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  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Self-Portrait; nearly half-length to front, with a patch over his right eye. 1792-4 Watercolour and grey wash, with graphite
    Verso: Compositional sketch of Venus rising from a shell with cupids attending, blocked out with grey wash

  • Producer name

  • School/style

  • Date

    • 1792-1794 (circa)
  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 241 millimetres
    • Width: 187 millimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Content

        Inscribed: "From myself done at sea /99 WA."
  • Curator's comments

    The following is the entry on this drawing in S. Lloyd and K. Sloan, 'The Intimate Portrait', SNPG and BM, 2008-9, no. 58, p. 104:

    Before William Alexander enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1784 he was apprenticed to the landscape artist Julius Caesar Ibbetson. In 1787, Ibbetson sailed as draughtsman to the Chinese Embassy of the Hon. Charles Cathcart, which ended when the Ambassador died in Java en route. Offered a position on the next embassy headed by Lord Macartney, Ibbetson declined and recommended William Alexander in his place as 'draughtsman' on the expedition, second to the official 'painter' Thomas Hickey. Alexander's journal remained with this drawing in the Hughes family until 1897 when the journal and this drawing were presented to the British Museum.

    This portrait was drawn either on the voyage which set out in September 1792 or on the return two years later. Unfortunately the journal sheds no light on the presence of the eye patch, clearly added last, as the eye underneath is as penetrating and direct as its pair. 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 stairs and Alexander may have found this useful if sketching in the shade on board. The portrait is otherwise remarkable for its informality of dress, common enough in artist's self-portraits but here evidence of the heat as they passed through the Pacific. Alexander might have emphasized both as signs of his rites of passage.

    The expedition eventually reached Peking in August 1793. Although he was not among the party that met the Emperor, Alexander made enough drawings from the descriptions of others to be able to produce watercolours of the event. After his return, he spent seven years reworking his sketches to produce finished watercolours and illustrations for various published accounts of the voyage, including his own in 1798 and his 'Costume of China' (1797 to 1804).

    He soon afterwards made a name for himself as a topographical artist of English views. He was a close friend of Dr Thomas Monro and was thus in regular contact with the landscape artists of his circle, including Thomas Hearne and Thomas Girtin, whose sketching club he joined in 1799. Joseph Farington helped him to obtain the post of drawing master at the Royal Military College at Great Marlow from 1802. Henry Edridge drew Alexander's portrait as one of his series that included the portraits of Burney and Stothard (BM 1867.0413,528 and 1867.0413,531). The portrait, with a Chinese building in the background, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796.

    In June 1808, William Alexander was appointed the first Keeper of the Print Room in the British Museum, responsible for showing the prints and drawings to visitors one day a week and for listing the contents of the portfolios containing the collection. The main reason for his appointment, however, was to draw the antiquities and supervising their engraving for a large publication of the 'Ancient Marbles' in the museum, commissioned by the Trustees and eventually published in 11 volumes (1812-61). Edridge drew a bust length portrait about this time which was copied by G. P. Harding and engraved by C. Picart as a private plate for distribution by the sitter. After his death of a brain fever in 1816, Alexander's two tasks were split between Henry Corbould who drew the antiquities and John Thomas Smith, who became Keeper of the Print Room.

    SELECTED LITERATURE: 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," in 'Burlington Magazine', vol.CXXXVI, no. 1097, Aug.1994, pp.536-7


  • Bibliography

    • Binyon 1898-1907 1 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display (British Roy PIV)

  • Exhibition history

    1980 Aug-Oct, Brighton AG, 'Chinese Views of W. Alexander' 1980 Nov-Dec, Nottingham Uni, 'Chinese Views of W. Alexander' 1985 May-Jul, Berlin, Festspiele, Europe and Emperor of China
    1992/3 Oct-Mar, BM, OA, 'Britain's First View of China'
    2008/9 Oct-Jan, Edinburgh, SNPG, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 58
    2009 Mar-May, London, BM, Room 90, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 58

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Thomas Alexander, uncle of artist; by descent to his grandson, Edward Hughes (1823-1913), by who presented to the BM with the artist's Journal (now BL Add. MSS 35174-75)

  • Department

    Prints & Drawings

  • Registration number


Portrait of the artist; nearly half-length to front, with a patch over his right eye. 1799 Watercolour and grey wash, with graphite

Portrait of the artist; nearly half-length to front, with a patch over his right eye. 1799 Watercolour and grey wash, with graphite

Image description



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