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.
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.
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).
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…”
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.
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
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.
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 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”.
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.
16 November 1793, Hangzhou
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.”
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Placement