatory text.
The early photographs of China taken by William Saunders are being very hot among Chinese collectors.But compared to other photographers,William Saunders has more photographs exist currently,and these photographs are seen more often in auction stores all over Europe.His works recorded in History of Photography in China1861-1879 are the most precious ones.