ALEXANDER, William (1767-1816)
Costume of China, illustrated in forty-eight coloured engravings
London: published by William Miller, 1805 [pre-publication watermarks, tissue guards dated '1801']. Large folio. (22 7/8 x 17 inches). Title and text on quarto sheets (11 1/2 x 9 inches), each window-mounted to size. Dedication and plates printed on full-size sheets of wove paper: soft-ground etched dedication with aquatint printed in dark brown with bistre wash applied by hand, 48 hand-coloured soft-ground etched plates with aquatint printed in brown, by William Alexander. Extra-illustrated with a large engraved portrait of Emperor Qianlong, dated 1795, with aquatint printed in colours and finished by hand, by Mariano Bovi.
Contemporary red half morocco over red/orange glazed paper-covered boards, the covers with square red morocco outer corners elaborately tooled in gilt with numerous small tools and pointillé work, expertly rebacked to style with the spine in eight compartments with double raised bands, the bands emphasized with fillets and roll tools, lettered in the second and third compartments, the others with elaborate overall repeat design made up from various small tools and echoing the design on the covers, gilt turn-ins, red/orange glazed endpapers, gilt edges
A unique copy from the library of 'the richest heiress in England', possibly coloured by the artist
This copy has a pencilled note that it was from the library Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, and it is possible that it was originally assembled for Baroness Burdett-Coutts' grandfather, the banker Thomas Coutts (1735-1822). Internal evidence shows that it was printed and assembled at the same time as the original 'normal-sized' edition was published. The quality of the colouring is extraordinary, and at least three of the plates include pencilled additions: these two facts suggest that these plates were coloured either by Alexander himself, or, by an exceptional colourist working with access to the original watercolours. The fact that the plates were especially printed on very large format paper demonstrates that this particular copy was conceived as a special copy from the start. Proving William Alexander's direct involvement is not possible, but circumstantial evidence suggests that was likely. Abbey owned what he considered to be Alexander's own copy - of normal size, but with the plates in two states, and stubs where the original watercolours used to be. 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. The incompetence of Alexander's nominal superior meant that all of the official drawings of the expedition were his work. A number of them were used to produce uncoloured plates for Staunton's official account of the journey, but, it is in his original watercolours and works with high quality colouring that Alexander's evident wonder and natural curiosity about this new world, and his innate sense of composition all come to the fore. The spontaneity of his images are beautifully enhanced in the present work by the flowing, deft touches of the hand-colouring: these plates rank amongst the finest hand-coloured aquatints that we have ever seen.
Abbey Travel II,534; Brunet II,324; Colas 74; Cordier 1858-9; cf. Lipperheide Lf20 (1814 edition); Lowndes I,p.530; Martin Hardie p.151; Prideaux pp.250 & 317; Tooley 18; Vinet 2359.