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Chinese History: Thomas Allom's 'China Illustrated'

Select Engravings by Thomas Allom (1804-1872)
Printed in Four Volumes in London Between 1843 and 1847
Commentary by G.H. Wright

This online "Gallery Exhibition" presents select images from a series of 143 engraving by the British Architect and Illustrator Thomas Allom.

Accompanying the engravings are original commentaries published with them by G.H. Wright, a Protestant missionary who had spent some considerable time in China.

About The Engravings: Not Eyewitness Accounts?

Although Allom traveled widely throughout his career, many of his Chinese illustrations were based on the works of earlier artists - Lieutenant Frederick White, R.M., Captain Stoddart, R.N. and R. Varnham, for example - rather than on his firsthand views of China. In fact, there is considerable doubt as to whether Allom ever visited the Middle Kingdom at all. Many sources refer secondhand to his having been there, but we know of no convincing firsthand evidence to prove it. Therefore, it is possible that all of Allom's illustrations of China were based on, or "informed by," works of other artists.

This does not mean, however, that he simply copied the works of others. Evidence shows that he was very skillful in seeing a drawing, then creating another version of the featured location from a different angle, or showing a different activity occuring in that space.

The Importance of Allom's Works

Even though Thomas Allom's illustrations may not have been based on firsthand views, they do hold a significant place in history.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Western world was becoming quite intrigued by Chinese culture and decor, but notions of what China looked like were often vague and incomplete.

Allom's illustrations, more than any other body of work up until that time, helped to provide a clearer picture of Imperial China, though certainly not a perfect one.

A common criticism is that his images present a view of China that is too idealistic, and to be sure, the land does take on an almost dreamy, mystical aura in many of them. (As an interesting side note, to this day many so-called "Chinese" decorative styles and illustrations in the West seem influenced more by Allom's images than by bona fide sources of Chinese art.)

These faults aside, what Allom did was provide the West with a view of China as comprehensive as could be expected near the middle of the 19th century.

If we understand the probable shortcomings with his Chinese illustrations, however, and apply a more critical eye to the images, we can still gain some knowledge about the customs, dress, landscape and architecture of China some 150 years ago.

About the Descriptions: A Word of Historical Warning

The descriptions that G.H. Wright penned to accompany Allom's works in many cases provide very unflattering insights into mindset of Europeans visiting China in the 19th century. These narratives sometimes even seem at odds with the beautiful images they accompany. In Wright's narrations, the Chinese are often portrayed as a curious, inferior people with bizarre customs, not as the bearers of a rich culture with much to teach the rest of the world, as should have been the case. This historical trend is unfortunate and regrettable.

Applying our critical eye again, however, we can look for some of Wright's more objective descriptions of life in China, overlooking his sometimes narrow, provincial interpretations, and enjoy a still deeper look at life in 19th Century China.

This online exhibition includes 18 of the 143 engravings included in Thomas Allom's China Illustrated, printed in four volumes in London, England, between 1843 and 1847.

The Historical Context

In 1839, Britain and China engaged in what would later be called "The Opium War."

Having underestimated the strength of the British forces, China was defeated with disastrous results in 1842. At war's end, the British set down the first of many "unequal treaties," similar to those the U.S. government was making with Native Americans on the other side of the globe. As a result, the Western world, and even the Chinese people themselves, suddenly viewed the Chinese Empire, under the Qing Dynasty, as much weaker than had previously been thought.

The first of Allom's illustrations were published the following year, in 1843.

The system of "romanization" used by Thomas Allom and G.H. Wright to present Chinese place and proper names is now unfamiliar to many in the West. The Wade-Giles system, now itself already considered by many to be archaic, was not developed until 1859, sixteen years after the first of these images was produced.

Select a picture to view below, or start the guided tour.

Chinese Cat Merchants
Cat Merchants"
Chinese Cemetery
"Chinese Cemetery"
Chinese Marriage Procession
"Chinese Marriage
Chinese Opium Den
"Chinese Opium Den"
Sacrifice of Harvest Moon
"Sacrifice of
Harvest Moon"
The City of Nanking
"The City of Nanking"
The City of Ning-Po
"The City of Ning Po"
Entrance in the city of Amoy
"Entrance in
the City of Amoy"
Imperial Palace
Imperial Palace at
An Itinerant Barber
Jugglers Exhibiting
at the Court of a
The Kilns
at King-Tan
Ladies of
a Mandarin's Family
at Cards
Landing Place
Landing Place
at the Yuk-Shan
Landing Place
and Entrance to
the Temple
of Honan, Canton
Pria Grande
The Pria Grande,

Wuyishan, Fujian
or Bohea Hills,
Province of Fo-kien
Wutang Mountains
The Woo-Tang
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