Like other early versions of this favorite China trade subject, this bowl shows the waterfront and river views in two different panels. From 1775-80 on depictions of the hongs at Canton became codified as the familiar continuous scene encircling the bowl. One early bowl even shows a view of the hongs on one side and a scene of the market in Copenhagen on the other (see Hervouet & Bruneau, op. cit., p. 24).
A bowl with two similar views to the present example was in the Mottahedeh collection, and illustrated by Howard & Ayers, op. cit., no. 206, where the authors suggest that the waterfront view actually shows the foreign warehouses at Whampoa anchorage. Supporting this theory is the decoration on a fan in the Mottahedeh collection (op. cit., no. 682) which shows on one side the familiar Canton waterfront and, on the other, a view which is clearly Whampoa, with six foreign flags flying above the warehouse buildings. However Whampoa did not seem ever to have the complex network of back streets shown on this bowl. Crosby Forbes, writing on a bowl of this early type in the collection of the Dietrich American Foundation, notes that Old China Street is shown to the left of the French flag, and identifies the street signs shown on the various gates. (Dr. H.A.C. Forbes, exhibition Catalogue, p. 28).
Our familiarity with the views of Canton shown both on later bowls and in 19th century China trade paintings have led us to forget that the foreign tenants of the waterfront buildings could change from year to year, especially in this earlier period. C. Le Corbeiller writes that "The factories were generally leased by the month or for the five-month season", and quotes the journal of John Barry, who said "On arriving at Canton one of the first things to be attended to is procuring a factory". (op. cit., p. 117). Though by the later 1780's, she reports, most factory leases were renewed routinely by the same tenants, that was not necessarily so a decade earlier. The flags visible in the present bowl include the white standard of the pre-Revolutionary French naval ensign and, similarly, a puce standard used by the Danish in the Indies (see J. O. Engene, Denmark Navy, www.fotw.stm)