ALEXANDER, William (1767-1816)
[View of the Suburbs of a Chinese City]
[England: circa 1796]. Pen and ink and watercolour, sheet size: 11 1/8 x 17 3/8 inches, signed W. Alexander on the rock at the lower right, on wove paper watermarked J. Whatman, inscribed "Suburbs of Pekin" in pencil on verso.
An original watercolour by the artist on Macartney's Embassy to China.
William Alexander was a student at the Royal Academy from 1784, and was aged 25 or 26 when he was taken on as Junior Draughtsman in the entourage of Lord McCartney, during the latter's embassy to China in 1792. George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney (1737-1806) was dispatched to Beijing in 1792 traveling via Madeira, Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, the Cape of Good Hope and Indonesia. He was accompanied by George Staunton, and a retinue of suitably impressive size, including Staunton's 11-year-old son who was nominally the ambassador's page. The embassy, the first such to China, had two objectives: the first to register with the Emperor British displeasure at the treatment that the British merchants were receiving from the Chinese, the second to gain permission for a British minister to be resident in China. The first objective was achieved, the second was not. Macartney was twice granted an audience with the Emperor and in December 1793 he was sumptuously entertained by the Chinese viceroy in Canton, and returned to England via Macao and St. Helena, arriving in September 1794.
Alexander's drawings would form the basis for the illustrations in the official account written by Staunton. During the expedition, Alexander made numerous sketches, many of which survive in three albums located in the India Office Library collection of the British Library (WD959-961). Following his return to England in 1794, Alexander began making watercolours based on his sketches, both for use as the illustrations in Staunton's account, but also as a means of supporting himself.
"Although it was not the unusual practice to engage artists on explorative voyages ... the case for obtaining a full and reliable picture of China was of more than usual importance ... Alexander must have realized that he would have every chance of capitalizing on his experiences on his return home. In the event he spent at least seven years reworking his China sketches to produce a large body of finished watercolours and printed illustrations" (Legioux).
Most surviving watercolours by Alexander which depict scenes from the Embassy show small groupings of figures or machinery, making the present landscape view particularly desirable. This watercolour is the basis for plate 38 in Staunton's atlas, and the two images are quite similar with only minor differences (e.g. placement of birds in the sky). The image is among the most vibrant of those published in the atlas, showing a lively river scene observed by Alexander as the Embassy's barges passed slowly along the river. On the river two fishing vessels in the foreground are at work, while a man with a net affixed to a pole works off a nearby rock. A group of figures in the lower right foreground include a seated man, with two attendants nearby, one holding a staff and the other smoking; to their left is a woman holding a child's hand, with an older man holding a basket next to them. In the background are numerous Chinese building, including a tall pagoda. A bridge is seen in the background under which boats pass, and numerous figures crowd both sides of the shore, no doubt brought out to see the Embassy's passage on the river. See Legioux, plate 52 for another version of this watercolour in the National Gallery of Ireland. The present image more closely follows the printed plate than the watercolour in the National Gallery collection, based on the angle of the bridge in the background. Legioux cites a watercolour with The Leger Galleries, bought at Christie's London 5 June 1973, which is perhaps the same as the present example.
Alexander's original watercolours project the evident wonder and natural curiosity about this new world, and it is in this form that his innate sense of composition truly comes to the fore. Legioux quotes from an old plaque in Boxley Church near the village where Alexander was born: "He accompanied the Embassy to China in 1792 and by the power of his pencil introduced into Europe a better knowledge of the habits and manners of China than had before been attained. That he was rich in the feelings and knowledge of his art his works evince."
Francis Wood, "Closely Observed China: From William Alexander's Sketches to his Published Work" in the British Library Journal (1998), pp. 98-121; S. Legioux, Image of China: William Alexander , 1980.