Tag Archives: British Museum

Art Book of the Month, November 2016

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - title page

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.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Slow Loris

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.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Scarlet Macaw

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.

Chinese Natural History Drawings selected from the Reeves Collection, 1974 - Pineapple and Butterflies and a Dragonfly around Morning Glory

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.

[Rossella]

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Tricks of the trade

I love the trade cards we hold at the Archives Centre, I always have done. They are so decorative as well as being packed with information about the business they are advertising, who owned it, what it sold and where it was located.

Trade card of William Woodward, nightman, 1 Marylebone Passage, Wells Street, c1820 (Ashbridge 411 Acc 1909). Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Trade card of William Woodward, nightman, 1 Marylebone Passage, Wells Street, c1820. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Westminster City Archives has over 300 trade cards, mostly dating from the mid-18th century, so the main decorative feature is Rococo shell patterns in keeping with the style of the time. They also frequently include a picture of the workshop or shop and the products they made or sold. Business premises were known by signs, a bit like modern public house signs, before street numbering was introduced in the 1760s.

Trade card of Evan Bynner, family grocery warehouse, 35 Little Newport Street, late 18th century (Box 63 No. 2e). Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Trade card of Evan Bynner, family grocery warehouse, 35 Little Newport Street, late 18th century. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

One of my favourite cards from the collection is that of Evan Bynner, family grocer, whose trade card contains a picture of a Chinese man in a conical hat. Trade cards often contain interesting information about racial stereotypes in the 18th century, as we can also see from the one for Barrett’s old tobacco at the sign of the Two Black Boys against Somerset House.

Trade card for Barrett's old tobacco at the sign of the Two Black Boys against Somerset House, Strand, 18th century (Box 63 No. 33f). Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Trade card for Barrett’s old tobacco at the sign of the Two Black Boys against Somerset House, Strand, 18th century. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

We have a postcard for sale in our bookshop of the trade card of William Woodward of Marylebone (pictured at the top of the page), who removed nightsoil (no prizes for guessing what that was in the era of chamber pots!) and other rubbish, emptied drains and cesspits, and swept chimneys in about 1820.

Trade card of John Perry, maker of jockey and hunting caps, at the sign of the Cap and Habit, Beaufort Buildings, Strand, mid-18th century (Box 63 No. 13b). Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Trade card of John Perry, maker of jockey and hunting caps, at the sign of the Cap and Habit, Beaufort Buildings, Strand, mid-18th century. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Other interesting trades show up in the trade cards of John Perry, maker of jockey and hunting caps, and Richard Siddall, chemist. Perry’s language is as flowery as the border on his card – he “Makes and sells all sorts of Caps, Ladies Habits & Gentlemens Cloaths in ye Neatest manner and at the most reasonable Rates” – and Siddall’s weird and wonderful picture makes him look more like a medieval alchemist than a purveyor of “Chymical and Calenical Medicines With all Sorts of Druggs”.

Trade card of Richard Siddall, chymist (sic), at the sign of the Golden Head, Panton Street, 18th century (Box 63 No. 29f). Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Trade card of Richard Siddall, chymist (sic), at the sign of the Golden Head, Panton Street, 18th century. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

The most famous trade card collection in the country is the Ambrose Heal Collection. Ambrose Heal was a member of the Heal’s furniture shop family on Tottenham Court Road, who bequeathed his collection to the British Museum. He also wrote several books on the subject, one of which, called London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIII Century: An Account of Their Origin and Use, 1968, containing over 100 illustrations, can be seen in the Archives Centre search room. Why not come along and have a look for yourself?

And if all this has whetted your appetite, have a browse through a fascinating collection of trade cards via the John Johnson Collection of ephemera, held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. You can view the collection online – just log in with your library card number!

[Alison]