A marginally larger version of the same subject, dated 1799, with minor variations, in the British Museum (L. Stainton, British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860, London, 1985, pl. 46). Another version (of the same size) is in the Museum and Art Gallery, Maidstone. The composition, again with variations, was engraved in 1796 by J. Dadley and appears as plate XX in Sir George Staunton's Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (London, 1797).
In 1792 William Alexander was appointed official draughtsman to the first British embassy, led by Lord Macartney, to China in 1793-4: 'The main purpose of Macartney's embassy was, through direct contact, to overcome the Chinese reluctance to trade: to persuade them to lift some of the restrictions they had imposed on it. He attempted to impress the Emperor with the unique qualities of British goods, taking with him to this end ¨13,124 worth of gifts. He hoped also to establish a permanent British embassy in Peking. To these trading and diplomatic aims was added a scientific motive: Macartney was accompanied by a legion of experts, including natural scientists, engineers, botanists, medics and even an artillery officer, whose function was to gather information about China, so that Britain's understanding of that enigmatic country might be both broadened and deepened. But when the team returned to offer their new understanding to the British public, it was Alexander's pictures ... which had the most profound effect.
Previously, there had been few views of China readily available to guide the British imagination. The only collection which made any pretence at comprehensiveness was the series of views of Chinese cities published by John Ogilby in his Atlas Chinensis of 1671.
This book, published in both England and Holland, contains accounts of the voyages in China made by the Dutch East India Company in the 1640s and 50s. The accompanying engravings form the earliest major Western pictorial record of China; but though they contain much authentic detail, they contain little spirit of the place. ... It is the immediacy, and freshness of vision, which distinguish the work of Alexander ... and when, after his return, he began to exhibit his finished watercolours at the Royal Academy and to publish them as engravings, he supplied the British public with a set of images which began to give fuller shape to their percepetion of China.' (G.H.R. Tillotson, Fan Kwae Pictures, The Hong Kong Bank Art Collection, London 1987, pp. 107-8).
Macartney's embassy entered Peking through this main western gateway first on 21 August 1793: '... the arrival of the Embassador was announced by the firing of guns; and the refreshments were made ready for all the gentlemen, at a resting plce within the gate. Over the gate was a watchtower several stories high. In each storey were port-holes for cannon, painted, as sometimes on the sides of merchant vessels which have none. Around the gate, on the outside, was a semi-circular wall, with lateral gate, upon the plan of European fortifications, which may be a modern addition.' (Sir G. Staunton, op. cit., II, p. 116).
The gate was destroyed, along with the walls shown in the present watercolour, in the 1950s, but the bridge in the foreground still stands.