Watercolouring showing the Chinese Emperor Receiving the Macartney Embassy

William Alexander Pictures China

In the late 18th century trade with China was an important emerging market for the East India Company, and the British Empire. Alice Rylance-Watson explores how the artist William Alexander engaged with China in his capacity as draughtsman to the first ever official embassy to the country.

On 26 September 1792 three ships set sail from Portsmouth for the Orient. Aboard one of them, the Hindostan, was William Alexander (1767–1816), a 25 year-old artist from Maidstone and graduate of the Royal Academy schools. He was employed by the diplomat and colonial administrator George, 1st Lord Macartney (1737–1806) to record a two-year expedition upon which great hopes were pinned: the first envoy from Britain to China.

Lord Macartney in his Earl’s Robes

Lord Macartney in his Earl’s Robes

This small pencil and watercolour sketch by William Alexander depicts the statesman George, Lord Macartney, leader of the first British envoy to China.

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The purpose of Macartney’s embassy was to facilitate British trade. Alexander himself travelled to China on a ship owned by the East India Company, and this powerful conglomerate’s business interests were at the heart of the mission. Chief on the agenda was to address the so-called ‘Canton System’: a set of legislations which were seen as limiting to Anglo economic interests. The ‘System’ obliged British merchants – largely organised under the rubric of the East India Company – to trade only through the Cohong, a guild of Chinese merchants in Canton (Guangzhou) appointed to regulate foreign trade by the Emperor. The Cohong stipulated that the British could only operate from suburban ‘factories’, using only licensed boatmen and agents, their movements tightly regulated, and their ships only allowed to unload from the port of Whampoa seven miles below Canton. These legislations were seen as ossifying by the British. Macartney wished to lift them and to plant a permanent ambassador in Canton to oversee national interests. This was especially important given the insatiable demand for ‘chinoiserie’ in Britain: commodities like tea, silk, ceramics, curios, furniture, painted papers, and lacquerware. It was felt that the only way to maintain supply was to by-pass Cohong officials and negotiate directly with the Qing Emperor, Ch’ien-Lung, in a series of highly organised and ceremonial diplomatic meetings.

View of Guangzhou (Canton)

Bird's-eye view of Canton, with Chinese junks in Pearl River and harbour in the foreground, Western factories and New City beyond, and Old City within fortified walls and mountains in the background.

This is a bird’s-eye view of Guangzhou (Canton) with Chinese junks in Pearl River and harbour in the foreground, Western factories and New City beyond, and Old City within fortified walls and mountains in the background.

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Macartney’s delegation, comprised of gentlemen ‘experts’ from the fields of engineering, botany, science and medicine, left England with a cargo of lavish gifts from King George III (1738–1820). Alexander made a list of all of these in his personal diary, from which we see a planetarium, ornate clocks, two ‘Adam’s Globes’, an aerial balloon, guns, a large lens, and ‘chemical and philosophical apparatus’ were to be presented.[1] The whole lot amounted to ‘about £14,000’.[2]

A Chart of the Yellow Sea and part of the Continent of China

A Chart of the Yellow Sea and part of ye Continent of China on Mercator's Projection

Manuscript map charting the path of the ambassadorial fleet through the Yellow Sea.

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Sketch of a Journey from Gehol in Tartary by land to Peking

Sketch of a Journey from Gehol in Tartary by land to Peking

Manuscript map showing the route taken by the ambassadorial party from Chengde to Hangzhou.

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Sketch of a Journey from Hang-tcheou-foo to Quang-tcheou-foo

Sketch of a Journey from Hang-tcheou-foo to Quang-tcheou-foo.

Manuscript map showing the route taken by the ambassadorial party from Hangzhou to Guangzhou.

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The ambassadorial fleet journeyed to China via Madeira and Tenerife, the Cape Verde Islands, past Rio de Janeiro, Java and Cochin China (southern Vietnam), the first location for which a large number of Alexander’s drawings survive. The party proceeded north, anchoring at Macao and finally landing close to the mouth of the Pei-ho (Hai) River. This is where they were met by two Mandarins, Wang and Chou, who were appointed as guides by the Imperial Court. Alexander produced portraits of them, and described Wang as ‘a fine, jolly fellow and of most free and affable manners’ who wore a ‘red ball and peacock’s feathers in his cap’.[3] Junks carried the party and the presents up the Pei-ho River to Tungchow (Tongzhou), where Alexander reports that a ‘Prodigious concourse of people…assembled to witness our arrival, immense numbers standing up to their middles in the water’.[4]

From Tungchow followed an uncomfortable journey to Peking (Beijing) in unbearable heat in un-sprung horse-drawn carts (the ambassador and his immediate retinue in sedan chairs).   When Alexander finally entered Peking travelling conditions did not much improve, as he recounts in his journal:

The horses are indifferent and generally very ill appointed with furniture, I had no stirrups, and my animal lagging, received as is customary, a lash from an attendant. The plunge made me lose my seat, and my falling was an exhibition which offered much entertainment to the numerous spectators in a public street in Peking.[6]

On the way to the city, various members of the embassy reported that their first experiences of China did not correspond to their (likely romanticised) notions of the country. For example, the comptroller Sir John Barrow found the villages ‘of mean appearance, the houses generally consisting of mud walls, one story in height and thatched with straw or rushes…everything wore an air of poverty and meanness’.[7] The people, too, didn’t match his expectations: their appearance was ‘not such as to indicate any extraordinary degree of happiness or comfort’. He refers to a ‘woeful change of sentiment; produced by the ‘more intimate acquaintance’ which Chinese ‘manners and habits’.[8]

Barrow’s report could be interpreted as the chronicle of a British man encountering ‘real’ China for the first time. This was obviously not ‘Cathay’, the ‘China of Fancy’, exported to Britain in printed imagery, chinoiserie, and cultural commodities like plays.[9] Existing accounts of the country produced by missionaries and diplomats were limited, indeed Macartney’s is chief among them as one of the first and most detailed of its kind. Modern attitudes to China were only recently being established and explored, primarily owed to trade incentives opening up around 1760. While Barrow’s report of mud-huts and jaded locals is a more ethnographically specific form of cultural documentation, a diarising of ‘real’ China, a colonial outlook lies at the heart of his observations. ‘Real’ China, experienced on the road to Peking and elsewhere, is often figured as starkly foreign and stagnating by members of the Embassy. Notional former glories are contrasted with an equally notional degraded present: for example Barrow is astonished to find that most of the pagodas are in ruins and ‘stuffed with rubbish’. Magnified in Barrows’s account are the perceived differences in ‘progression’ between the China of 1793 and George III’s Britain. While the Embassy’s was a first-hand but extremely limited encounter with Chinese peoples and places, the often orientalist observations of its members, published in numerous editions, entered the British imagination ‘as speedily as an opiate’ and entrenched themselves as rather triumphalist cultural assumptions.[10]

The Imperial Audience

On 2nd September Lord Macartney set off from Peking for his historic journey north to meet the Emperor at Jehol (Chengde), without his draughtsman Alexander. For apparent logistical reasons he and the official painter Thomas Hickey were left at Peking. Of this disappointment Alexander wrote in his own journal:

To have been within 50 miles of that stupendous monument of human labour, the famous Great Wall, 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. That the artists should be doomed to remain immured at Peking during the most interesting journey of the Embassy is not easily accounted for.[11]

The long-awaited audience took place on 14 September. On the way to the Imperial Park Aeneas Anderson writes that the ambassadorial suite (dressed in their official regalia) found themselves ‘intermingled with a cohort of pigs, asses, and dogs, which broke [their] ranks…and put [them] into an irrecoverable confusion’.[12] An hour after settling at the encampment, music and drums sounded the imminent arrival of the man himself:    

The Emperor soon appeared from behind a high and perpendicular mountain, skirted with trees, as if from a sacred grove, preceded by a number of persons busied in proclaiming aloud his virtues and his power. He was seated in a sort of open chair, or triumphal car, borne by sixteen men; and was accompanied and followed by guards, officers of the household, high flag and umbrella bearers, and music. He was clad in plain dark silk, with a velvet bonnet…on the front of it was placed a large pearl, which was the only jewel or ornament he appeared to have about him.[13]

Macartney was presented to the Emperor, and famously forwent the full imperial kowtow for kneeling on one knee with his head bowed, as he would to his sovereign. Elaborate ceremonies to mark the Emperor’s birthday followed, including the handover of British gifts. The objects – an orrery, globes, clocks among them – were especially selected to impress, flatter and of course to achieve political ends.

The Emperor of China receiving the Macartney Embassy

The Emperor of China Receiving the Macartney Embassy

This watercolour by the artist William Alexander records the moment when Lord Macartney was received by the Qing Emperor Ch’ien-Lung.

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From the Planetarium, the principal present given to the Emperor of China

From the Planetarium, the Principal Present given to the Emperor of China

This is an unfinished study by William Alexander shows the most prized gift presented to the Emperor of China: a mechanical model of the solar system.

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According to British notions of cultural value, the gifts exhibited King George’s country as modern, scientific and technologically developed. The gifts were the products of the Western ‘Enlightenment’, manufactured in Britain to the highest quality. It was assumed that the imperial court would instantly recognise and appreciate these superior goods and glean their symbolic meaning.[14] Macartney’s lavish presentation aligned Britain with ‘modernity’, and immediately implied an assessment of the relative technological strength of both empires. Eastern ‘modernity’ was found wanting in the eyes of the British, who maintained an emphatically Eurocentric conception of the term, despite being desirous of as much Chinese information regarding the chemistry of large-scale tea cultivation, silk and porcelain production as they could garner.[15] Much to the surprise of the Macartney delegation, the British gifts were received with a studied indifference. The Ambassador suggests that this was because Ch’ien-Lung thought ‘Science [was] an intruder’, but he had in fact already seen many of the objects before, indeed already owned some of them: not surprising given his dynasty’s established and sophisticated scientific enterprises.[16]

The Ambassador spent the next week trying to discuss the object of his mission with the Emperor and his advisors, but to no avail. Instead he and his embassy were constantly processed around gardens, parks, and pavilions, taken to a Temple modelled after the Potala in Tibet, and shown the imperial collection of clocks, guns and orreries. In the event, Macartney’s demands were not agreed to. The delegation returned to Peking without a mandate, despite all the pomp and circumstance. Macartney could only convey to George III reciprocal gifts and a polite edict, acknowledging the efforts of the British ‘brother monarch’ but refusing the terms proposed. The Emperor writes: ‘You, O King, should simply act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country share the blessings of peace’.[17]

Macartney, likely speaking for most of his delegation, was left somewhat bewildered by the whole event. At the Imperial Court he writes that he experienced ‘ostentatious hospitality’ on the one hand and ‘inbred suspicion’, both ‘ceremonious civility and real rudeness’, even ‘shadowy complaisance and substantial perverseness’.[18] It is little wonder, given that this was a meeting of two dominant imperial powers each looking to consolidate their formations. Each ‘look and gesture’ was ripe for magnification and misinterpretation.[19]

As diplomat Macartney represented British imperatives, and held specifically Eurocentric views relating to hierarchies of power and geo-politics. He came to the meeting with a set of terms to secure British advantage in the marketplace. Such terms were understandably incompatible with those held by the Chinese, who necessarily protected their own political and economic interests, had their own systems of government and approaches to international affairs. Western narratives have traditionally figured the Macartney Embassy as an outright failure, rather than a Chinese success. Indeed, as Horace Walpole wrote in 1794, the ‘prudence of the Chinese’ should have been admired: ‘they would be distracted to connect with Europeans, and cannot be ignorant of our usurpations in India’.[20] 

Drawing China

As official draughtsman William Alexander was treated as a rather fringe member of the ambassadorial suite. The young artist, tasked with drawing the various landscapes, resources, manufactures, people, events and customs, was, astonishingly, side-lined at the most important juncture in the expedition: the Embassy’s meeting with Emperor Ch’ien-Lung. Alexander was also forbidden to complete the whole inland journey back south, from Peking to Canton. Instead he was obliged to take the Hindostan, then moored at Chusan, along the coast down to Canton.[21] Despite these missed opportunities Alexander’s output was prodigious. He diligently recorded locations and occasions, working from sketches made by other members of the delegation to picture what he himself had missed. Absent from the court visit at Jehol, he worked from sketches produced by Macartney’s artillery officer Lt. Henry William Parish (held at British library Maps.8.Tab.C.8.78b, 79a, 79b, 80c) and synthesised into his drawings verbal descriptions, and memories of his own experience at the Emperor’s ceremonial return to Peking on 30 September 1793.[22]

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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The artist’s best known works are his depictions of the journey south from Peking, as the delegation made its way home. Travelling inland via the Pei-ho and Grand Canal, Alexander made innumerable sketches recording life and labour on the waterway, views of towns at Soochow (Suzhou), Hangchow (Hangzhou) and Ningpo (Ningbo) and studies of boats, architecture and people. His portraits of locals are particularly sensitive. The Chinese are depicted preparing food, trading, smoking pipes, chatting, going about their daily work as ironmongers, fishermen and fruit sellers. There are studies of waterwheels, rice mills, horse-drawn carts, rickshaws, houseboats, flower-boats and vegetable boats. These are views of quotidian and contemporary China, rendered decorative with flourishes of chinoiserie, but nonetheless not devoid of genuine referent as earlier examples had been.

The Emperor of China’s Palace at Peking

An 18th century engraving of Imperial China, 'the Figure of heaven is all delightful'

‘The Figure of Heaven is all Delightful’, is one of 20 plates published by the leading London printmaker Thomas Bowles in 1753. The prints are based on engravings by Matteo Ripa.

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Upon his return to England in September 1794, Alexander developed his drawings of China into finished watercolours. Between 1795 and 1804 he exhibited thirteen of these at the Royal Academy (Brighton & Notts 1981, p.7), and published groups of them as aquatints for his own projects and as illustrations for Staunton’s Authentic Account of the Embassy.[23] 870 of Alexander’s drawings were presented to the East India Company’s Library (now in the British Library’s India Office collection).[24] There are many more in the Library’s King’s Topographical Collection and in other collections worldwide.[25]


[1] JOURNAL of a voyage to Pekin in China, on board the 'Hindostan' E.I.M., which accompanied Lord Macartney on his embassy to the Emperor, London, British Library, Add MS 35174.

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Add MS 35174, fol.20.

[4] Add MS 35174, fol.21.

[5] Add MS 35174, fol.22.

[6] Add MS 35174, fol.25.

[7] Sir John Barrow, Travels in China: Containing Descriptions, Observations, and Comparisons, Made and Collected in the Course of a Short Residence at the Imperial Palace of Yuen-Min-Yuen, and on a Subsequent Journey Through the Country from Pekin to Canton (London: T.Cadell and W.Davies, 1804), p.71.

[8] Barrow, Travels in China, p.82.

[9] Mildred Archer, ‘From Cathay to China: The Drawings of William Alexander 1792-94’, History Today, December 1962, pp.864-71.

[10] Peter. J. Kitson, Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange 1760-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) p.152.

[11] Add MS 35174, fol.25.

[12] Aeneas Anderson, Narrative of the British embassy to China in the years 1792, 1793, and 1794 (Dublin: William Porter, 1795), pp.146-7 (RB.23.a.2).

[13] Sir George Staunton, An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, 3 vols (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1797), II, p.229.

[14] Kitson, Forging Romantic China, p.145.

[15] George Macartney, An Embassy to China: Being the Journal Kept by Lord Macartney during his Embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-Lung 1793-1794, ed. J.L. Cranmer-Byng (London: The Folio Society, 2004), p.232.

[16] Macartney, p.177 and Hostetler, Laura, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) pp.2, 15–6.

[17] ‘An Edict from the Emperor Ch’ien-Lung to King George III’ in George Macartney, An Embassy to China: Being the Journal Kept by Lord Macartney during his Embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-Lung 1793-1794, ed. J.L. Cranmer-Byng (London: The Folio Society, 2004), p. 254.

[18] Macartney, p.177. 

[19] Macartney, p.175. 

[20] Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory, August 3, 1734, in The Yale Edition of Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. W.S. Lewis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937-74), 34.201.

[21] Add MS 35174, fol.30.

[22] William Alexander, An English Artist in Imperial China (Brighton: The Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery and Museums and Nottingham: Nottingham University Art Gallery, 1981) p. 30 cat.no.13.

[23] The Costume of China published 1797 and Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Chinese published 1814; The British Library holds an edition of The Costume of China published in London, 1805 at Shelfmark 142.f.16.

[24] The drawings in the India Office Library are shelved under WD 959-61.

[25] See Maps 8.Tab.C.8, the Barrow Bequest Vol.I (Add MS 35300) and Add MS 33931; other drawings are in the Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery, the British Museum, London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

  • Alice Rylance-Watson
  • Alice Rylance-Watson is Transforming Topography Research Curator at the British Library. She is also a Cataloguer at Tate Britain, working on the sketchbooks, drawings and watercolours of JMW Turner.

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