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Chinese School, circa 1780
Chinese School, circa 1780

The Hongs at Canton

Chinese School, circa 1780 The Hongs at Canton oil on canvas 17 ¼ x 29 ½in. (43.8 x 74.8cm.)

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Lot Essay

This is one of the earliest of the Chinese export artists' views of Canton painted in oils on canvas in the western manner. Such views were produced by local artists for western merchants and ship owners visiting Canton. Previously painted in bodycolour on paper, fine linens or silk, canvas and oil paints appear to have been introduced to the Cantonese artists' studios in the last quarter of the 18th century.

This particular view of the western businesses or 'hongs' at Canton can be precisely dated by the flags flying, notably the pre-revolution white Bourbon flag marking the French 'factory', the flag replaced by the tricolour in 1791. The Imperial flag of the Austrian empire (flying between the French and Swedish flags) further dates the work to between 1779 and 1787, when British-owned ships under this flag are recorded at Canton. The carefully detailed figures on the waterfront (Europeans, Indians and Chinese, all male, as women were forbidden) are characteristic of these early views. The buildings see the quayside in transition, with western architectural elements being introduced in the second half of the 18th century, the classical façades of the western factories beginning to replace the local vernacular. The quayside here (narrow before the land reclaiming that would extend the frontage out into the river) runs from the creek on the right, which marked the eastern end of the foreigners' precinct, to the wall and Chinese customs house flying its flag on the left, which marked the western end.

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