Between art and science: British and Chinese 'hybrid' botanic art in 18th century
During the period of the Canton System (1757-1842), Western visitors (Western Europeans and Northern Americans) to China had to trade in the sole city of Guangzhou (or Canton) and nearby Macao. John Bradby Blake (1745-1773) was a supercargo working for the East India Company in Canton beginning starting from 1767. A botanist enthusiast, he undertook the ambitious and innovative task of producing an illustrated catalogue of Chinese plants or ‘Flora Sinensis’. From the remaining paintings and his personal papers held at Oak Spring Garden Foundation, Upperville, Virginia, we can see the first results of his ambitious project realised with the help of one or more local Chinese artists before his early death in 1773.
The paintings made by Blake and Chinese artist(s) let themselves to a different sent of enquiries such as the exact nature of Sino-Western cultural exchanges in late 18thcentury Guangzhou and Macao. Most often Western visitors bought what are called ‘export Chinese art’ from the local artists, and exceptionally artists such as George Chinnery (1774-1852) resided in the area and painted their own work. The Blake paintings are a unique example of collaboration between Chinese and Western painters, to produce accurate scientific botanical representations of Chinese plants. In this paper, I will put the Blake paintings in their context of Western botanic paintings and Chinese flower paintings in order to reassess their value as the product of a transnational exchange.
Image details: manuscript illustrations by Bradby Blake, through kind permission of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation (Bunny Mellon's foundation )
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