On December 19, 1793 the Viceroy of Canton received George Macartney, first official envoy of the British Empire to the Celestial Kingdom. Lord Macartney had just arrived in Canton en route home from Beijing; his mission had been the easing of trade restrictions and permission for a British embassy and residence. In this he was largely unsuccessful, though his relations with the Imperial government of the Emperor Qianlong - and especially with Qianlong's relative, the Viceroy of Canton - represented some progress. Of his Canton meeting Macartney wrote Henry Dundas on December 23rd, "Upon this occasion the Viceroy opened his mind, as I thought, very sincerely to me....he said that,...the honour of his country, required a change in its conduct towards the English...yet his situation was not without danger, nor the conduct to be held by him without its difficulties....we had prejudiced enemies at court particularly his own predecessor."
The Viceroy seemed to fully appreciate his role as an intermediary in the delicate dance of power that would allow trade favorable to both countries, suggesting to Macartney that King George write again to the Emperor and continue to send envoys. Macartney wrote, "On the Viceroy's desiring to know when such minister and letter could be expected to arrive, I observed that the distance of the two empires, and the difficulty of sea voyages, rendered it impractible to ascertain the time."
This historic occasion was rendered in four recorded large oil paintings: the present example, one illustrated by C. Crossman (The China Trade,1991, p 64) and attributed by him to Spoilum, one illustrated by J. Wirgin (Fran Kina till Europa, 1998, p. 301, from the Sze Yuan Tang Collection, and another, from the same collection, exhibited by the University of Hong Kong (Picturing Cathay, 2002, p 59).
Other momentous events of the China Trade were also recorded in large-scale works of this early period, notably the 1807 Canton trial of sailors from the Neptune (one version sold Christie's New York, 23 January 2007, lot 73); and its companion view of the Chinese official party arriving at the interior courtyard of the Canton hongs (exhibited by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Views of the Pearl River Delta, 1996/97, p 169, and attributed to Spoilum.)
In his 1986 catalogue Patrick Conner quotes Lord Macartney's journal entry on his historic audience with the Viceroy: "we were landed at the great stairs...which had been prepared for our reception. From the stairs we walked upon a stage fifty or sixty yards long...till...we were received by the Viceroy...and the principle Mandarins of rank in this neighbourhood, all dressed in their robes of ceremony." Many writers would later opine on the first Earl's mission and its bearing on the very unfortunate clash of the two empires that was to come. At this moment, though, two important world figures trying to balance their nations' respective interests are depicted with all the formality due the occasion.