Surveyors and civil engineers were often explorers. Take James Nicolson who first estimated that Mount Everest was around 9,200 metres (30,000 feet) high, and would have been more precise had he not been forced to return home suffering from malaria. John Turnbull Thomson (1821–1884) was no exception. He was born in a tiny hamlet in what was then Northumberland, England, and when only sixteen emigrated to work for the East India Survey in Malaya (coincidentally the country of my birth, although I’m not Malayan).
From then until his retirement, Thomson lived a nomadic life, and was more familiar with the inside of a tent than any office. In 1841, he moved to Singapore Island, then a colonial port under construction. His civil engineering work there is recorded in road and place names. His major accomplishment of that period was the Horsburgh Lighthouse, which still stands testament to his work, in the Straits of Singapore.
Thomson seems to have been a largely self-taught artist, and sketched and painted wherever he was working.
Telok Ayer Market on Telok Ayer Bay is a detail from a careful drawing which he made of this part of the Singapore waterfront in 1847.
In 1848, he must have been working in what is now Penang, on the Malayan mainland. He there painted this watercolour of Southern Plains, Pinang from the Great Tree Pass.
By 1853, his health was suffering, so he returned to Britain to recuperate and undertake professional training. Then in 1856 he arrived in New Zealand, where he shortly became the Chief Surveyor of Otago. His first task there was to select the site and plan the layout of the new town of Invercargill, now one of the southernmost cities in the world.
His fine view over what’s now the city of Dunedin in 1856 show its early development from a whaling station in the 1830s. By the end of the 1850s, this quiet town had been swelled by around twelve thousand immigrants from Scotland.
For comparison, here is Ulrich Lange’s photographic view from Opoho to the City of Dunedin, as it was in about 2007.
Thomson moved into the interior of New Zealand to map large areas of Southland, with the aid of local Maori guides. He explored the headwaters of the Tasman River, estimated the height of Mount Cook, and discovered and named Mount Aspiring in 1857. By 1876, he was so good at his job that he was appointed New Zealand’s first Surveyor General.
Thomson retired in 1879 to paint in Invercargill, the town which he had planned and developed.
He must have travelled to paint Mount Earnslaw in 1883, just a year before his death. This mountain, also known by its original name of Pikirakatahi, is 2,819 metres (9,000 feet) high, and is another peak discovered and named by Thomson, in honour of the home town of his father. The previous year, the mountaineer the Reverend WS Green, who had intended to climb Mount Cook, attempted to climb Mount Earnslaw, but he was forced to abandon the climb at the halfway point, and it wasn’t climbed until 1890.
For comparison, here is professional landscape artist Eugène von Guérard’s view of Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw, Middle Island, New Zealand which he painted in the studio between 1877-79. I will look in detail at his other work in an article or two in the future.
John Turnbull Thomson died in Invercargill, New Zealand, in 1884.