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Shaping an image of China in the West: William Alexander (1767-1816)

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The Chinese style of the Royal Pavilion’s interior owes much to one man who never even saw the building. Artist William Alexander produced many illustrations which shaped the vision of China that can be found in the Pavilion.

Towards the end of the 18th century the popularity of the Chinese style in interior decoration and architecture was waning. However, there was still a general fascination with China and other far away countries. This was made manifest by a number of new publications and images that became available shortly after 1794.

Alexander Peking Martyn Gregory

Watercolour of Peking (Beijing) by William Alexander, c1793. Private collection. Photograph@ Martyn Gregory Gallery, London.

William Alexander was born in Maidstone, Kent, in Southeast England, in 1767. He became a student at the Royal Academy in 1784. In 1792, at the age of just 25, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime: he was chosen to accompany Lord Macartney’s embassy to China as a junior draughtsman. Very few of his works dating from before this journey are known, so it is likely that this was Alexander’s first proper commission. It is thought that he was recommended by his teacher Julius Caesar Ibbetson, who declined to join the embassy, having returned recently from an earlier, abandoned embassy. The commission would define his career as an artist and there is no doubt that he realised its commercial potential. Perhaps luckily for him, the official artist appointed to the embassy, the portrait painter Thomas Hickey, appears to have produced next to no work on the journey, giving Alexander an opportunity to shine.

'The reception of the diplomatique and his suite, at the Court of Pekin' by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey hand-coloured etching, published 14 September 1792 NPG D12463 © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘The reception of the diplomatique and his suite, at the Court of Pekin’
by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
hand-coloured etching, published 14 September 1792
NPG D12463
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The aim of the Macartney embassy was to negotiate fairer and better trading conditions in China for the British. Although carefully planned, it turned out to be a diplomatic failure, with the embassy hurriedly leaving Beijing months before they had planned to depart. The failure of the embassy was mercilessly caricatured by James Gillray. However, the images of China that Alexander produced on the two year journey were a new, reliable and exciting glimpse into Chinese life, art, landscape, architecture and customs. Like no artist before, Alexander shaped the West’s image of this far away country.

Nearly 30 years later another British artist, George Chinnery, would feed the West large numbers of images of China, but, unlike Alexander, he never visited Beijing. Some contemporaries of Alexander had visited China, for example John Webber and Thomas and William Daniell, but none of them were able to venture far inland, as Westerners working for the East India companies were restricted to certain trading ports and times outside the city gates of Canton. of embassy's route

Map showing the Embassy’s route through China.

Despite gaining unprecedented access to inland China, there were also some disappointments for Alexander. He was not allowed to join the ambassador’s party on their trip to Jehol, north of Beijing, to meet the Emperor. Instead, he was confined to a building in Beijing, surrounded by high walls, without permission to move around freely in the city. However, he did produce drawings of Macartney’s group meeting the Emperor at Jehol, using a combination of eyewitness reports and other artists’ images. He also missed out on a long journey overland from Hangchow to Canton, having been told to continue the journey via the sea route.

Alexander made over two thousand sketches of China during the journey. Typically he worked up rough but well-observed initial pencil sketches into finished watercolours, often in multiple copies. Some of these were exhibited at the Royal Academy after his return. In a number of them he depicts himself, a tiny figure sketching away, often sitting in a boat or on a hill, assessing the scenery.

Alexander sketching det

Detail of one of Alexander’s watercolours, showing him sketching. Photograph: Martyn Gregory Gallery, London.

Many of his images were also reproduced as prints and used as illustrations in books about China, thus reaching a wide audience. His images were used in the first official account of the embassy, written by George Staunton, secretary to the embassy, and published in 1797 (Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China). But Alexander also published a number of his own books, mostly illustrated descriptive volumes documenting Chinese costume and scenes, featuring full-page hand-coloured engravings after his drawings. Of these, the most impressive is The Costume of China, a series of 48 aquatints etched by Alexander himself, with commentary, published by William Miller in 1805, with some plates dated as early as 1797. The plates show individual figures, figure groups and architectural structures. A later (1814) similar publication of his Chinese images was cheaper and not of the same quality, but proved popular and was even translated into French.

W Alexander China Pagoda image

‘Pagoda’, illustration from Alexander’s book The Costume of China (1805)

W Alexander China woman image

‘A Chinese Lady and her son’, illustration from Alexander’s book The Costume of China (1805)

Alexander’s pictures not only appealed to readers with a general interest in exotic countries, but they also influenced the decorative arts. From at least 1815 onward Frederick Crace, one of the interior decorators of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, used Alexander’s images as inspiration for a number of decorations in the palace. The walls of the Music Room, for example, show many architectural structures lifted from The Costume of China and Staunton’s account of the embassy. One of the figures from The Costume of China, a colourful Chinese Comedian, can be seen on the large chandelier in the Music Room as well as on the landing of the North Staircase. We also have the original watercolour of the Comedian in our collection, but this is not currently on display.

Alexander Comedian and staircase

‘A Chinese Comedian’, illustration from Alexander’s book The Costume of China (1805) and the corresponding painted glass pane on the South Staircase landing in the Royal Pavilion


Colour. Royal Pavilion Collection, Brighton

‘A Chinese scene’, illustration from Alexander’s book The Costume of China (1805)

Colour. Royal Pavilion Collection, Brighton

Detail from a south wall panel in the Music Room, inspired by Alexander’s images, c.1817 – 1822

In 1981 Patrick Conner and Susan Legouix Sloman curated an exhibition on William Alexander at Brighton Museum, the catalogue of which remains one of the few publications on Alexander.


Title page of the exhibition catalogue ‘William Alexander – An English Artist in Imperial China’ (1981)

After his return from China, Alexander worked for several years as a teacher of landscape drawing, before securing a post as assistant librarian and first keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum in 1808. It appears that he was much respected among his colleagues and in the art world. Although he continued drawing he remained best known for his carefully executed images of China. He died suddenly in 1816 of a brain disease at the age of only 49, and is buried in Boxley near Maidstone, his hometown.

Today Alexander is a relatively obscure artist, perhaps because his work is associated mostly with print culture, but his images of China are well known, and his works are in private and public collections all over the world. An 80 page diary he kept during his journey to China survives at the British Library but has not yet been published in its entirety.

Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion Archives

Alexandra will give a talk about William Alexander on 1 September 2016 at 12:00 pm, at which she will show a copy of The Costume of China. Location: Music Room, Royal Pavilion. Free with admission. For more information go to