“The Nine-Stage Pagoda at Whampoa Anchorage”
Oil on canvas
114 x 76 cm.
This fine oil, painted by an anonymous yet accomplished Chinese artisan circa 1830-50 for the Western export trade, depicts the elegant nine-stage pagoda on Whampoa Island on Pearl River with Dane’s Island behind the viewer. Anchored offshore is a sampan, a small Chinese vessel generally used for fishing; to its right is a Chinese junk with its familiar and majestic painting of a crane on its stern, other vessels include galleys as well as a fighting junk in the foreground with its long low shape adapted for rowing. It was here and in the deeper waters of the river that larger European trading vessels involved in the China trade were required to drop anchor. Chinese junks and other small vessels then came along side and shipments of goods were unloaded. From there captains and supercargoes made their way by small launch from the Whampoa Anchorage to the European hongs or warehouses at Canton, some ten miles upriver.
Among the best-known nineteenth century images of the Whampoa Pagoda is a lithograph by William Heine, published 1856 illustrating the expedition of an American Squadron to Japan and the China Seas led by Commodore Matthew Perry, 1852-54. Perry noted, “The pagoda here is a marked object, and however it may be venerated by the Chinese, on religious grounds, is no less regarded for its usefulness as a land mark by foreign vessels for they steer and anchor by its bearings.”
Trade wares returning from Canton to the West included porcelain and other pottery, tea and silk as well as fans, lacquer goods and China trade paintings. These along with silks were also among the most popular and prized gifts or souvenirs to take home. Some such as the present work were executed in oil on canvas, while others were painted on glass and mirrors or worked in gouache and watercolour on paper. Scenes along the Pearl River came to be a popular subject though little attention has been given to the design sources or the artists themselves, most of whom were native artisans working in environs of Canton. The present scene, with variations to the sailing vessels was also executed in gouache, of which a small example (16.5 x 22.5 cm.) recently appeared on the market and was attributed to Tingqua (Guan Lianchang, b. circa 1809 fl. 1840-70). Tingqua and his studio at China Street, Guangzhou worked almost exclusively in watercolour and gouache; thus while the subject matter is typical of his work the style and medium is not. In contrast Tingqua’s brother Lamqua (Guan Qiaochang, 1801-60) worked predominantly in oil and came to be the leading export artist of his generation and like contemporaries in this field painted in the Western tradition for the Western market.