I sink in sleep – The lovely town
Is ever present to me still...
W.T. Mercer, Under the Peak, or Jottings in Verse..., London, 1869
The album presumably a presentation album commemorating Mercer’s service in Hong Kong, where he served from 1844, arriving as Private Secretary to his uncle, Sir John Davis. Mercer was the nephew of John Francis Davis, the second governor of Hong Kong (1844-48). He was Colonial Treasurer (1845-48), Colonial Secretary (1854-68), and Administrator (1865-66), and was succeeded by Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell, who became 6th Governor of Hong Kong.
The album includes just two Hong Kong images known from Thomson’s Illustrations of China and its People (The Clock-tower, Hong Kong, plate V and The Praya, Hong Kong, plate VI). Of the other images, several well-known, such as ‘Chinese Shop’, and others, such as the two portraits of Mercer’s pony (‘Tommy’) and carriage, probably unique to the album, and seemingly confirming it as a special commission for the recipient. As noted by Richard Ovenden in 1997 (John Thomson 1837-1921 Photographer), Thompson received similar ‘memento’ commissions in his second full year in Hong Kong in 1869: ‘Early in 1868 Thomson moved his base of operations, which at this time meant his commercial portrait business, from Singapore to Hong Kong. The colony had been captured from the Chinese by the British earlier in the century, and had established itself as a powerful entrepôt, a crucial trading station for British colonial and commercial interests in East Asia. This period in the nineteenth century was one which saw Hong Kong grow considerably, its population alone increasing in size from 117,471 in 1866 to 124,198 in 1871. Given that Singapore was still in the grip of depression, the decision to move east was not a difficult one for Thomson to make. Also, his appetite for new places and experiences had not dimmed, and he must have felt that his prospects of marriage to Isobel Petrie would look decidedly better if his business were able to expand. Hong Kong was the natural choice. As in other growing Asian cities (in particular, those in India), Scots had been quick to realise the commercial and social opportunities to be had … The year 1868 continued to be a significant one in Thomson’s life. Not only were his professional activities coming together, with his studio established in a new base and commercial ventures opening up, but his private life was also the scene of significant developments. Isabel Petrie, by now engaged to Thomson, followed her fiancé to Hong Kong, where they were married on 19 November… The following year, 1869, showed further promise for the photographer, whose business was evidently expanding. His experience in dealing with authors and publishers was also beginning to pay off, as he was commissioned to provide the photographs for a memento volume compiled by the Anglican Colonial Chaplain to Hong Kong (1867-70), William Roberts Bach, to commemorate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh who had been travelling who had been travelling around the Far East aboard HMS Galatea.’ (R. Ovenden, John Thomson 1837-1921 Photographer, pp.14-16).
Soon after establishing his studio in the Commercial Bank Building, Queen’s Road Central, the photographer advertised 40 Hong Kong views in The Daily Press in 1868: "Views of Hong Kong. J. Thomson, 40 views, 10 large (14 x 19), 26 small (8 x 10), and four of late Dragon Feast.’’ Of the almost 700 glass plates brought back by Thompson from his five years in Hong Kong and China, subsequently sold to Henry Wellcome (and now in the Wellcome Library in London), 22 negatives of Hong Kong views have survived – and these 22 images all exhibited for the first time in the recent exhibition devoted to his Asian work (Through the lens of John Thomson, Hong Kong and coastal China, 1868-1872, Hong Kong Maritime Museum, Nov. 2013-Feb. 2014).