The Witt Library Archive

Ruixian Zhang: 18th Century China Under the Pen of William Alexander – an Amazing Journey Following the British Embassy

In 1792, William Alexander, a British artist born in Maidstone, Kent, was chosen to accompany Lord Macartney’s embassy to China as a junior draughtsman at the age of 25. Very few of his works dating from before this journey are known, so it is likely that this was Alexander’s first proper commission and it is known as the first ever British diplomatic mission to China.

The goal was to meet Qianlong Emperor to relax the restriction on British merchants’ trade port in China due to the growing demand for tea and other Chinese products like porcelain and silk and introduce new British products to Chinese market, further to get new ports and a small island. They also tried to promote a direct line of communication between the two governments by establishing a permanent embassy in Beijing. It can be seen that the embassy did an elaborate preparation by providing gifts with superior quality including clocks, telescopes, weapons, textiles, and other products of technology, intending to reflect Britain’s national character of ingenuity, exploration, and curiosity about the natural world.

 

May – June 1793, Vietnam

According to the Witt Library’s collection and online records, there are a couple of Alexander’s drawings of people he met at today’s Turon Bay in Vietnam, where the embassy resided during May – June 1793 before the landing in China.

“Mandarin with Pipe Bearer” in Tourane Bay.

“Natives of Cochinchina Playing a Shuttlecock”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19 – 23 June 1793, Macau

After a total of nearly 10-month voyage starting from Portsmouth, England, the full squadron finally arrived at Macau, China on 19 June 1793. There, the embassy disembarked to meet with officials of the East India Company. As they carried many large, precious items that might be damaged if taken overland, they got permission from the emperor to change route to the closest port of Tianjin instead of the official port of Guangdong. On June 23rd, the embassy got to continue by sea to the northeast to meet Emperor Qianlong – the goal of this journey.

“Portrait of the Purveyor to Lord Macartney’s Embassy”, Macau.

Map: Macau to Beijing to Chengde

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21 August 1793, Beijing

Through one of the western gates, the Ping-tze Gate, they entered Beijing on August 21st. “Our arrival was announced by the firing of guns and refreshments were made ready for all the gentlemen, at a resting place within the gate…” (Authentic Account, vol.2, p.116, Staunton).

Pingze Men

 

August 1793, Beijing

On August 25th, four days after their arrival in Beijing, Alexander seemed to be attracted by a building in front of him – the Audience Hall, main hall of the Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan) – as his journal says: “Before this magnificent building is a platform of granite on which are four large urns of brass. They are handsomely ornamented and used for burning perfumes when the Emperor is present. The Cornice of the Hall on the outside is very rich being gilt and coloured red and green in a very splendid manner. The front and sides have narrow folding doors from bottom to the top any of which can be opened for the admission of air…”

“A Front View of the Audience Hall at Yuan-ming Yuan”

“A View in the Gardens of the Imperial Palace at Pekin”

 

It was there that the gifts brought by the embassy were stored amongst other tribute items. Two members of the embassy were responsible for assembling and arranging the gifts. The most important item, the planetarium, was so complex that it took 18 days to assemble.

The Old Summer Palace (Yuan-ming Yuan), widely perceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design, was devastated by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860 – it was so large that it took 4000 men three days of burning to destroy it. The reason for this destruction remains highly controversial today. What is known is that it consisted of extensive collection of gardens, numerous art and historical treasures of China, Europe, Tibet and Mongolia and its former splendour can be seen from the stolen sculptures, porcelain, jade, silk robes, elaborate textiles, gold objects now in 47 museums around the world and the ruins in Beijing.

 

2 September 1793, Departure from Beijing

Since it was autumn, Qianlong was leading a ritual hunting expedition north of the Great Wall at Jehol (today’s Chengde), an inherited tradition from his grandfather.

Great Wall of China

Having left behind the planetarium and other gifts at the Old Summer Palace, about seventy members of the mission, among them forty soldiers, departed Beijing on September 2nd, heading north towards Jehol. The group crossed the Great Wall of China, where they were greeted by ceremonial gunfire and several companies of troops of the Qing military. They made a survey of the Great Wall’s fortifications, thereby contributing to the intelligence-gathering aspect of the mission, though at the expense of arousing suspicion among their Chinese hosts. Some of the men, meanwhile, took bricks from the Wall as souvenirs.

 

14 September 1793, Chengde

The Emperor of China “Approaching His Tent in Tartary to Receive the British Ambassador, Lord Macartney”

This drawing above shows the meeting taking place on 14 September 1793, in the imperial park at Jehol. The ceremony was to be held in the imperial tent, a large yellow yurt which contained the emperor’s throne at the centre of a raised platform. Several thousand attendees were present, including other foreign visitors, the viceroy and the emperor’s son, the future Jiaqing Emperor. “The Emperor soon appeared from behind a high and perpendicular mountain, skirted with trees as if from a sacred grove, preceded by a number of persons busied in proclaiming aloud his virtues and his power…” (Authentic Account, vol. 2, p. 229, Staunton)  Macartney entered the tent along with George and Thomas Staunton, and their Chinese interpreter. The others waited outside.

“Ch’ien Lung Presenting a Purse to George Thomas Staunton Inside the Imperial Tent at Jehol”

Macartney stepped up to the platform first, kneeling once, exchanging gifts with Qianlong and presenting King George III’s letter. He was followed by George Staunton, and finally Thomas Staunton. As Thomas had studied the Chinese language, the Qianlong Emperor beckoned him to speak a few words. The British were followed by other envoys, about whom little is written. A banquet was then held to conclude the day’s events. The British were seated on the emperor’s left, in the most prestigious position.

However, it made one wonder why it depicted the figure of Thomas Staunton so small. In my opinion, the emperor, who appeared imposing and arrogant, was in fact fearful and worried and wanted to disguise this in the embassy. In his early years, Qianlong was known for his attractive and affable personality, his long reign (he was one of the longest-reigning rulers in the history of the world) reached the most splendid and prosperous era in the Qing Empire, boasting an extremely large population and economy and having completed military campaigns which had expanded the dynastic territory to the largest extent. However, by 1793 he was spoiled with power and glory, disillusioned and complacent in his reign, the court was full of corruption and the civil society was stagnating. The outcome was that in the letter he gave Macartney for the British king he said “This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.” And even used the word “barbarian” to foreign merchants. His old and crazy belief that China was still the “central kingdom” informed his refusal to take on the British advancements in science and technology, impeding China’s journey to modernization. However, under this arrogant appearance is his concern for the safety of his country, for the internal unrest and the transformations of Chinese society that might result from unrestricted foreign access. The huge ship of China was too large to change her heading.

The letter was an excuse and Qianlong had sensed an unavoidable conflict between the two nations. Even though later Qianlong placated the British with unspecified promises in order to avoid military conflicts, the big unbalanced trade difference then led to British traders’ smuggling large quantities of opium to southern China, causing a national addiction crisis and resulting in the Opium War, which compromised China’s sovereignty and economic power for almost a century. The huge but fragile ship dashed to pieces 50 years later.

It is surprising to me that there is a large number of people in Alexander’s drawing who are smoking tobacco with a long pipe which forms a clue for the popularity of the product of opium in China years later, thus the wars. The people depicted are of smoking regardless of their gender, class or even age. “I imagine smoking to be more practiced in China than any other part of the world…” Alexander said.

 

 

September 1793, The Journey Forward                

Though some contemporaries of Alexander were able to visit China, none could venture far inland due to the restriction to certain trading ports. After his return and the publishing of his work in the early 19th century, China became an extremely strong inspiration in British art and design, one particularly noteworthy example being the interior design of the Royal Pavilion. This fascination owes much to the new, reliable and exciting glimpses into Chinese landscape, architecture, people and art that Alexander provided like no artist before. Alexander shaped the West’s image of this far away country.

 

13 October 1793, Tianjin

“The Temporary Pavilion Erected for the Landing of the Embassador”

Map: Chengde to Tianjin

The building was constructed by order of the chief Mandarin of the city for the purpose of complimenting the ambassador and entertaining him and his suite with refreshments. “…The entertainment consisted of a profusion of poultry, confectionary, fresh fruits, preserves and jars of wine…”

 

4 November 1793, the Golden Island in the Yangtze River

“In crossing the river our attention was directed to an island situated in the middle of the river, called Chin-shan, or the Golden Mountain, which rose almost perpendicularly out of the river and is interspersed with gardens and pleasure houses. Art and nature seemed to have combined to give this spot the appearance of enchantment…” There was a beautiful legend which was transformed into a very popular Chinese opera “Legend of the White Snake”.

“The Golden Island in the Yang-tse-kiang”

Map: Tianjin to the GoldenIsland

 

7 November 1793,  Suzhou

On November 7th, the embassy reached Suzhou where the combination of boats and bustling figures stuck an immediate chord on Alexander’s mind: “At 2 pm arrived at the famous and flourishing city of Suzhou… many houses project over the canal reminding me of Canaletto’s views in Venice.” It was so crowded here that it took them 3 hours to pass before reaching the city, which perhaps left enough time for Alexander to depict everything in such detail. He had even included himself sketching (circled in blue). If you compare the small figure of himself to the whole picture you can better understand the vastness of the scene.

“On the River at Suchow”

Map: Suzhou

 

16 November 1793, Hangzhou

“Economy of Time and Labour Exemplified in a Chinese Waterman at Han-Choo-Foo”

Map: Hangzhou and departure

 

This drawing is particularly delightful to me. Alexander seems interested in how this waterman is sailing his boat: “The waterman was uncommonly expert, and it was not unusual to see a large boat entirely managed by one man, who rowed, sailed, steered and smoked his pipe at the same time.”

 

References:

《中国近代史》蒋廷黻

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qianlong_Emperor#Macartney_Embassy

http://www.china.org.cn/china/2015-01/30/content_34686142.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_Wars

https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2016/09/01/shaping-an-image-of-china-in-the-west-william-alexander-1767-1816/

 


Ruixian Zhang
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Isabella Lill: Catching the Photographer

Barthes writes “A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”, his point being that we don’t pay attention to the physicality of photographs. Because the photograph documents real life, when we look at a photograph we look past the paper or the screen on which we see it. We forget about the medium as we look at its subject matter because the medium seems so unremarkable. The Courtauld Institute’s Conway Library is a reminder of photography’s physicality. In the Conway there are thousands of boxes containing over a million photographs, each individually mounted onto a piece of brown cardboard. Most of the photographs in the archive are architectural, as the collection contains surveys of important buildings all over Europe and the Middle East taken throughout the 20th century, as well as a few boxes venturing further afield.

When leafing through this seemingly infinite collection, one photograph in particular catches the eye.

CON_B03740_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The photographs in the collection, because they are of stationary structures, seem so objective that you forget there was a photographer. It is as if the images of temple columns and ecclesiastical archways sprung into existence fully formed, as they bear no trace of the personal. The sheer number of photographs doesn’t help, as one Italian chiesa merges with the next.

The contents of the folder of the Colegiata de San Pedro in Soria, Spain, are no different: they methodically document its central cloister, right down to the ornamental details of the Corinthian columns. However, hidden in the bottom right-hand corner of the fifteenth photograph in the folder is a photographer, staring back at us. A refreshing reminder of humanity in a folder full of stone columns and arches.

As with many of the photographs in the collection, we know nothing about the photographer, apart from what he reveals to us in photo fifteen: he is a middle-aged man wearing a floppy hat and sandals. Perhaps some of the other unattributed photos in the folder are also taken by him, but we don’t know for certain. This photo is unique in the folder, and perhaps in the collection, with its purposeful inclusion of the camera. His presence is too obvious and calculated for this to be an accident, showing he is purposefully trying to document the process of taking the photograph as he is taking it. Photographs, no matter how objective they seem, are someone’s construct of reality. The photographer has chosen this subject at this angle, in these boundaries, in this lighting, and with this focus. The photographer sections off a part of reality that is worthy of documentation. In this photo we catch the photographer, or rather the photographer catches himself, in the middle of this decision process.

CON_B03075_F003_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03075_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03056_F002_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Other items in the collection call attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, but none as strikingly as the photographer’s reflection. The first two images shown above catch a different photograph’s shadow, but probably only as the result of unfortunate lighting or an inexperienced photographer.

The third photo contains a motion blur of someone walking across a church, again, probably due to unlucky timing. And yet, although none of these examples are as visually striking, they all reaffirm the same feeling that the photographer’s reflection invokes: a disconcerting reminder that the image’s in these photographs aren’t completely real. The structures that the photographers try to document don’t exist in perfectly still isolation, although most of the photos present them that way. For us to see them in a photograph requires human interaction and human subjectivity.

From the Witt Library: Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

From the Witt Library: Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Alongside the Conway Library is the Courtauld’s Witt Library, an archive of photos of the work of significant artists throughout time. The paintings above, namely Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, bear a resemblance to our original photograph. Velazquez’s painting clearly includes the painter mid-process. Van Eyck’s is subtler, as it includes the painter in a reflection in a small mirror right at the back of the painting, very reminiscent of our mystery photographer. However, although these paintings arguably show more skill that the photograph, the photograph is still more uncanny, and still more interesting, at least to me.

We know a painting isn’t real when we look at it, but we can easily forget that photographs aren’t. Susan Sontag says, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, but our surreptitious photograph reveals that the photographer both constructs and discloses.

 


Isabella Lill
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Looking Through Different Laws of Landscape

 

The Courtauld’s Witt Library is a large collection of photographs, reproductions and cuttings of paintings, drawings and engravings of Western Art from c1200 to the present day. Within its 19 thousand boxes sit just over 2.15 million images depicting many diverse themes and subjects. The complete archive of 160,000 black and white prints and over 40,000 negatives by architectural and landscape photographer Anthony F. Kersting was bequeathed to the Courtauld’s Conway Library on his death in 2008.

As a Digitisation and Digital Media Intern, I decided to take a look at these contrasting and yet extensive collections to discover how landscape was, and still is, a theme within creative expression. From the work of Édouard Manet, Federico Barocci through to the many unpublished photographs taken by Anthony Kersting we see a reflection of the spirit of nature that continues to creatively saunter through human history.

Nature seems to have its own distinctive way of projecting different subject matters and visual habitats. Before the 17th century, the concept of landscape was limited to the different narratives of historical, religious and folkloric fields. However, today landscape has become one of the ruling themes within the bounds of artistic expression and documentation. A large number of great artists use landscape as a form of artistic authority; an impression to record the different impacts we have on our grounds, territory and the scope of the earth.

To start off this reflection on the crowning charm of nature’s picturesque scenery, I chose Federico Barocci’s simple yet spiritual approach towards landscape. During his lifetime Barocci was a celebrated figure of the Italian Renaissance, due in part to a notable commission received in his early 20s to create frescos at the Vatican.

 

His sketches, which I discovered in the Witt Library, include a delicate study of trees and space showing his respect for nature, in what I consider to be an ethereal and docile interpretation. His use of chalk typifies the ‘Italian light’ that many artists around that time idealised.

Moving on from the Italian Renaissance, I explored the French School of the Witt Library, specifically the word of Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. Although many would consider Manet to be a realist painter, there is a crucial moment in which he evolved into an Impressionist, a style celebrated by fairly small, yet undisguised brush strokes, clear composition, and the study of light in its adaptable qualities. The two paintings depicted here give a recognisable sense of movement as a crucial abstract of experience, human realisation and demeanour towards the flora and fauna of consciousness.

 

Finally, nothing describes the work of architectural and landscape photographer Anthony Kersting more than saying that I find it very difficult to be around all the archived photographs, which are shelved right behind my office chair (lucky me!) in their respective boxes, without wishing I could take one home! I chose his photographs not only for his sense of narrative, which you can easily pick up from his extensive travels around the world, but for the magnificent way in which he captured the many regions and seasons that he journeyed through and experienced. From sea stretches in Mahabalipuram in India to the Mountainous plains of Jordan, Kersting’s talent in photographing landscape is evident. His sharpness in photographing the most minute detail of space is immaculate. This was particularly evident in one of the photographs I luckily stumbled upon, of the Gulf of Aqaba seen from the Transjordan mountains to the East. Kersting perfectly instils this hazy and yet earthly view of the desert landscape.

 

 

 

 

The subjectivity and artistic tendencies of these three very different charcoal sketches, paintings, and photographs are clearly evident. However, as time drifts away, nothing can take away the essence of nature that is willing to adjust towards maybe a whit of artistic creativity and interpretation. These three artists, which I am fortunate enough to write about in a non-critical nor comparative approach, give us reason to celebrate their life and genius, for their remarkable ways of catching the embodiment of the true nature of landscape in its different thematic guises.

 


Alia Ahmad
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Intern

Jane Macintyre on meeting HRH The Princess Royal

My name is Jane Macintyre. I am one of the volunteers working on the Courtauld Connects digitisation project at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

On the afternoon of 12th June, HRH The Princess Royal visited both The Courtauld Gallery and the Institute in her role as Chancellor of the University of London. Prior to the event, she had expressed an interest in meeting the digitisation team – Tom, Matthew, Faye and Sarah – plus one of the volunteers. About five weeks before the visit a ballot determined, as luck would have it, that the volunteer would be me. I was bursting to tell everyone but had been sworn to secrecy.

It turned out that HRH wouldn’t be able to visit the basement studio or library space, but the prints and drawings room on the first floor of the building substituted as a suitable venue where we could present images. Tom and Matthew had selected a small spread of Conway mounts, Laib photos and Anthony Kersting’s images and ledger books. They took care to choose some particularly relevant images such as the only photograph in the collection of the Princess’s home, Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, and some Olympics venues such as the Athens Arena from 1896, the first Olympics of modern times. Faye set up the camera and connected it to her laptop to mimic the studio facility.

HRH The Princess Royal meeting the Digital Media Team. Photo courtesy of Jim Winslet.

Security on the day was tight. At 2.15pm everyone was summoned to the foyer to receive our credentials and a final briefing, then we took our places in the prints room where we awaited a last security sweep before HRH arrived. It seemed like a long time: excitement mounted.

Finally, the Princess came into the prints room accompanied by the Director of The Courtauld, Professor Deborah Swallow. The Princess, clearly well-informed and interested, was first introduced to the prints and drawings team, and after perusing some of the drawings, came over to talk to the digital team. Tom summarised what the project was about, and presented Matt, Faye, Sarah and myself (in strict sequence). The Princess asked me to explain the role of the volunteers and then Tom showed her the selected array of photographs, which led to a discussion on Gatcombe Park and the changes that had been made to it since the photograph was taken in 1945. She also picked up on the photograph of the Athens Olympics, before moving on to the next part of her visit, the launch the Founders’ Circle, a new society to recognise major benefactors to The Courtauld.

So five weeks of anticipation was over in a few minutes. We definitely rose to the occasion and did a good job of explaining the project. Never having met royalty before, I was struck by the level of organisation, coordination and sheer choreography required to achieve a smooth and effective visit.