Picturing China: William Alexander and the visual language of chinoiserie.

Author:Sloboda, Stacey


At the 1796 Royal Academy exhibition, Henry Edridge exhibited a portrait of his friend and fellow watercolourist William Alexander (1767-1816) that announced a new visual engagement with Chinese culture by British artists (Pl 1). Having recently returned from a two-year journey to Peking as a draftsman on the Macartney Embassy, Alexander was the first British artist to travel through inland China to reside at the imperial court. He produced thousands of sketches on the journey, which he translated into watercolours and engravings of Chinese landscape and culture for much of the rest of his artistic career, including four watercolours of Chinese landscapes exhibited at the 1796 Royal Academy show. The Macarmey Embassy sought to establish a new era of British diplomatic relations directly with the Qing court. Its inability to achieve that goal and secure British economic concessions resulted in a new era of British imperial and military engagement in China that culminated in the Opium Wars of the 19th century and the formal annexation of Hong Kong. (1) Any sense of diplomatic failure is absent from Edridge's confident portrait, which depicts Alexander seated upon a mossy outcrop, his pencil and paper at the ready. A two-storeyed Chinese temple, with tiny bells hanging from its upswept tiled eaves, stands behind him. In the lower right corner, a Chinese junk sails towards an arched bridge, beyond which a pagoda stands on a hill in the distance. These carefully rendered ornaments substantiated the popular contemporary ideal of transparent vision, gained from the unobstructed experience of a British artist-traveller venturing within a legible foreign landscape. (2) Within the space of the portrait, the temple, pagoda and junk are linked with the image of Alexander himself, conflating the signs of Chinese authenticity with the authority of their creator.


When Lord Macartney hired Alexander to accompany the first British embassy to the Qing court at Peking he was an untested artist who had only recently graduated from the Royal Academy. (3) Unlike the journeys throughout the 18th century made by Europeans aboard East India Company ships that were limited to the shores of Canton, once in China members of the embassy travelled inland as the first British visitors to reside at the court at Peking. While the journey spanned two years, the embassy spent less than three months in the interior of China. Nevertheless, Alexander's packed sketchbooks and detailed diary suggest that he was eager to capitalize on his experience and establish a career as the only English artist capable of producing documentary images of China. (4) Along with 16 watercolours and sketches of Chinese subjects exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1795 and 1800, he published engravings based on those watercolours in textual accounts of the voyage written by members of the embassy, and later compiled those engravings and created new ones in his own books published in the early part of the 19th century. (5) These prints and their accompanying texts were also widely circulated in the form of reprinted volumes, translated editions, and plagiarized fragments, and were included in numerous studies of Chinese culture, as documentary images of Chinese culture throughout the 19th century. (6) Alexander's images were also used by early 19th-century designers at the Wedgwood factory and by Frederick Crace in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. (7)

Like William Chambers, whose significantly less authoritative 18th-century treatises on the jardin anglo-chinois claimed to put an end to chinoiserie extravagancies through documentary evidence, Alexander's works seemed to promise pictures of all aspects of Chinese culture to a British public eager for authentic Chinese imagery. (8) In practice, however, he did so by emphasizing recognizable visual signs already associated with China through the language of chinoiserie, an earlier 18th-century European decorative style that fictionalized the idea and the image of China. The use of chinoiserie icons is evident in such works as A View in the Gardens of the Imperial Palace at Pekin, which was probably one of the four Chinese landscapes exhibited by Alexander at the Royal Academy in 1796 (Pl 3). Pagodas and temples cover the hilly garden landscape, mandarins under parasols sail past the walls of the garden in curious and quaint boats, industrious boatmen navigate the placid shores of the river for their passive female passengers. These signs would have been familiar to audiences at the Royal Academy from the teapots, japanned furniture, and garden ornaments that many would have had in their own houses and gardens (Pl 2). Both together and individually, they connoted a recognizable idea of 'China', a place at once familiar and exotic. View in the Gardens condenses specific Chinese monuments together with stock images of river scenes and generic building types drawn from Alexander's own sketchbooks from the journey. The focal point of the image is the White Dagoba, erected in 1651 to commemorate the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Peking. This monument sits atop an artificial island on the Pei Hai, the northern lake of the Imperial City that, in reality, lies somewhat lower than the high peak represented in Alexander's image. The surrounding hills, absent from the relatively flat area around the Imperial City, are imported from sketches Alexander made of the hills surrounding Yuanming Yuan, the 'Summer Palace' northwest of Peking. (9) Likewise, the pagoda to the left of the dagoba is a representation of the Pagoda of the Jade Fountain located on the shores of Kunming Lake, also at Yuanming Yuan. (10) In compressing these two notable, yet spatially unrelated, Peking monuments into a single image, and heaping further unidentified pavilions and temples onto the hills below, Alexander's image reduces the Chinese landscape into a spectacle of chinoiserie signs.

The use of chinoiserie in View in the Gardens undermines the authenticity that the apparently first-hand image claimed. The massing of temples, pagodas and monuments upon a single hill and crowding the lake with junks is a strategy of visual repetition of iconic imagery used by Alexander to shore up his claim to authenticity. Works such as this participated in a mode of representation and knowledge production in which stereotyped images provide a vehicle for signifying authenticity. Homi K Bhabha has theorized stereotype as the primary discursive strategy of colonial discourse, which 'vacillates between what is always "in place", already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated.' (11) Alexander's spectacle of Chinese signs was rendered authoritative through the insistent repetition of the extant language of chinoiserie.

Investigating Alexander's approach to representing foreign culture, this article seeks to explain how his experience in China, while unprecedented for an English artist, was characterized not by unmediated visual access to an authentic Chinese culture, as his exhibited and published images seem to claim, but rather by confinement and the repetition of pre-established visual signs. While contemporary aesthetic and political philosophy stressed the importance of empirical vision and 'correct delineation' of distant lands, Alexander's images clearly indicate that the imaginative tropes of chinoiserie were difficult to abandon in the face of actual topography. (12) Although his watercolours and engravings have most often been interpreted as examples an authoritative master gaze on an exotic Chinese culture, comparing Alexander's private sketches and the other visual resources on which he drew to his finished public works reveals the troubled nature of a simultaneous claim to authenticity and exoticism.

Imperial Imagery and the Idea of Authenticity

The idea that the world could be fully apprehended through the senses was a key feature of Enlightenment and imperialist thought. (13) Pictorial representation was an important aspect of 18th-century texts and debates on the Orient, which sought to substantiate knowledge through imagery that was once transparent and picturesque. Alexander's images document Chinese life and culture in a way intended to make that culture knowable and manageable. His work emerged in the context of contemporary British landscape painters such as William Hodges, John Webber, and Thomas and William Daniell, all of whom went abroad in search of patronage and subject-matter and who had established more or less lucrative careers producing exotic images for engraving and publication in England by the end of the 18th century. The task of these artists was akin to that of the orientalist scholar in an Enlightenment project of gathering, categorizing, and translating foreign culture into something legible to a European audience. Unlike other contemporary British travel artists, however, Alexander saw relatively little of China during his short voyage. With few new landscapes to document, he was placed in the unenviable position of creating a visual record of his journey that would offer British audiences a more detailed picture of China while at the same time conforming to their expectations of exoticism. (14) Alexander attempted a visual translation of Chinese culture through reference to chinoiserie and through his own training as a landscape artist practised in the language of the picturesque. This use of visual signs calls attention to Alexander's participation within an Enlightenment project of knowledge production attained and disseminated through...

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