Return to Shanghai

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum’s copy of “The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund”, Chinese School c.1850. As with all HTBS pictures, click to enlarge.

2 November 2017

Tim Koch is back on the Huangpu River.

My recent three-part piece on Shanghai Rowing Club was well received by HTBS Types. I think that the enjoyment of learning about a virtually unknown aspect of rowing history is enhanced when the study is set within its political and social context. This is especially so when that context is as interesting as the last 150 years of Chinese history is. This interest is compounded when that history is still so obviously relevant; if the world’s dominant geopolitical power was Britain in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th, some put forward the idea (less popular than it once was) that the 21st century will be dominated by the People’s Republic of China.

The Bund in 1928.

I was very pleased to have found some splendid pictures to illustrate my Shanghai posts, notably a detail from a picture of 1850 in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, titled “The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund”. The Bund was a promenade along Shanghai’s Huangpu River, home to many foreign banks and business houses, later famous for its classic Art Deco buildings of the 1920s and 1930s.

Detail from the Peabody Essex Museum’s, “The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund”. Picture: Creative Commons Licence/Peabody Essex Museum 2006/Mark Sexton Photo.

Unfortunately, the above detail was only available in low resolution, and the only online image of the whole painting was a very small and heavily watermarked copy from a poster company. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that HTBS recently received an e-mail from Peter Simpson of Vesta Rowing Club in Putney. He said that he enjoyed the pieces on Shanghai and, on a recent visit to the wonderful and eclectic Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, he saw what he called the ‘sister’ to the Peabody Essex Shanghai Regatta painting. He attached the picture at the top of this piece and also an image of the detail of a race start.

A race start. A detail from the Ashmolean Museum’s, “The Shanghai Regatta with a View of the Bund”.

Peter’s sharp pictures are much better than the low-resolution ones from the Peabody Essex Museum website. It is difficult to compare pictures of different resolutions but I suspect that the paintings may be by different artists. The quality of the images of the trees in the background of the Peabody Essex picture are superior to the ones in the Ashmolean’s version but, conversely, the boats in the painting residing in Oxford seem to be better executed. Even a brief study shows that the two paintings are different in many details and copies of The Shanghai Regatta may have been produced in numbers as high-class souvenirs for foreigners. Possibly, these were ‘production line’ paintings with more than one artist working on them. The Chinese had been mass producing porcelain aimed at Western tastes for many years, so doing the same with art would have been a logical step.

The Bund c.1900. The marshland in the foreground is Pudong, today the site of many spectacular and iconic modern buildings. © Bristol University’s Historical Photographs of China Collection.

Production line art certainly happens in China today; the suburb of Dafen in Guangdong Provence currently produces 60 per cent of the world’s new oil paintings. This unlikely industry started in 1989 with a contract to produce container loads of ‘art’ for the American chain store, K-Mart, allegedly including one order for 250,000 identical paintings. I’m sending off for an assortment of Jackson Pollocks, two metres of The Massacre of the Innocents, and a pair of Whistler’s Mothers in time for Christmas.

One comment

  1. Excellent analysis, Tim. Reminds me of the Isis Navy project Tom Weil has been working on for years: a stock painting reproduced for mass consumption. Reminds me also of Canaletto in Venice and in London, high quality riverscapes showing similar, sometimes identical, views. Artists could increase revenue by increasing volume and minimize costs by repeating subject matter.

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