As promised here are the first two panels of Lt. John Frederick Warre’s 1847-1847 view along the Huangpu River.
The first image in the series places the viewer with Shanghai at his back looking down the Huangpu River towards “Woosung” (Wusong is now a district within Shanghai). Warre describes a low arched bridge at the extreme left (he uses the word “brullah” which must be a phonetic spelling because I can’t figure out exactly what he is referring to). He states that the Chinese built most bridges like this one and that they have a single railing. On the left bank of the river are bamboos and “fruit & large umbrageous trees” (“umbrageous” means big trees that provide shade– I learn something new every day!).
Warre describes the banks of the river as muddy with “fishing apparatus” along them and then directs the viewer to panel two where he depicts the apparatus along the banks of the river. Just to make sure the viewer has a good idea of what they look like he also provides a sketch and key describing their parts.
The beautiful vessel at the center he describes as “a small junk of the southern provinces is coming up the River” and states that the small boat near it is loaded with crates of tea.
At this point Warre seems to despair that he isn’t depicting the scene accurately enough: “there should be plenty of junks, boats, &c in the distance.” He also feels troubled that the scale he used didn’t allow for an accurate depiction of the breadth of the river and states that if he had allowed for more space he would have depicted the large merchant ship at the left of panel two closer to the center of the river. He also describes the shape of the river since it wasn’t possible to accurately depict it in the watercolor: “the river turns off at right angles on the right bank just opposite the Woosung junk at anchor.”
Warre’s stream of commentary is really interesting because artists don’t usually tell you what they would change or do differently, nor are the concerned with providing a high level of detail for the viewer. Warre really wants to make sure we understand what we are seeing by conveying how much traffic the river carries, its shapes and bends, the sort of structures we would see, and even what the river bottom is like. This just shows how much the Royal Navy must have impressed upon their sailor artists the importance of accurately depicting what they saw and the benefit it would provide to future voyagers into the area.
Warre continues on the second panel by describing the junk anchored at the center of the image: “Her stern is highly ornamented with dragons &c in gold & colours. Her name & distinction are written in Chinese characters on her side” but then admits that he has no clue how to render them and that the characters he depicts are “imaginary.” I love this! He totally saved some curator—i.e. me—from trying to decipher his “characters“ and then getting frustrated when they can’t figure out why they can’t make any sense out of them!
His wonderful attention to the details of the scene continues: “The junk is waiting for the tide to sail. A large tea boat is landing from her and a small sampan alongside, a sprig of bamboo is often at the masthead as an ornament (one of the traditions during ship christenings is to put a bunch of green leaves at the top of the mast to symbolize safe returns for the vessel—I wonder if there was a similar tradition in China in the mid-19th century?). “The banks of the river are covered with bamboo machines for fishing, very picturesque but not easily drawn or painted on so small a scale” (as I mentioned above, it’s at this point that he makes sure the viewer understands what these fishing apparatus’s look like by providing a keyed sketch).
Warre finishes out panel two by continuing his description of the scene and what future visitors should expect to see: “The right bank shows a mixture of bamboo’s, fruit trees, cottages &c. Chinese cottages are almost buried in bamboo and trees, they have rarely windows, the roofs are shaped thus (again, he provides a sketch) and are of dark curved tiles.”
This piece is great—you don’t normally get this level of description and detail on a piece of artwork. It’s like getting right into the mind of the artist…I can’t wait to study the rest!