Drawing Nature: Botanical and Zoological Illustrations in Canton from the Late Eighteenth through the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Project: Research

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This project intends to examine a unique genre of Western paintings produced inCanton (Guangzhou) from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. It is, namely, the botanical and zoological illustrations conducted by a few Chinese craftsmen under the direction of a number of British traders and captains who were amateur naturalists. Natural history drawings combine interests in art and nature and create unique aesthetic experiences. On the one hand, they require accuracy and realism which are theoretically universal, on the other they are done by craftsmen or artists who have their own artistic tradition and training. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a boom in the development of natural science in Europe. In the Age of Enlightenment, familiarity with both literary classics and natural sciences was a hallmark of an educated person. Practicing natural history drawings allowed European literary men to combine the two interests together. It is under such circumstances that the British East India Company traders and captains who conducted China trade in Canton, the only port at which Sino-foreign trade was sanctioned between 1757 and 1842, used their spare time to study native plants and animals during their stay in Macau and the suburban area of Canton. As a supplement to their amateur scientific studies, they employed local craftsmen to produce natural history illustrations.This is how thousands of outstanding natural history drawings done by Chinese craftsmen came to form part of the collection of the Natural History Museum, the Kew Garden, the Horticultural Society in London, and some other public and private hands in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. They are important materials for studying how Western science and Chinese art could have been blended in the hands of ordinary craftsmen. These craftsmen were most likely also involved in the production of other types of export arts. They are almost unknown in Chinese art history, and yet they might have left a long-lasting impact on practical art and design which extended to the post-Opium War days. These collections are hitherto largely overlooked. A systematic analysis of these pictures substantiated with both Western and Chinese textual materials will be beneficial not only to appreciating this particular genre of art, but also to further understanding Sino-foreign cultural exchanges among ordinary people before the mid-nineteenth century, allowing us to re-examine the late imperial history of China againsta wider global backdrop in a new light.


Project number9042451
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1730/11/21

    Research areas

  • natural history illustrations , export art , Canton , England , China