Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection
Corporate Author: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)
Edited: PJP Whitehead and PI Edwards
London: BMNH, 1974. Limited Edition 41/400
John Reeves (1774 – 1856) was an English tea inspector for the British East India Company who spent several years in and around Canton. His impressions of China were not very favourable (‘…and we have been disputing for months past with the villainous Government of this vile country…’ he wrote to his sister in 1814); but this mood did not last and he soon developed an obvious enthusiasm for collecting Chinese animals and plants, though specimens from all over Asia appear in his collection.
An early 19th century Sir David Attenborough, Reeves was a keen naturalist. He took to documenting animals and plants and commissioned Chinese artists to paint them in the Western scientific tradition.
He sent living specimens of beautiful Chinese flowering plants back to England, and was responsible for the introduction of many attractive garden plants to the West, including chrysanthemums, azaleas and wisteria. His name, reevesii, was applied to nearly 30 species of animals, and a plant genus. .
Reeves’s son, John Russell Reeves, shared his father’s enthusiasm for natural history and eventually became a well-known naturalist in China for scientists in England. On John Russell’s death in 1877, his widow presented the drawings he had inherited from his father to the British Museum’s natural history department.
Twenty stunning selected drawings from the Reeves Chinese Collection, divided equally between animals and plants, made mostly on large sheets of cartridge paper, are reproduced in high quality in this beautiful volume. John Reeves lived to see the birth of photography – which made possible the collotype reproduction used here – but it is doubtful that his artists knew about cameras. Many of these pictures were not drawn from the subject and in some of the most delightful examples too much artistic licence has been taken. It must have been tricky to capture a realistic likeness while the animals moved about. In some cases the drawing is a composite of leaf, flower and fruit from three different plants grafted on to the same stem! Similarly, the insect drawings contain an amazing amount of detail and observation, but the insects are often purely imaginary. But it is perhaps for these reasons that these beautiful drawings both show what the actual animal looks like and provoke a response in humans.
The drawings are pleasing aesthetically and still important scientifically; almost two centuries later, they represent a real tribute to the energy of John Reeves of Canton and the skill of his artists.