Chinese Opium War Watercolours - A Rare and Profoundly Important Album

In many ways, this album of thirty-six watercolour paintings by an unknown Chinese – almost certainly Cantonese - artist encapsulates the gradual but fundamental shift in the nature of international relations with China consequent upon the First Opium War. Half the paintings in the album depict the old trading relationship before the War. 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.

All save one of the thirty-six paintings relates to the Canton/Guangzhou area of Guangdong.  The principal and most interesting painting in the album depicts Lin’s “capture and trial” of Captain Charles Elliot, RN, the British Chief Superintendent of Trade, albeit 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, then and to this day.

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.

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 Canton connection is further strengthened by the texts which appear on some of the paintings some of which display signs of being Cantonese in grammar and composition. Moreover, the album’s provenance is from Canton.  The one watercolour which is an 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.

For whom were such pictures intended?  Whilst this particular set, judging by its provenance may have been assembled for a western purchaser, it would seem that these paintings with their often fictitious rendering of events, 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. Paintings such as those in the album could be copied onto wood-blocks of different sizes 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. 

Whilst there are no signs that any paintings are missing from this album, 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.

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.



Rare Chinese Opium War Watercolour Album.

36 watercolours 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.

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.

AU$95,000 (Approx. HK$565250)
[Stock ID 155794]