Rare Chinese Opium War Watercolour Album

Price: 50,000.00 AUD

1860. 36 original watercolours by a Chinese artist or artists in a large Chinese traditional handmade album covered in dark blue silk. The watercolours vary very slightly in size but most measure approximately 30 x 58.5cm. Each painting is surrounded by a plain paper border framing it on the page. The album measures 34cm x 67.5cm. On some leaves there are blocks of text much of which is in colloquial Cantonese. The album and the paintings show a little wear, browning and soiling in places. Two leaves have a small crease where a 3 x 2.5cm section is torn at one edge, on a few leaves the paper border is missing or loose in places. Paper border insect damaged along the upper edge of one leaf. Paper lining on the inside upper cover detached at gutter. However, although signs of age and use are evident, the album and paintings are generally sound and clean. Provenance: Mary Ann Frederica Harrison 1838-1910, the wife of Thomas (1835 - 1892) a tea merchant in Canton. Mary Ann Frederica Harrison lived in Canton from 1867 until the early 1890's. Then by family descent. This unique album of 36 original watercolour paintings by an unknown Chinese artist or artists features scenes from the war of l839-42 (known in the west as the First Opium War), trading scenes and a painting of a scene during the war of 1856 - 1859 or as it is known in the west the Second Opium War. What is particularly remarkable about this album is the depiction of Chinese actions which did not occur, such as the capture and trial of Captain Charles Elliot, RN, who was never captured or tried. All but one of the paintings in this album refers to the Canton/Guangzhou area of today's Guangdong Province in Southern China. One of the thirty-six paintings shows Commissioner Lin's "capture and trial" of Captain Charles Elliot, RN, the British Chief Superintendent of Trade, albeit that these events were entirely fanciful and never occurred. Further proof of location is provided by another picture on which Chinese forces are stated on the accompanying text to be from the Shengpeng Charitable School (the name of their headquarters) and from the Sanyuanli villages. These were among the local militia comprising peasant farmers from areas north of Canton, armed only with spears, swords and shields, and led by local gentry, which opposed the British attack on the city in May 1841. The Sanyuanli villages, in particular, became renowned for their fiercely patriotic and anti-British spirit which became enshrined in Chinese popular literature on the War. The incident well known in China to this day. In many ways, this album of paintings encapsulates the gradual but fundamental shift in the nature of international relations with China consequent upon the First Opium War, as Chinese historians prefer to style it nowadays. The War of 1839-42 marked an end to China's old relationship with the West, and the beginning of a long period of national humiliation during which China was obliged to open more and more ports to foreign trade by international treaties and agreements (which is why such ports were styled "treaty ports") and, before long, to receive foreign ambassadors at its capital. Half the paintings in the album depict the old trading relationship before the War, when merchants from the West did trade with China on China's terms, and before the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu's attempts to stop the import of foreign opium in mid 1839 and assert Chinese sovereignty. The other half epitomize the changed situation in which Chinese artists were either directed, or chose, to hide a disastrous war behind a series of triumphant representations of successful military encounters which were almost all pure fiction. The majority of the military paintings depict encounters between British troops and Chinese forces. There is no attempt to depict actual uniforms, and the forces on both sides are drawn in ink outline, and painted in a light green and red flat wash. The British are all shown with orange-red hair, in accordance with the nickname commonly in use for Britons among Chinese people in Canton at that time, the equivalent of "Rufus" and with the same meaning. In many of the paintings, British soldiers are being killed, wounded, or captured. In fact, the paintings depict what seldom happened, since the reverse was usually the case in most of the fighting. Later in the War kidnapping or enticing were favoured Chinese means of inflicting casualties on their enemies, whilst disease was by far the deadliest killer of British soldiers and sailors. Thus, like the imagined capture of Captain Elliot, the paintings are mostly representations of wishful thinking, and may be described as a kind of propaganda designed to show the Opium War in a light more favourable to the Chinese than was warranted by the facts. The other group of paintings - we may style them "trading pictures" - are also to be associated with Canton, which was then the only officially-authorized centre for trade with western countries. They depict scenes in which Chinese and Western merchants engage in friendly intercourse during business transactions in the "Foreign Factories" for long located there. The British are shown in top hats, whilst the Chinese merchants are in long robes and carry fans. One merchant is attended by two servants, one of them carrying a cup of tea on a tray, the other a long-stemmed tobacco pipe. The items of trade on display are being brought out in boxes, barrels, or bales by shirtless coolies. The Canton connection is further strengthened by the texts which appear on some of the paintings with some displaying signs of being Cantonese in grammar and composition. Moreover, the album's provenance is from Canton. Yet the Opium War was not confined to the South. The British fleet of warships and troopships ranged along the coast, occupying several cities, ultimately capturing Shanghai and other places along the Yangzi, and dictating peace to Chinese commissioners at Nanjing in 1842. The one exception to Canton and the War of 1839-42 in the South depicts an event - for once a Chinese victory - in the Second Opium War, as Chinese historians style the period of further hostilities in 1856-1859. Against Chinese wishes, the British and French Commissioners had wished to proceed to Beijing in person to ratify another treaty (the Tianjin Treaty) made in 1858. This resulted in a failed attempt by a combined Anglo-French fleet to capture the Dagu forts and open the Beihe river causing heavy casualties in warships and men. This forcing of the Beihe river led to Tientsin which was within easy reach of Beijing by land. An American gunboat also features in the painting, though it was present as an observer not as a combatant, making it certain that this was the event in question. For whom were such pictures intended? Whilst this particular set seems to have been assembled for a western purchaser, it would seem that these paintings would have had a much wider market at home in China, to be reached through the medium of wood-block printing. In the days before modern newspapers and photographic images, this was the universal means of reaching the public at large, whether by government notices and proclamations, or by commercial advertising of all kinds, and all over China. In one especially favoured format, they were also used to produce the lunar new year pictures (or nianhua) that had long been a universally popular kind of home decoration. Auspicious topics predominated, but warlike scenes - and always of imperial victories in different conflicts - were included. Paintings such as those in the album could be copied onto wood-blocks of different sizes (since some prints had to be large enough to be pasted on walls) and used to run off multiple copies. There was also the smaller market for the paintings themselves, which were copied in many Canton workshops and studios specializing in producing reproductions intended to be sold individually or in sets. They included those made for sale as "souvenir pictures" for Western visitors or sojourners, as with this particular album. While it appears that this album is complete, it is likely that those included were a selection of those available at the time. This said, our enquiries indicate that examples of paintings and wood-block prints of this sort are nowadays difficult to find, most probably on account of their being "political ephemera" rather than scholarly artistic works. There is still much research to be done in this field. We have not found an album of similar content which has been offered for sale or is held in an institution. A rare and profoundly important album. (When referring to this item please quote stockid 155794).

Available From

Asia Bookroom
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Macquarie, ACT 2614
61 (0)2 6251 5191