William Alexander, English, 1767-1816
Title: The Suburbs of a Chinese City
Date: 1795
Medium: Graphite and watercolour on paper
31.3 x 45.2 cm
Signed: lower left: Wm Alexander delt.
Credit Line: Presented, Mr W.M. Smith, 1872
Object Number: NGI.2001
DescriptionWilliam Alexander, who studied drawing at the Royal Academy Schools in London, was appointed junior draughtsman to Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in 1792. This was Britain’s first diplomatic mission to Imperial China, and Alexander’s drawings of the expedition were engraved and published in George Staunton’s official record, An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797). Alexander made hundreds of sketches ‘in the field’, many of which were worked up into finished watercolour compositions following his return to England. These meticulous, highly detailed drawings in graphite and tinted wash offered the British public a vision of ordinary Chinese life that was both vivid and up-to-date. The entourage travelled by barge and Alexander’s views of waterside life included paddy fields, graveyards, buildings, bridges and locks. The views are enlivened by the people and curly-tailed dogs who gather to watch the foreigners as they proceed through the countryside. Alexander’s closely observed studies of Chinese dress and hairstyles were incorporated into a book published in 1805, The Costume of China. In 1808 Alexander was appointed assistant librarian and first Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

March 2016

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