From 1792-94 the artist William Alexander was employed as draughtsman on the first British envoy to China. This was a landmark expedition with a purpose of negotiating more favourable terms of trade for Britain in the Far East. The views displayed here show the Great Wall of China (WD 961, f.60) and a scene on the Yellow River (Maps 8.TAB.C.8.).
Alexander never actually saw the Great Wall of China as he was in Peking (Beijing) when the ambassadorial party visited the colossal fortifications. The artist worked from sketches, notes and verbal accounts by other members of the delegation to picture what he himself had missed. Not seeing the Great Wall was particularly disappointing for Alexander who wrote in his diary that ‘to have been within 50 miles of that stupendous monument of human labour…and not to have seen that which might have been the boast of a man’s grandson, as Dr Johnson has said, I have to regret forever’ (British Library Add MS 35174, f.25.). This sketch and others were worked up into finished watercolours and published in Sir George Staunton’s (1737-1801) account of the Embassy.
The second view shows the Yellow River. Alexander signed and inscribed the verso of the drawing with the note ‘'Entrance into the Yellow River taken at the place where we [the envoy] halted. Nov.r 1793 at 8 am'. He pictures the waterway at a busy junction bustling with activity. Boats and barges ply the river, each flying colourful ensigns and flags. Traditional Chinese junks can be seen navigating the waters in the distance. Tents, stalls and other buildings dot the banks of both sides where locals can be seen going about their daily tasks.