Picturing People: The Photographs of William Purdom

September 24, 2014

Charcoal carriers, China

Picturing People: The Photographs of William Purdom

William Purdom (1880–1921) was born in Heversham, Westmoreland, England. He worked in nurseries for Low & Sons in Enfield and later for James Veitch at Coombe Wood, Surrey where he learned the horticultural trade. In 1902, he became a sub-foreman of the Arboretum Nurseries at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in 1905 enrolled at Kew as a two-year student.

William Purdom explored China for the Arnold Arboretum during the same period as Ernest Wilson. In 1909, the Arboretum’s Director, Charles S. Sargent, was intent on having as many men as possible collecting China’s flora, and was keen to dispatch a collector to the largely unexplored northeastern provinces. Purdom embarked in February of that year with the goal of collecting plants from areas with weather more severe than that of New England. Much to Sargent’s annoyance, he made fewer collections but it wasn’t for lack of trying; he initially was instructed to collect in an area with less than optimal conditions. Later he was hampered by political unrest and had a narrow escape from Gansu. Although the expedition did not measure up to Wilson’s successful exploits in terms of numbers of plant introductions, in 1913 Alfred Rehder and E.H. Wilson named a new Rhododendron after him: Rhododendron purdomii.

One aspect of Purdom’s expedition which was extremely successful was his photography, and like Wilson, he employed a camera which used glass plates. He proved a gifted portraitist, capturing for posterity a rich ethnographic record of the people from Tibetan border region. The Arboretum holds 173 prints of his photographs in our collection, which we were able to digitize several years ago. Unfortunately, we do not know what became of his original glass plate negatives, perhaps they survive in an attic somewhere waiting to be rediscovered!

William Purdom is noted for his later exploration in China with Reginald Farrer (1880-1920), with whom he collected and introduced many new alpine plants. At the conclusion of their expedition in 1916, Purdom remained in China to become a division chief within the Chinese Forest Service. Following a minor operation, he died at the French hospital in Beijing on November 7, 1921.

Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives

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