“A Transcript from Nature”: De-Essentializing Narratives of Imperialism in William Daniell’s The European Factories, Canton


Written by Oriana Tang

Beginning in 1514 with the arrival of the first Portuguese traders, the port of Canton in southeastern China became what postcolonial scholar Mary Louise Pratt calls a “contact zone”: a “space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations.”[1][2] By the time fifteen-year-old William Daniell and his uncle, Thomas, docked at the island of Whampoa more than two centuries later in 1785, Canton, today known as Guangzhou, was a bustling center of commerce between China and Europe. It was also one of the few regions of China still accessible to Europeans. In 1757, the Qing government had issued a series of Imperial edicts confining foreign trade exclusively to the port. Known as the “Canton system,” the regulations set up by the edicts had a dual purpose: “to keep the disrupting effects of foreign trade to a minimum; and to see that this trade brought as much money into the Imperial treasury as possible.”[3] At the time of the Daniells’ trip, then, Canton was not, as one might expect, a site of struggle between colonizer and colonized so much as a struggle between imperial powers for economic domination.

fig 1
Fig. 1. The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

This fact is obscured in William Daniell’s 1806 oil painting of the port, The European Factories, Canton, executed twelve years after he returned to England in 1794 (fig. 1). The piece was commissioned by James Drummond, the Sixth Earl of Strathallan and a protectionist who lived in Canton from 1785 to 1807 as a prominent member of the East India Company.[4][5] In the painting, a throng of Chinese junks drift on the placid surface of the Pearl River. Behind them recedes a long row of low columnated buildings—the European “factories,” or warehouses manned by mercantile agents called “factors”—flying flags from seven European nations. The expansive sky, scrawled with lacey clouds, blushes an inviting pink over the seemingly infinite progression of factories into the distance, while the boats swarming the foreground appear disorganized and fragile. To look at the work is to take in a vision of unassailable Western dominance—a vision that contrasts sharply with the tumultuous truth of European-Sino relations of the period. In this paper, I argue that Daniell’s painting depicts an attempt to naturalize Western—and in particular British—hegemony over China at a time when the status of British trade in Canton was uncertain and unstable. In other words, Daniell draws upon scientific authority and painterly convention in order to create a scene of Western power triumphing over Chinese alterity, a scene that sacrifices the very authenticity Daniell was known to espouse in favor of a political message.

This argument is organized into two parts. In the first, I will consider how Daniell dichotomizes East and West in the painting, characterizing them, respectively, as embodiments of weakness and of power. In the second, I will focus on how Daniell establishes British ascendency among the Western nations represented in the work. I will conclude by examining the broader narratives in which the painting is implicated.

fig 2
Fig. 2. The European Factories at Canton in China (1805), William Daniell (R.A.)
Colored aquatint, 15 3/4 x 30 1/4 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

Throughout my argument, I will draw comparisons between the painting and an aquatint of the same scene titled The European Factories at Canton in China, which William produced in 1805 (fig. 2).[6] The subtle differences between the two works reveal the process of politicization to which the painting was subjected.


Understanding the physical and political conditions under which the Daniells experienced Canton is crucial to understanding William’s motivation for depicting the port in essentializing terms. To the Daniells, the obstructive nature of Anglo-Chinese relations was not merely peripheral knowledge mediated through newsprint, but part and parcel of their travels. Unlike Thomas Sutton, who postulates in his expansive 1954 biography of the Daniells that William’s rosy portrayals of China stemmed from youthful ignorance of the anxiety bubbling beneath the port’s exotic exterior, I provide this context in order to suggest that William was, in fact, all too aware—and that his awareness supplied the reactionary impulse behind The European Factories, Canton.[7]

The Daniells visited Canton twice, first in 1785 and again in 1794.[8] Though the visits totaled several months, the port was in fact merely a layover in the Daniells’ journeys to and from India. There, they planned to follow in the footsteps of the artist William Hodges, one of the first professional British landscape painters to visit the country. But it was much easier to secure passage to China, which by the 1780s was “the most important commercial destination for the East India Company’s ships,” than to locate a direct route. From Canton, the trip to Bengal would only take an additional eight weeks.[9]

In order to obtain any passage to Asia, however, the Daniells first had to receive permission from the British East India Company. The conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 had effectively cemented Britain’s status as the foremost imperial power in Europe, and the East India Company was the agent of that status.[10] More than an economic entity, the joint-stock company held enormous influence both in Britain and in its overseas outposts. Its Court of Directors maintained ties to Parliament and the Admiralty, and at the height of its power in the early nineteenth century, the East India Company served administrative and military functions in India—essentially governing the colony.[11] Clearance to travel was not guaranteed—the artist Johan Zoffany was denied passage on the Company’s ships—but on December 1, 1874, the Company granted Thomas Daniell permission to “proceed to Bengal to follow his profession of an engraver,” and ten days later extended approval to William to accompany his uncle as an “assistant.”[12] On April 7, 1785, the pair departed England from the town of Gravesend on board the Company ship the Atlas.[13] The Daniells’ travels thus began with the blessing of the institution, both literal and figural, of British imperialism.

The balance of power shifted once the Daniells arrived at the Portuguese settlement of Macao on August 22. European ships were not permitted to dock at Canton. Besides the obvious reason—that Chinese authorities “had no desire to see large foreign ships close to the city”—the Pearl River delta was also difficult for large vessels to navigate.[14] Consequently, ships first paused at Macao to take on professional pilots, who steered them from the South China Sea through the fortified Bocca Tigris Strait and into the mouth of the delta. There, river pilots took over, directing the ships down the Pearl River to Whampoa, an island about twelve miles from the port of Canton. Chinese port authorities could delay the already-fitful process further by withholding permits to proceed (though the Atlas appeared to have averted this problem with bribes). [15] Nor was the journey over at Whampoa: to reach the mainland, Europeans had to pay “six to ten dollars” to be ferried into the port on Chinese passage boats. These boats, which appeared to naval surgeon James Johnson “like little floating castles” propelled “by oars fixed on each quarter” when he made the journey in November 1804, forced their customers into the role of tourists. The volume of traffic on the river made movement slow, and the boats were designed to allow passengers to “sit and drink tea, or loll on sofas, at their ease” while gazing at the passing scenery.[16] Though Johnson found the trip stimulating, the tourist pose, desired or not, held Westerners at a distance and framed them, on this last leg to the city, as outsiders.

William’s painting is probably based off of sketches made by him, or, more likely given his lack of experience, by his uncle from the deck of one of these passage boats. From no other location would the Daniells have been close enough to shore to render the factories in such detail—Whampoa Island, the closest landmass to the port, would have been too far away for the artists to see even the shoreline. The painting also places the viewer in the middle of the river, a position the Daniells could only have occupied while standing or sitting on the deck of a ship. The sluggish progress of a Chinese passage boat would have afforded them ample time to draw the junks crowding the river and the warehouses rising in the distance.

Interestingly, however, the painting offers no indication that a passage boat deck was the platform from which the scene was observed. The viewer is instead positioned above the river, scrutinizing it from an inhuman height as an estate owner might look out over a property. Though vantage points that implied a godlike sense of ownership were popular in landscape paintings, it seems probable that William chose this perspective not merely out of artistic sensibility, but out of political purpose. After all, the artist would have had no reason to make explicit—and indeed would have had reason to obfuscate—the fact that the only position from which he could create the scene was one controlled on multiple levels by an alien competitor for imperial hegemony. On the Pearl River, the Daniells lacked both local agency (their view of the port was controlled by the progress of a Chinese boat steered by a Chinese pilot) and legal agency (their view was so controlled because the Qing government prohibited European ships from approaching Canton). The lack of a viewing platform within the painting can thus be read as reactionary: by floating the viewer above the scene, William effaces the painter’s presence and shifts the viewer’s attention away from the artifice of compositional construction. As a result, the perspective takes on an empirical attitude, and the viewer’s sense of ownership becomes a naturalized element of their gaze.

Compounding the frustrations of mobility on the water were additional restrictions on shore. Licensed Chinese merchants called “Hong” regulated all commercial activities. Outside of the trading season, which lasted from October to March, resident traders were “required by the Chinese policy… [to withdraw] to Macao,” where their families lived year-round—women were prohibited from entering the port. For the male traders and visitors who were allowed to step on shore at Canton, movement was limited to the area around the warehouses known as the Foreign Factory Site. The enticing city proper was gated and guarded. Instead, foreigners experienced a vision of China tailored to their tastes: shops around the factories boasted signs written in English and sold lacquer, carvings, porcelain, and other objets d’art manufactured for Western consumption. Though these pieces of export art were far from “authentic” representations of Chinese culture, the European vogue for chinoiserie ensured that the port shops dealt a lively trade in souvenirs. As one Briton wrote, “It is almost impossible to see them… without feeling tempted to purchase.” [17] Designed to seduce travelers and induce consumption while obstructing access to the interior, the Foreign Factory Site itself thus acted as a subtle microcosm of Chinese control over foreigners.

These limitations are, once again, disguised in The European Factories, Canton. Instead, William Daniell presents the Foreign Factory Site as a zone ceaselessly expanding both physically, into space, and temporally, into the future. The shadowy mass of Chinese junks to the left and the large flower boat to the right serve as a repoussoir frame. Between them, the eye ricochets through the tangled mass of fishing boats and house boats to land comfortably on the geometric forms of the warehouses, which are angled so as to appear to extend far into the distance. Subtle details nudge the viewer along the buildings and into the painting: all of the flags flutter to the left, drawing the eye inward, while their poles amplify the orderly progression of the columns below and establish, in the words of one curator, “a rhythm across the canvas which [sic] suggests the march of commercial progress.”[18] Even the scalloped edges of the clouds direct the viewer’s gaze toward the sky flushing above the farthest of the warehouses. Though in reality the factories spanned only a few hundred yards, they appear in the painting to parade into infinity.[19]

Fig. 5. Hongs at Canton, China (19th century), unidentified Chinese artist
Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 24 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Comparing The European Factories, Canton with Chinese export paintings of the period reveals the extent to which William misrepresented the expansiveness of the port. Though export artists attempted to appeal to Western consumers by replicating the conventions of Western artwork, the hybrid works they created were only superficially mimetic: they lacked the intellectual impulse of the European academic tradition. While no work of art can truly be considered “accurate,” these export artists at least did not share the same ethos of representation as European artists; their work thus makes for useful comparative material. A nineteenth-century oil painting titled Hongs at Canton, China by an unidentified Chinese artist (or, more likely, artists, because export paintings were typically manufactured assembly line-style in workshops) (fig. 5) depicts the same stretch of buildings as represented in The European Factories, Canton. Here, however, the viewer confronts the façades head-on, rather than at an angle; the warehouses appear flat rather than endless. Most importantly, one can see the terminus of the factory region to the left of the Danish warehouse, where the graceful Neoclassical-esque columns abruptly give way to tightly-spaced rows of low, dark buildings. Daniell’s painting gives no indication that such an inelegant depot awaits in the distance.

fig 4
Fig. 4. A View in China: Cultivating the Tea Plant (1810), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 72 13/16 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 2
Fig. 7. “Chinese Lady” from A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China (1810),
Thomas Daniell (R.A.), William Daniell (R.A.)
Book of colored plates, 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

One may argue that the factories of the painting entice the viewer much as their real counterparts must have enticed the Daniells as they approached the shore via the Pearl River. Doubtless their first sightings of the exotic port enchanted the artists upon arrival, and doubtless, too, they could not tell from sight just how constrained they would be on land. However, such an interpretation does not account for the fact that the Daniells did not experience Canton solely by sight and from a distance; indeed, they knew from the experience of several months just how limited an area the Foreign Factory Site occupied. And the pair almost certainly felt frustrated by the restrictions imposed on their ability to explore the Chinese interior. Aping expertise, both uncle and nephew published several works depicting scenes they could never have seen, scenes they conjured almost entirely from the imagination to feed the European hunger for Oriental imagery. William’s 1810 painting A View in China: Cultivating the Tea Plant, for example, illustrates a process that, at the time of the painting’s creation, was still a well-kept secret from foreigners due to the importance of tea as an export product (fig. 4).[20] Kee Il Choi, Jr., has argued that the artist made the painting by copying the composition of a Chinese export work depicting a similar scene.[21] Likewise, the Daniells’ 1810 book of watercolors A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China features several plates of “Chinese ladies” holding opium pipes and promenading around their gardens on bound feet—scenes that, notwithstanding their inherent absurdity, would not have been accessible to prying foreign eyes (fig. 7). Given their desperation to transcend the restrictions of the Foreign Factory Site with their imaginations, then, it seems improbable that either William or Thomas would have retained any illusion of the port’s expansiveness. Its exaggerated glory in paint must therefore be an intentional fabrication.

image 5
Fig. 10. Details of Chinese boats in The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in., Yale Center for British Art,
New Haven, CT
fig 10

If the buildings of the painting are dynamic entities, it is the ships that are, ironically, the static ones. By drawing a sharp contrast between the (literal) immobility of the ships and the (figural) mobility of the buildings, William distorts the reality of his experience in the port, emphasizing the advancement of Europe’s economic interests in the face of Chinese physical and technological inertia. Though the ships—with their stiff sails, human pilots, and oars—are well-equipped to move, nothing in the painting indicates that they actually do move. They leave imperceptible trails in the water and reflect almost perfectly in its surface, as though the river were a mirror on which they had been placed (fig. 10). The water itself seems less liquid than solid: despite its luminosity, it appears viscous and impenetrable, an effect that is enhanced by the even, almost-invisible brushstrokes comprising its mass.

image 6
Fig. 11. Detail of flower boat with sail in The European Factories at Canton in China (1805), William Daniell (R.A.)
Colored aquatint, 15 3/4 x 30 1/4 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 7
Fig. 12. Detail of flower boat without sail in The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

The political ethos driving this representation becomes even more evident when the painting is compared with the aquatint produced a year earlier. Here, the existence of a current is undeniable. Bands of light and dark ripple across the water. Though the ships’ reflections still look unnaturally developed, the variegated streaks interrupt them to create a sense of depth and motion. The difference in mobility may in part be attributed to medium—with aquatint, William could etch in the ripple lines and stipple the areas between them to create patches of light and dark—but the effect of the change is too dramatic to be put down solely to technique. In the aquatint, the river and ships appear lively, busy; in the painting, they look frozen and dark. Distinct from the change in medium, William also removes the sail—the very means of propulsion—of the flower boat on the painting’s right (fig. 11, 12). Read alongside the inflated expansiveness of the European factories, William’s decision to arrest the movement of the Chinese ships in The European Factories, Canton suggests a desire to essentialize the difference between stagnant East and progressive West.

In this section, I have argued that the Daniells’ experience of restricted mobility in Canton motivated William to create a distorted view of the port in his 1806 painting. He did so not because he misunderstood the frustrations of being a foreigner in China at the end of the eighteenth century, but because he knew it all too well. The anxiety provoked by seeing European superiority challenged by the Qing Imperial government triggered a desire to emphasize that superiority in art. The resultant painting inflates the presence of the European factories while hampering the mobility of the Chinese ships, framing European-Sino relations in a false dichotomy of power.


In this section, I narrow my focus from European-Sino relations to British-Sino relations. As British artists, sailing on ships belonging to the British East India Company, the Daniells very much felt themselves to be representatives of their home nation. William’s nationalism is reflected in The European Factories, Canton, which, though it presents a vision of Western ascendency as a whole, emphasizes the leading role of Britain within that whole.

British-Sino relations came to life for the Daniells in the intersection of their second visit to Canton while en-route back to England in 1794 with the end of the first British diplomatic mission to China.[22] Led by Lord George Macartney, the Earl of Lissanore, and commissioned by King George III to inaugurate a treaty-based relationship between the two nations, the embassy arrived at the port of Taku (Tianjin) on August 5, 1793.[23][24] The delegation had several objectives: to establish a permanent ambassador at the Imperial Court in Beijing, to improve trading conditions in Canton, to open new trading ports in north and central China, and to obtain an island that could be settled and governed under British law, much as Macao was governed by the Portuguese.[25][26] With these changes to the British position in the China trade, the embassy hoped to evade both Chinese and Portuguese control while assuming the freedom and stature they felt befit their status as the foremost imperial power in the West and, so they believed, in the world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the embassy was a dismal failure. Despite careful planning, the British were ill-equipped for the mission. Interpreters had to be sourced from Naples because none could be found in Britain.[27] The embassy’s gifts, which included a Herschel telescope, a planetarium, artillery pieces, air pumps and carriages, Wedgwood pottery, chandeliers, clocks, and watches, were all considered useless knick-knacks and accepted as tribute rather than as presents given by a nation of equal standing.[28] Though Macartney met with the Qianlong emperor several times between September 14 and October 7, when the delegation departed Beijing for Canton, his entreaties were made—unbeknownst to him—in vain.[29] The official Chinese reply to the embassy rejecting all of its demands had been drafted three days before the mission even arrived.[30] The message was not only dismissive but patronizing:

Our Empire produces all that we ourselves need. Your mechanical toys do not interest us in the least. But since our tea, rhubarb and silk seem to be necessary to the very existence of the barbarous Western peoples, we will, imitating the clemency of Heaven, Who tolerates all sorts of fools on this globe, condescend to allow a limited amount of trading through the port of Canton.[31]

The embassy’s failure soured Western perception of the Chinese. The British began to view China “as a weak and vulnerable nation which should be forced to modernise.”[32] This new cultural attitude flowered through the first decades of the nineteenth century and led to the forced breakdown of the Canton system in 1839 as China struggled with an opium crisis manufactured by British smugglers, who created the market for European goods that the Qianlong emperor had dismissed as nonexistent in 1793.[33] It was while living in a London mired in this attitude that William Daniell painted The European Factories, Canton in 1806.

In the meantime, however, the Daniells received only a taste of the mission’s disheartening aftermath. After several grueling and unsuccessful attempts to return to England, uncle and nephew landed in Canton for the second time on January 3, 1794, on board the East India Company ship the Exeter. In the port, they spent several days with Thomas Hickey, a portrait painter whom the Daniells had met in Calcutta and who was serving as the official artist of the Macartney Embassy, and William Alexander, the delegation’s official “draughtsman.” Though the two pairs of artists did not overlap for much more than a week, Hickey and Alexander’s disappointment with the mission, both politically and as an opportunity to sketch the Chinese interior, colored the Daniells’ last impressions of China.[34] [35] For William, who was only twenty-four years old, spending time with Hickey and Alexander meant that the failure of the delegation was not merely a news item, but an event with emotional weight. To the Daniells, then, the Macartney Embassy was a human situation as well as a political one. The Daniells left China in the same convoy as Hickey, Alexander, and the rest of the delegation in mid-March and reached England in December 1794.[36]

fig 3
Fig. 3. Canton Factory Site (1785 – 1800), William or Thomas Daniell
Soft-ground etching, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
image 3
Fig. 8. Detail of junks from “Chinese Junks” from A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China (1810),
Thomas Daniell (R.A.), William Daniell (R.A.)
Book of colored plates, 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 4
Fig. 9. Detail of merchant ships from “Scene on the Canton River” from A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China (1810),
Thomas Daniell (R.A.), William Daniell (R.A.)
Book of colored plates, 7 3/4 x 12 1/4 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 8
Fig. 13. Detail of factory flags in The European Factories at Canton in China (1805), William Daniell (R.A.)
Colored aquatint, 15 3/4 x 30 1/4 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 9
Fig. 14. Detail of factory flags in The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

Though their second trip to Canton gave them an additional ten weeks to make sketches, William’s painting is likely based off of drawings made on their first trip, in 1785. Both the painting and the aquatint that preceded it appear to have roots in a soft-ground etching of a nearly identical scene, dated between 1785 and 1800, which may have been produced as a study for the print (fig. 3). The composite nature of these three depictions of the European factories is supported by the fact that several of the ships are portrayed similarly to those represented in A picturesque voyage, signifying that the works originated from the same source sketches (fig. 8, 9). In any case, both etching and aquatint can be dated to 1785 by the appearance of the factory flags: the second flag from the left is the white Bourbon flag flown by the French government before the French Revolution replaced it with the tricolor in 1789, and the American flag, which was not erected until 1799, is missing. Significantly, the 1806 painting includes both the updated French tricolor and the American flag, which is squeezed (somewhat awkwardly) between the French and Swedish ones (fig. 13, 14). These amendments would appear to suggest that William Daniell wished the oil painting to present a more current view of the European factories than the aquatint executed a year earlier.

image 1
Fig. 6. Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags (1805), unidentified Chinese artist
Reverse painting on glass, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

However, certain discrepancies call this hypothesis into question. According to Patrick Conner, the “Danish, French and Swedish flags had all disappeared since the turn of the century”; a Chinese export reverse glass painting from 1805 accordingly leaves out the French flag (fig. 6), while an export oil painting from between 1815 and 1822 shows only the Spanish, American, British, and Dutch flags.[37][38] A more current view, then, would feature at most only six of the seven flags William paints into The European Factories, Canton. His decision to include all seven—to add flags when historically relevant but not to remove them—indicates that he was driven not by a concern for “accuracy” but by a desire to dominate the view with recognizable emblems of European nationalism.

image 10
Fig. 15. Detail of factory verandas in The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in., Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

Among those emblems, Britain’s flag is foremost. It is second in size only to the Dutch flag, which is closer to the foreground and therefore should be larger anyway. In fact, the Union Jack is disproportionately large—it spans almost twice the width of the Swedish flag, which is much smaller than its position within the painting’s system of perspective suggests it should be—and stands proudly apart from the cluster of flags to its left, even though Chinese export paintings indicate that the flags were planted equidistant from one another. William further enhances this vision of superiority with his careful rendering of the veranda jutting from the British warehouse. This structure, with its generous pediment, delicate railings, and open balcony milling with people, far outshines the narrow Dutch veranda to its right; it draws the eye as the central architectural feature of the entire factory row (fig. 15). William made his faith in Britain’s dominance explicit in A picturesque voyage, when he concluded a caption with the following:

In this animated scene it is pleasing to our countrymen to observe the superior elegance of the British factory; and so honourable is the character of the East India Company, that boxes of dollars bearing their stamp pass through China like bank notes in England. In such estimation is the commercial prosperity and probity of our country in that remote corner of the globe.[39]

In other words, William is interested not in the “prosperity and probity” of the West as a whole, but in the “superior elegance of the British factory”—a political stance that manifests in his treatment of the factory flags.

image 11
Fig. 16. Detail of English sloop in The European Factories at Canton in China (1805), William Daniell (R.A.)
Colored aquatint, 15 3/4 x 30 1/4 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT
image 12
Fig. 17. Detail of English sloop in The European Factories, Canton (1806), William Daniell (R.A.)
Oil on canvas, 34 x 50 in.,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

Most telling of all, however, are the alterations William made to the ship gliding towards shore at the center of The European Factories, Canton (fig. 16, 17). The vessel’s counterpart in aquatint is unremarkable but plausible. Although its sails are triangular rather than trapezoidal, the craft is not obviously European: like the sails on the Chinese ships, its sails are ribbed and dun-colored; the white flag flying from the top of its mast is tiny and illegible, projecting neither pride nor national allegiance. In the painting, however, the ship becomes the ultimate symbol of British hegemony. William takes advantage of the vessel’s position in the middle of the Pearl River to make it a focal point. The ship trails a silver thread of foam in its wake, a sign of movement displayed by no other vessel in the painting. Without ribbing, its smooth triangular sails are classifiable as those of an English sailing sloop. They gleam a creamy white that echoes the color of the factory façades and stands out from the muddy hues of the Chinese junks. Least ambiguous of all is the small but distinctive Union Jack planted on the mast: the unmistakable brand of the British Empire.

Given the stringency of Chinese laws governing trading policy at the port, the sloop’s factual presence on the Pearl River is all but impossible. But by centering it so prominently in The European Factories, Canton, and by declaring it so unequivocally British, William Daniell flouts Chinese authority and asserts a vision of Britain’s ultimate supremacy over both East and West. The sloop’s swift, smooth glide to shore is the antithesis of the Daniells’ bureaucracy-ridden experience of traveling to and within the city. Its singularity as a representative on the water rewrites the failure of the Macartney Embassy and elevates Britain above its Western brethren. In this modified sloop crystallize the imperial ambitions of the Daniells’ home country, even as the sloop’s very presence in the painting runs counter to historical reality.


The Daniells arrived in Bengal in early 1786, just a few months after William Hodges began to publish his Selected Views in India, Drawn on the Spot, in the Years 1780 – 1783, and Executed in Aquatinta.[40] Both jealous of and inspired by Hodges, the Daniells were not interested in merely representing India as they saw it: rather, they wished to outdo their predecessor by “[‘correcting’] what they found to be Hodges’s overly idealized eye.”[41] Revisiting many of the sites and structures Hodges toured, the Daniells drew the scenes with the aid of a camera obscura and tracked the distance they traveled between each with a perambulator. They worked their sketches in aquatint and published them in six volumes between 1795 and 1808 as Oriental Scenery, the collection that would become known as their oeuvre.[42]

The Daniells, in other words, were committed to an empirical mode of representation. In their travels and their art, they embodied the popular interest in science and direct observation growing in England throughout the eighteenth century.[43] Hodges’s Selected Views emphasizes to buyers the fact that they were indeed “drawn on the spot,” as their title declared. The Daniells co-opted that same authenticity of presence and combined it with the objective authority of a tool, the camera obscura, which mechanizes and mediates the process of looking, in order to demonstrate their investment in scientific “accuracy.” They viewed the indigenous peoples they met throughout Asia as anthropological specimens and wrote about their travels with a jaded worldliness that often belied their lack of expertise.[44] They presented their art as a paragon of veracity, writing, in the introduction to A picturesque voyage:

To assist the imagination in this erratic flight is the object of the following work: delineation is the only medium by which a faithful description can be given of sensible images: the pencil is narrative to the eye; and however minute in its relations, can scarcely become tedious; its representations are not liable to the omissions of memory, or the misconceptions of fancy; whatever it communicates is a transcript from nature.[45]

I bring up the Daniells’ commitment to empiricism now to suggest the extent to which William Daniell’s distortions of the truth in The European Factories, Canton may have been read not as a manipulated reality but as reality itself. Few images of China existed in Britain at the start of the nineteenth century; each new depiction of the country, whether of landscape, people, or flora and fauna, would have provided a tantalizing well of information. In fact, an 1805 review of William’s aquatint of the scene declares, “This is a very beautiful and interesting print, by an artist from whose previous engravings we have more than once derived some entertainment, and obtained some information, relative to objects little known to the public before their publication.”[46] For viewers of the work at the 1806 Royal Academy Exhibition, particularly viewers familiar with the Daniells’ reputation for accuracy, the painting’s depiction of British ascendency and Chinese inferiority would have been understood and internalized as fact. The righteousness of British imperialism would have been reaffirmed in yet another corner of the globe.

In contemporary discussions of imperialism, we tend to emphasize the relationship between colonizer and colonized. Often neglected is the equally-significant relationship between colonizer and colonizer. But imperialism is a system of competition, a zero-sum game fought over limited capital and limited territory whose participants are not limited to Western powers. Relegating the West to the position of colonizer and the East to the position of colonized reproduces the same essentializing patterns of thinking that maintained systems of Western imperialism in the first place.

William Daniell’s 1806 painting The European Factories, Canton takes advantage of these patterns of thinking to misrepresent layers of international relationships and present a false vision of British ascendency in Europe and in the world. Having experienced firsthand both the aftermath of the failed Macartney Embassy and the restrictions on mobility imposed by the Qing government, William would have had good reason to conceal the embarrassment of British weakness against the Chinese in his art. The resultant composition pits Eastern alterity against Western progress, while emphasizing the supremacy of Britain among the European empires.

image 13
Fig. 18. Exhibition view of “British Imperialism” wall in the Long Gallery,
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT

Its message remains a convincing one: on the fourth floor of the Yale Center for British Art, the painting hangs in the Long Gallery as the centerpiece of a wall titled “British Imperialism” (fig. 18). Surrounded by scenes of ruins and portraits of indigenous victims of colonization, it is easy—even automatic—to read the narrative of British colonizer versus colonized “other” into the work. Even when we intend this reading to critique the role of the British, we trap ourselves in an interpretation that assumes it is the West that holds the position of oppressor, rather than recognizing the struggle for dominance in which both West and East were ensnared. The programmatic nature of this assumption is the ultimate proof that William Daniell’s effort to naturalize European, and British, hegemony has succeeded. It is only by re-reading historical context into the work that we can begin to recognize the complex webs of agency, motivation, and power embroiling both East and West and challenge the essentializing narratives of difference that paintings like Daniell’s have taught us to internalize.

About the Author

Oriana Tang is a senior English major at Yale University.  She’s interested in histories of imperialism.


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Daniell, Thomas and William Daniell. A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China. London: Longman, Hurste, Rees, and Orme, 1810.

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The China Trade: Romance and Reality. Edited by Frederick P. Waley, H.A. Crosby Forbes, and Kee Il Choi, Jr. Lincoln, MA: DeCordova Museum, 1979. Exhibition catalogue.

“The European Factories at Canton, in China, drawn, engraved and published by William Daniell, and dedicated to J. Woolnoth, Esq.” Monthly magazine, or, British regster, September 1805.

The European Factories, Canton. Wall label record. May 19, 2005. Yale Center for British Art.

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The Pursuit of Happiness: A View of Life in Georgian England. Edited by J.H. Plumb. New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 1977. Exhibition catalogue.

William Hodges, 1744 – 1797: The Art of Exploration. Edited by Geoff Quilley and John Bonehill. London: National Maritime Museum, 2004. Exhibition catalogue.

Wood, Frances. “Britain’s First View of China: The Macartney Embassy 1792 – 1794.” RSA Journal 142, no. 5447 (1994): 59 – 68. Accessed May 3, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41376393

“Woolmore, John (1755 – 1837), of Hampton, Mdx. and Kingsterndale, Derbys.” The History of Parliament. Accessed May 4, 2018. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1790-1820/member/woolmore-john-1755-1837


[1] Chinese Export Art and Design, edited by Craig Clunas (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1987), exhibition catalogue, 12.

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 6.

[3] The China Trade: Romance and Reality, edited by Frederick P. Waley, H.A. Crosby Forbes, and Kee Il Choi, Jr. (Lincoln, MA: DeCordova Museum, 1979), exhibition catalogue, 12.

[4] British Paintings 1500 – 1850 (London: Sotheby’s, 1989): 105.

[5] “Drummond, James Andrew John Lawrence Charles (1767 – 1851), of Tullibardine and Strathallan, Perth,” The History of Parliament, accessed May 4, 2018. http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/drummond-james-1767-1851

[6] Prints were typically made as popular, affordable alternatives to paintings, so it is unusual that the aquatint preceded the oil in the case of The European Factories, Canton. However, by the time the print was produced, William Daniell had already established a reputation as a “master engraver” whose technical skills trumped his uncle’s. Friends and acquaintances recognized this fact as early as July 1800, when a family friend described in his diary a failed attempt to solicit William’s work: “[Robert] Smirke called—and asked my opinion as to his proposing to [Thomas] Daniell that Wm. Daniell should execute the Aqua Tinta part of the plates he proposes to do of subjects from Tom Jones…. [Thomas] Daniell said he could not agree to it as he wished William to become a painter now” (Joseph Farington qtd. Prior 193). It is thus possible that John Woolmore, the shipowner to whom the print is dedicated, commissioned William to create an aquatint not because he could not afford a painting, but because it was what William was known to do best.

[7] Thomas Sutton, The Daniells: Artists and Travellers (London: The Bodley Head Limited, 1954), 18.

[8] Katherine Prior, An Illustrated Journey Round the World (London: Folio Society, 2007), 3, 179.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] William Hodges, 1744 – 1797: The Art of Exploration, edited by Geoff Quilley and John Bonehill (London: National Maritime Museum, 2004), exhibition catalogue, 1.

[11] Ibid., 35.

[12] Sutton, The Daniells, 15.

[13] Prior, An Illustrated Journey, 3.

[14] Paintings of the China Trade: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection of Historic Paitings, edited by Patrick Conner (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Maritime Museum, 2013), exhibition catalogue, 6 – 7.

[15] Prior, An Illustrated Journey, 11 – 17.

[16] James Johnson, The Oriental Voyager, Or, Descriptive Sketches and Cursory Remarks, on a Voyage to India and China, in His Majesty’s Ship Caroline, Performed in the Years 1803-4-5-6, qtd Prior 14.

[17] Fa-ti Fan, British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 15 – 17.

[18] The European Factories, Canton, wall label record, May 19, 2005, Yale Center for British Art.

[19] Fan, British Naturalists in Qing China, 15.

[20] Chinese Export Art and Design, 16.

[21] The China Trade: Romance and Reality, 34 – 35

[22] Prior, An Illustrated Journey, 179.

[23] Pritchard, Earl H., “The Kotow in the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793,” The Far Eastern Quarterly 2, no. 2 (1943): 163 – 164, accessed May 3, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2049496

[24] The delegation’s refusal to adhere to convention and dock at Canton disconcerted Chinese officials, whom Macartney placated by claiming that the long overland trip from Canton to Beijing would damage the fragile gifts he had brought for the emperor. This was the first of many missteps taken by the embassy, including the now-famous refusal of Macartney to perform kowtow, a display of respect to the emperor during which one kneels and knocks one’s head on the floor. However, the failures of all previous European embassies (including those of the Dutch, whose members had performed kowtow) suggest that Macartney would have failed in his mission regardless of his willingness to follow Chinese customs (Wood 60).

[25] Pritchard, “The Kotow in the Macartney Embassy,” 163.

[26] Rogério Miguel Puga, “Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China, 1792 – 1794,” in The British Presence in Macau, 1635 – 1793, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013): 124.

[27] Fan, British Naturalists in Qing China, 18.

[28] “The Macartney Embassy: Gifts Exchanged Between George III and the Qianlong Emperor,” Royal Collection Trust, accessed May 3, 2018. https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/trails/the-macartney-embassy-gifts-exchanged-between-george-iii-and-the-qianlong

[29] Pritchard, “The Kotow in the Macartney Embassy,” 164.

[30] Wood, Frances, “Britain’s First View of China: The Macartney Embassy 1792 – 1794,” RSA Journal 142, no. 5447 (1994): 60, accessed May 3, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41376393.

[31] The China Trade: Romance and Reality, 5.

[32] Puga, “Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China, 1792 – 1794,” 129.

[33] Peter C. Perdue, “Rise & Fall of the Canton Trade System – III,” MIT Visualizing Cultures, accessed May 3, 2018. https://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/rise_fall_canton_01/pdf/cw03_essay03.pdf

[34] Prior, An Illustrated Journey, 179 – 182.

[35] Macartney had forced the artists to stay behind in Beijing while the rest of the convoy traveled to the emperor’s summer residence in Jehol. William Alexander complained to the Daniells about the injustice at sufficient length that Thomas felt compelled to recount the situation to a family friend upon their return to England, who, in turn, noted it in his journal: “When Lord Macartney went from Pekin to visit the Emperor of China, He left the two artists [Hickey and Alexander] behind painting banners &c. with the King of Englands Arms &c. to decorate tents &c. for a proposed shew. Thus they were deprived of seeing a country which is said to be beautiful and romantic, particularly beyond the celebrated China Wall…. Alexander complained that Hickey refused to supply him with paper & pencils when he required them, though a large stock was laid in of which Hickey had the care” (Joseph Farington qtd Prior 181).  

[36] Prior, An Illustrated Journey, 182 – 193.

[37] Paintings of the China Trade, 15.

[38] No image of the export oil painting is available for reproduction online, but it appears as the second catalogue entry in Paintings of the China Trade: The Sze Yuan Tang Collection of Historic Paintings, ed. Patrick Conner.

[39] Thomas Daniell and William Daniell, A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China (London: Longman, Hurste, Rees, and Orme, 1810), “South-West View of Canton.”

[40] Pheroza Godrej and Pauline Rohatgi, Scenic Splendours: India Through the Printed Image (London: The British Library, 1989), 20.

[41] Zahid R. Chaudhury, “Armor and Aesthesis: The Picturesque in Difference,” in Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 116.

[42] Godrej and Rohatgi, Scenic Splendours, 47.

[43] The Pursuit of Happiness: A View of Life in Georgian England, edited by J.H. Plumb (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 1977), exhibition catalogue, 21 – 22.

[44] The Daniells’ captions throughout A picturesque voyage adopt this knowledgeable pose. The results are occasionally humorous: writing on the fragility of Chinese vessels, one caption notes, “Numbers of these vessels sail every season from Canton on commercial expeditions, and it is computed that ten thousand seamen perish annually in the Chinese seas. No one embarks in this perilous enterprize [sic] without taking a solemn farewel [sic] of his family and friends; and should it be his fate to return, his restoration is joyfully celebrated as a resurrection from death” (“Chinese Vessels,” A picturesque voyage). At other times, the false expertise is dangerous, even sinister—at one point, the Daniells insinuate that the Chinese have a natural weakness for opium: “They [the British traders] draw almost all the articles of subsistence from Canton, and in return smuggle opium among the Chinese, whose fondness for this pernicious drug eludes the vigilance and baffles the authority of the government” (“Macao,” A picturesque voyage).

[45] Daniell and Daniell, A picturesque voyage, “Introduction.”

[46] “The European Factories at Canton, in China, drawn, engraved and published by William Daniell, and dedicated to J. Woolnoth, Esq,” Monthly magazine, or, British regster, September 1805, 165.