Gateway to Maritime Silk Road


Painters in Canton drew scientific species drawings

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :August 19, 2022


Share this with

Two centuries ago, the Thirteen Hongs in Canton was a famous commercial area which attracted merchants from home and abroad. Its scale was actually quite small with only a few shopping streets targetting foreigners.

There were many kinds of shops at the Thirteen Hongs, including taverns, restaurants, cloth stores, shoe shops and grocery stores. Crowds of foreign sailors would gather and clamor around the shops, while the art studios were quite different, offering a serene place away from the bustle of the crowd.

The shopfronts of the studios at the Thirteen Hongs were generally small. At the first floor, all the paintings ready for sale were hung on the walls, and lots of postcards featuring various local landscapes were displayed at the counter.

With miscellaneous paintings, from self-portraits to landscape ones, the foreigners could always find their preferred ones at the studios. If they were willing to pay more, they could even ask painters on the second floor to draw on the spot.

According to historical records, around 30 painting studios were open on Jingyuan Street and Tongwen Street of the Thirteen Hongs in the late Qing Dynasty.

Every year, thousands of paintings created by the hands of Chinese painters were shipped from Canton and sold to different places across the world.

After spending a long time sailing to Canton, foreign merchants were amazed at the scenes here, so they wanted to have something like "postcards" to prove they had been to Guangzhou.

As camera was rare in the Qing Dynasty, the paintings sold at the studios were the best option for the merchants.
One-man Show, puppet-show on the street of Canton, a watercolor painting
Sanxian, a female artist playing sanxian, a Chinese musical instrument with three strings, in the Qing Dynasty, a watercolor painting on foreign paper

In addition to foreign merchants, British scientists, who came to Canton for collecting the specimens of plants and animals, were regular visitors to the studios as well.

During the late 18th century and the early 19th century, the Royal Society of the UK dispatched many scientists to Canton by merchant ships, aiming to collect specimens that were rare in the western world.

The scientists often wandered around the markets which sold various kinds of flowers, fish and birds, trying to find out more species that they had never seen.

When they discovered the species that were new to them, they encountered the difficulty of how to deliver the species back to London, as the distance between London and Canton was thousands of miles apart.

The shipping time took at least four to five months and the plants would mostly wither during the journey. Finally the scientists sought help from the painters at the Thirteen Hongs.
Geometridae, a watercolor painting

At that time, the painters had no idea what scientific illustrations were, but they could draw pretty well with the advice of the scientists.

In order to have realistic anatomical drawings of plants, flowers and fruits, the scientists would invite the painters to their homes and teach them the techniques of drawing the scientific illustrations. The painters could return to their studios only after they mastered how to draw the plants and animals.
Peach Blossom, a watercolor painting on Whatman paper
Quail, a watercolor painting

Once a scientist established partnership with a painter, their cooperation would last for a long time as it saved their trouble of trying to find another painter.

Naturalist John Reeves sent by the Royal Society in the 19th century kept close contact with a painter called Tongqua. More than thousand illustrations of plants and animals painted by Tongqua are still collected at the Natural History Museum in Britain, which have witnessed the scientific development contributed by Cantonese painters.

Source: 《读懂广州·解密|晚清广州画家,广告打到伦敦》
Editors: Joyce, Pauline