Paintings of the China Trade: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection of Historic Paintings, by Patrick Conner
5 October 2013 — Trade with China gained momentum during the late 18th century, blossoming in the next as the potential of huge profits increasingly became reality. This trade—intended for an affluent clientele demanding exotic and luxury goods—consisted not only of tea, silk and ceramics, but also paintings. These “export paintings” were made-to-order in a Western style; their subject matter focused on the world of trade itself, reflecting the tastes and outlook of the merchants who became the main clients.
A case in point is the East India Marine Society, an organization of captains and supercargoes from Salem, Massachusetts who from 1799 set about collecting items from their travels for public exhibition. The endeavors of these enlightened gentlemen formed the base of what became the Peabody Essex Museum, which today houses the most important public collection of Asian export art.
It has been suggested that the paintings of the China Trade have historical significance rather than artistic merit. Regardless of any other consideration, these paintings were meant to serve as a record, as a memento of a place: China. This is why they continue to fascinate us.
Indeed, it is impossible to separate the artistic from the historical value of these works, and this is the main lesson imparted by the Sze Yuan Tang collection, the scholarly Chinese title adopted for Anthony J. Hardy’s collection. A selection of its most representative works—in 178 plates—are now presented in the book Paintings of the China Trade: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection of Historic Paintings by Patrick Conner. Some of these paintings have already been exhibited in Hong Kong and London and published in the accompanying catalogues, but the collection has substantially grown since and the current catalogue seems to mark its culmination. This collection is as comprehensive as it is outstanding, and is perhaps the most important in private hands.
The collection spans a long period from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century. It serves therefore as a record of the Old Canton system, when this city held the monopoly of foreign trade while the Western countries operated under different forms of patronage or public stock East India companies, until the later emergence of truly private companies. By the mere depiction of the sites, the paintings mark the periods before and after the Opium Wars—although they do not depict the fighting itself—and show the new ports opened for trade after the Treaty of Nanjing.
The breadth of the themes covered in this collection is very wide. Most paintings of this genre are landscapes and seascapes, in particular port scenes.These subjects make up the bulk of this collection too: Western factories with their flags fluttering at the Canton waterfront, the Whampoa anchorage, the Bocca Tigris straits, the Shamian embankment, Hong Kong and the new ports along the coast and further inland on the Yangtze; the painstaking depiction of the widest array of vessels, Chinese junks and sampans, the pleasure boats known as flower-boats, Western clippers and the first steamships; and also portraits and Chinese scenes. They also include depictions of historic incidentssuch as the trial of unruly Western sailors at Canton and the reception of Lord Macartney by the Viceroy of Canton.
The majority of the artists were anonymous craftsmen but, remarkably, the collection contains representative works by all the famous Chinese painters and schools—Spoilum, Lamqua, Namcheong, Chow Kwa. It is customary to include in the China Trade genre Western painters visiting or residing in China. Theseworked with a freer and more personal style. The collection includes the most prominent, such as George Chinnery, William Alexander and Auguste Borget, and some distinguished amateurs.
One plate in particular tells us much about the production of most of these paintings. It depicts the Cantonese painter Tingqua’s studio or a “generic export artist’s studio”, as the author Patrick Conner puts it. Painters are sitting at their desks, in a row, with no apparent hierarchy, resembling a production line. They are painting on a table instead of an easel and using the brush vertically in the Chinese manner. But their works would be oils on canvas rather than ink on paper. Hanging on the walls are many framed pictures of marine views and portraits: the stock for sale.
One might expect the result of such activities, surely copying, to be of nogreat consequence. But the ability of these craftsmen was proverbial. And alongside these anonymous painters, there emerged artists of great talent, a result even more remarkable considering that they painted in the Western mannerwhile being detached from the cultural world that nurtured this art.
It remains something of a mystery where and how these painters learned their craft. To be sure, in the early 17th-century the Jesuits had introduced paintings and published prints showing the Western concepts of chiaroscuro and perspective. More study remains on the role of Macau, whose Iberian churches were filled with paintings and frescoes, some of great merit, and where Chinese catechumens would have been apprentices in the Western manner since very early times. But the relation between the painters of those religious circles and the painters of the China Trade has not yet been established. Finally, at the height of this genre, in the second quarter of 19th century, it is certain that Lamqua and his followers were influenced by the most gifted Western painter ever to have lived in China, actually in Macau: the English maverick George Chinnery—this collection holding some of his more evocative works.
It seems likely, after all, that Western painting techniques were transferred in the usual course of trade, as still happens today, and as can be overheard when walking through the stands at the latest Canton Fair. Western traders would present a master sample and ask the Chinese counterpart: Can you copy this?Can you do something similar? The reference works would surely come from similar studios in the West, lesser painters that would never reach prominence hiding under a generic “school” name.
In an exceptional case, copies were made of a true masterpiece. The celebrated portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart was reproduced numerous times in the Chinese workshops. Stuart took legal action against Captain John Sword to prevent him selling such copies. Although Stuart won the case, the copies spread. This collection holds a competent copy of this portrait in the form of a reverse-glass painting.
Nevertheless, whatever the sources or influences, a new style was born.The Anthony J. Hardy’s collection brings an opportunity to see the highest possible standards against which we can compare other works.
One painting early in the book summarizes the business that was at the root of this genre. It depicts the interior of a tea warehouse, a Chinese manager and his Western counterpart signing a document at a table, the labourers going about their different jobs and finally loading the goods in a sampan.
Two portraits stand out as highlights. One is of an elegant Chinese woman in red with a metal leaf background, her gaze shrouded in mystery, painted by an anonymous Chinese artist—Patrick Conner highlights this background as an innovation possibly inspired by a Greek icon. The other is by a major Cantonese artist, Lamqua: the portrait of the hong merchant Howqua wrapped in his Mandarin regalia. Howqua was one of the most powerful intermediaries in the Canton trade, immensely wealthy and respected by all sides. His face emaciated, with reddish eye bags, he looks at the same time tired and alert, not unlike an opium smoker.
This collection introduces less well-known Western artists too, including two small gems: a serene marine landscape at sunset, by Max Schroeder-Greifswald, and a luminous watercolour of a boat crossing under a temple bridge, by 20th-century painter Oliver Bedford.
This volume is an essential contribution for a better understanding of this unique genre. Several pictures described in the catalogue are on display at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, on loan or bequeathed by Anthony J. Hardy.
The paintings of the China Trade need decoding: the amount of detail they can reveal can be surprising. Here we are masterfully guided by Patrick Conner, who has written the introduction and the explanatory notes to the plates. Conner is the foremost specialist in the field of China Trade paintings. He is also the author of George Chinnery, 1774-1852: Artist of India and the China Coast, the definitive book on this painter.
Juan José Morales is a Spanish lawyer and management consultant who writes for the Spanish magazine Compromiso Empresarial. A former President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, he has a Master of International and Public Affairs from Hong Kong University and has also studied international relations at Peking University (Beida).
Paintings of the China Trade: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection of Historic Paintings, Patrick Conner (Hong Kong Maritime Museum, June 2012)
© 2013 The Asian Review of Books.