Ozias Humphry, Pagoda at Lucknow taken from Mr Wombwell’s house, 13 March 1786. British Library Add. MS 15962, f.19

Travellers abroad

Ann Payne explores British Library drawings by professional and amateur artists working abroad, on military campaigns, diplomatic missions and voyages of discovery.

In making drawings of the places they have visited, Britons abroad have not been different people from Britons at home. Their subjects might be more unfamiliar and exotic: all the more reason, then, to bring home convincing pictorial records of their discoveries. Wherever military adventures, the expansion of trade and empire, overseas exploration or mere tours of pleasure have taken them, a sketchbook has regularly been a necessary item of baggage.

When HMS Woolwich sailed for the Mediterranean in 1682 she had on board as ‘Midshipman Extraordinary’ Edmund Dummer, later to become Surveyor to the Navy. His report on his two-year expedition (‘by way of a journal’) not only includes descriptions and ingenious paper models of foreign vessels but is also illustrated with over 100 large-scale composite plans and views of foreign cities, towns, harbour forts and arsenals – military and naval intelligence about European rivals of enormous value to the Admiralty planners who had sent him.

View of Marseille

Edmund Dummer, View of Marseille, from ‘A Voyage into the Mediterranean seas’, 1685. British Library King’s MS 40, ff.59v-60.

Edmund Dummer was the midshipman-extraordinary on a voyage to the Mediterranean of 1682; this view of Marseille was created from his notes and impressions for especial presentation to Charles II 

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Few military draughtsmen could achieve the stature of Thomas Sandby, whose drawings of encampments in the Netherlands made while on the Duke of Cumberland’s staff in 1748 are the work of a skilled artist.

Panoramic view across country to Zeeland

Thomas Sandby, Panoramic view across country to Zeeland, 22 June 1748. British Library Add. MS 15968 Part 2

Sandby depicts Zeeland (then part of the United Provinces) towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, when he was employed as a military draughtsman by the Duke of Cumberland 

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But the drawing of less technically competent practitioners can at least have the fascination of immediacy and personal involvement. The King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library is rich in the work of soldier-artists. A series of panoramic views of Boston and the surrounding country records dramatic events at the outbreak of the American War of Independence. In his simple wash drawings Lieutenant Williams of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers has given us a vivid eye-witness impression of the city of Boston and the positions of the besieging Rebels as seen from the vantage point of Beacon Hill.

A view of the country round Boston taken from Beacon hill

A View of the country round Boston taken from Beacon hill, by Richard Williams.

Lieutenant Richard Williams of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers shows Boston and the positions of the besieging Rebels from Beacon Hill


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Those ‘skilled in Drawing’ are known to have accompanied colonising expeditions and voyages of discovery from at least the middle years of the 16th century. Joseph Banks’ team of artists and scientists on Captain Cook’s Endeavour in 1769 were not establishing a new practice. Nevertheless the scale of the venture was new. Banks’s appreciation of the need to observe and record is generally held to have set the pattern for later scientific voyages. Certainly Cook was convinced of the advantages of having artists on board. Even after Banks withdrew from the second voyage Cook arranged to employ other draughtsmen, ‘for the express purpose’ he later wrote of John Webber’s appointment, ‘of supplying the unavoidable imperfections of written accounts’. Webber was draughtsman to Cook’s third and last expedition; his was the most complete pictorial illustration of any of the voyages and is well represented in the British Library’s fine collection of Cook material.

Vaitepiha Bay, Tahiti and The Resolution in Resolution Cove, Bligh Island, Nootka Sound, Prince William Sound

John Webber, Vaitepiha Bay, Tahiti, 1777. Add. MS 15513, f.13

These views of Tahiti and Nootka Sound were produced by John Webber on Captain James Cook's third and final voyage to the Pacific

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William Alexander, the first Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, was another who made his reputation as an ‘artist-traveller’. The drawings which he made in his official capacity as junior draughtsman to Lord Macartney’s embassy to Peking in 1792–94 were to stand him in good stead throughout his career and remain the work for which he is best known. Macartney’s was the first British embassy to China. Though singularly unproductive in its commercial aims it did bring back a wealth of new information about the Chinese country and people which aroused considerable interest among the British public. Alexander’s sketches, worked up into delicate watercolours, were used for engravings for both official and unofficial accounts. Two volumes of his watercolours in the British Library were bequeathed by Sir John Barrow of the Admiralty who had been Macartney’s secretary. They contain the drawings used to illustrate Barrow’s accounts of the voyage, Travels in China (1804) and A Voyage to Cochinchina (1806).

Views of China by William Alexander

Watercolour of the Great Wall of China by William Alexander

William Alexander's drawings of China number in their hundreds; here are two examples from the King's Topographical Collection and the Asia, Pacific and Africa Department.

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For the Indian empire the natural place to look for the Library’s best topographical views is of course among the incomparable collections of the India Office Library. Three stray sketchbooks of Indian material are, however, preserved in the department of Manuscripts. The sketches are those of Ozias Humphry, R.A., casual records of his three years in India where he had gone in 1785 to paint miniatures at the courts of nabobs and princes. Like other struggling artists of the 18th century Humphry saw India as a possible avenue to wealth and fame, but when ill-health forced him home in 1787 his success had not been great. Others enjoyed better luck. Humphry visited Lucknow in 1786 to find there Johan Zoffany profitably at work on larger paintings of wealthy Company men and Indian courtiers.

Pagoda at Lucknow taken from Mr Wombwell’s house

Ozias Humphry, Pagoda at Lucknow taken from Mr Wombwell’s house, 13 March 1786. British Library Add. MS 15962, f.19

This view of the house of an East India Company official is part of Ozias Humphry's sketchbook used on a visit to Lucknow in April 1786

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Sir Robert Ker Porter is remembered for his adventurous travels. His appointment as an official painter to Tsar Alexander took him to Russia in 1805 and he subsequently married a Russian princess. He journeyed widely in Russia, Scandinavia, the Peninsula with Sir John Moore, Persia and Venezuela where he was the first British consul in Caracas. In 1821 he published a record of his travels in the Orient. The watercolour drawings from which the engravings to illustrate these volumes were taken are in the Library’s collections. Ker Porter himself appears in a number of the pictures, dressed in the European military uniform which he was wont to adopt when travelling in Asiatic countries.

The pass of Derial on the River Terek

The Pass of Derial, by Sir Robert Ker Porter.

This dramatic and hazardous pass was the gateway from Europe to the Middle East through the Caucasus.

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Looking very small and spontaneous beside Ker Porter’s large pieces is a collection of pencil sketches made as part of a pocket travel journal by George Scharf the younger – many years before he became the first Director of the National Portrait Gallery. November 1839 found the young Scharf in Florence on his way through Italy into Asia Minor. Of course he drew the Ponte Vecchio; and he paused to reflect on the accuracy of the ‘extravagant effects’ which his illustrious fellow-artist Turner put into his landscapes: ‘In the evening, and then alone, I have while on the road from Genoa to Pisa, seen at sunset all the Turneric combinations of color & landscape excepting the pure yellow!! of his foregrounds’.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

George Scharf, Ponte Vecchio, Florence, 24 November 1839. British Library Add. MS 36488 B, f.64

Florence was one of the many European cities George Scharf visited on his journey to Symra (modern day Izmir in Turkey)


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By Victorian times part of North Africa and the Middle East had become fashionable areas to tour for British artists and sightseers. But in venturing in 1879 from Aleppo, down the valley of the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, Wilfred Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne, granddaughter to Lord Byron, were risking a part of the Arab world which had been subjected to almost no European contact. From the expedition came at least two material results: horses bought in Arabia to form the famous Crabbet Arabian Stud at the Blunt home in Sussex; and Lady Anne’s travel journal and sketches, later published to put a little more information about unknown Mesopotamia before the home reader. Lady Anne’s watercolours are the simple, colourful, unassuming work of an amateur enthusiast whose aim is to capture the places she visited as authentically as she was able. In this respect she represented at the beginning of the age of the photograph much of the traditional spirit of topographical drawing.

Ram Hormuz, Persia

Lady Anne Blunt, Ram Hormuz, Persia, 16 April 1879. British Library Add. MS 54049 1

Lady Anne Blunt's account of travels around the Middle East included illustrations such as these watercolours of Ramhormoz taken in April 1879.

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This is an edited extract of a text first published by the British Library as Views of the Past (1987).
  • Ann Payne
  • Ann Payne is a former Curator in the department of Manuscripts at the British Library. Her publications include British Heraldry from its origins to c. 1800, with Richard Marks (1978), Views of the Past: topographical drawings in the British Library (1987) and Medieval Beasts (1990).