William Alexander, Self-portrait, watercolour and grey wash
over graphite


This Self-portrait by William Alexander (1767–1816) was drawn early in his career. In 1792, Alexander accompanied an embassy to China, headed by Lord Macartney. He acted as a second to the official painter Thomas Hickey. This portrait was drawn either on the voyage to Peking, which began in September 1792, or on the return two years later.

On his journey, Alexander kept a journal. However, it unfortunately sheds no light on the presence of the eye patch he is wearing in this portrait. The visible eye underneath it suggests that the patch was added last to the drawing.

Recent theories suggest that sailors often wore a patch to help their eyes adjust quickly to the change of light from the bright deck to the gloom below the stairs. Alexander, therefore, may have worn a patch if he was sketching in the shade on board.

Alexander is also depicted wearing informal dress, which is evidence of the heat as the expedition passed through the Pacific.

William Alexander is best known as a topographical artist of English views. In 1808, he was appointed the first keeper of the print room in the British Museum. One of his responsibilities was to draw the antiquities in the Museum’s collection and to supervise their engraving. These engravings were eventually published in eleven volumes entitled Ancient Marbles (1812–61).

S. Legouix, Image of China: William Alexander, (London, 1980)

P. Conner and S. Legouix Sloman, William Alexander: An English artist in Imperial China, (Royal Pavilion, Brighton, 1981)

A. Griffiths, 'The Department of Prints and Drawings during the First Century of the British Museum', Burlington Magazine, (August 1994), pp.531–45

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Height: 241.000 mm
Width: 187.000 mm

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