IMAGES OF CHINA 1665–1865 - November 2013
Altfield Gallery announces an exhibition of important engravings depicting China from European artists during the period 1665 to 1850. During this period of time, as China slowly opened up to trade with the Western nations, several important ambassadorial missions were undertaken by the English, French, Dutch who visited the Emperor and his court in Beijing in an effort to develop trading relationships between their countries.
Fine artists were usually part of the team who travelled on these long and often dangerous voyages which took many years. The paintings and sketches produced by these early travelers, in a time prior to photography, gave the outside world the first realistic and truly observed images of China's scenery, architecture and the way of life of ordinary people. They fueled a craze for chinoiserie and created an enormous interest in the mysterious East.
The earliest of the images on display were produced in 1665, in Holland and are based on images from a voyage by Johan Nieuhof who famously undertook a trip of 2,400 km up through the waterways and grand canals from Canton to Beijing in 1655-57. These wonderful copperplate engravings of the towns along the waterways are exceptional records of the boats and architecture of the time, but were also romanticized adding to the mythical images of China as a land of clouds and mountains and chinoiserie delights.
Images from another historic voyage undertaken by Lord Macartney to visit the Emperor in 1796, were produced in 1796 and based on the sketches of the artist William Alexander. Employed as a draughtsman on the voyage he sketched the people and scenes of Beijing, as well as views of life along the waterways of China as they travelled. These scenes show a close attention to detail and are affectionately drawn sketches of people going about their daily life, and are an extraordinarily accurate record of the time. These images were amongst the most influential in 18th century Europe, and were used as models by many other artists of the day.
Other interesting images in the exhibition include a set of four stunning lithograph views relating to Macau, from 1833, after an1830 visit by the French navigator Cyrille Laplace. Copper-plate images from 1808 by Chretien de Guignes who accompanied a Dutch mission to Beijing in 1794-5 are also on show, along with hand-coloured steel-plate engravings of Hong Kong, Macau, Canton and Beijing produced by Thomas Allom in 1843, as well as panoramic wood-block prints of the cities of Hong Kong and Macau from the 1860's.
A collection of some of the most iconic and decorative early maps of the region will also be on display. Including works by Ortelius - showing the first individual map of China to be included in a European atlas, Chinae c. 1590.
In a time before photography and the easy movement of people, these printed images were very important ways for people to learn about other places and cultures, and along with great artistic creativity, they were also at the cutting edge of the technology of their time, and indicated the current knowledge about the areas.