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Securing Shanghai: British Women Artists and ‘Their’ City

  • Catherine MacKenzie
Part of the Britain and the World book series (BAW)

Abstract

‘Women seem to be more inspired by China than men, both in art and literature, and … this beautiful and faithful display of studies of my country and her people is evidence of it.’ Such, allegedly, was the reaction of Guo Taiqi, China’s Ambassador to London, to the 1935 exhibition of Vera Southby’s paintings he attended at the City’s Alpine Club Gallery. 1 The newspaper record points to the variety of tactics employed at the time by Chinese officials to solicit British sympathy for their imperilled nation. It also serves as a reminder of the significant involvement of British women in the visualising of China during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Across Britain, tucked away in private homes, occupying spaces in museum vaults and illustrating ageing books on China, are today to be found thousands of images of ‘China and the Chinese’ made by professionally trained and amateur women artists who spent time in what some still called Cathay. The art once enjoyed publics in Britain, being consumed in venues ranging from the humble to the mighty. That era has long gone and, notwithstanding Sara Suleri’s striking, if brief, account of the ideological urgencies and ambiguities embedded within watercolours painted by British women in nineteenth-century India, and Caroline Jordan’s fascinating investigation of the complexities of ‘the picturesque pursuit’ among Australian women artists during the same century, 2 virtually no scholarly work has been undertaken regarding the slightly later body of China work.

Keywords

Royal Academy British Woman China Journal British American Tobacco Hall Exhibition 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    The Shanghai Sunday Times, 1 December 1935: the article refers to Quo Tai-chi, but Pinyin is here employed wherever possible. Southby (1895–1987) was in China for extended periods between 1926 and 1947, frequently exhibiting paintings made there at the Royal Academy: see Martyn Gregory Gallery (1978) An Exhibition of the Works of Vera Southby/Mrs Ake Hartman (London: Martyn Gregory Gallery). Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    S. Suleri (1992) The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 75–7. And C. Jordan (2005) Picturesque Pursuits; Colonial Women Artists and the Amateur Tradition (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    T. Barringer, G. Quilley, and D. Fordham (eds.) (2007) Art and the British Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press), p.3.Google Scholar
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    R. Bickers (1999) Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism 1900–1949 (Manchester: Manchester University Press) was especially valuable for this project.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Very much needed for a fuller understanding of the domestic sphere for British women in China is an equivalent to R.D. Jones (2007) Interiors of Empire; Objects, Space and Identity within the Indian Subcontinent, c. 1800–1947 (Manchester: Manchester University Press), with its rich probing of such phenomena as the Anglo-Indian dwelling (pp. 71–122).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    K. Darian Smith, R. Gillespie, C. Jordan, and E. Willis (eds.) (2008) Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World (Monash University e-press) in passim. Also see Chapters 10, 13 and 14, the last of which addresses the role of women in organising exhibitions of women’s work, a ‘feminist’ exhibition history which may have its parallel among British women in China but is not the subject of this study.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    From Arthur de Carle Sowerby’s account — (1927) ‘The Shanghai Mind,’ The China Journal, 2, 114 — of how a distinguished British visitor, the journalist Lady Drummond Hay, described Shanghai’s foreign community. Similar characterisations continue: see N.R. Clifford (1991) Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s (Hanover: University Press of New England), p. 65 and passim.Google Scholar
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    Little has been published on Leveson MacLeod and her family, but a number of her great-nieces and nephews have provided invaluable information, including the identity of her grandfather, Edward Henry Levyssohn (naturalised Leveson in 1831).Google Scholar
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    A prolific writer of texts for hunters, ‘Old Shekarry’ also published on techniques of unifying Empire: see H. A. L. [H. A. Leveson] (1869) The Projected Sub-Marine Telegraph Cable to India and Australia (London: A.H. Baily).Google Scholar
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    An obituary for Edward John Leveson (The London and China Telegraph, 17 January 1900) emphasised his post-Singapore engagement with colonial politics: ‘He had not a little influence at the Colonial Office, while we believe that we are correct in saying that he knew more members of Parliament than any man outside the House of Commons.’Google Scholar
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    Mary Leveson studied with E. Wensley Russell and at Sir Hubert Herkomer’s School at Bushey: The Times, 8 August 1887 and 9 October 1957. In addition to allowing for the publication of the Read portrait (see his obituary in the Supplement to The London and China Telegraph, 17 May 1909), Leveson began to forge a name for herself through the Royal Academy, contributing a number of portraits of British sitters to the 1896 show and sending a single portrait to the 1899 exhibition: A. Graves (1906) The Royal Academy of Arts, vol V (London: Henry Graves and Sons and George Bell and Sons), p. 48.Google Scholar
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    R.N. Macleod (1879–1947) was the son of one of Shanghai’s leading medical practitioners and public health officials, Dr Neil Macleod.Google Scholar
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    For a recent consideration of John Otway Percy Bland, see A. Best (2010) ‘The Shanghai Temper’: J.O.P. Bland (1863–1945) and Japan’, in Britain and Japan: Biographical Portraits (Folkestone: Global Oriental), pp. 311–22. Macleod provided Bland with images for the 1919 edition of Houseboat Days in China and Something Lighter, 1924.Google Scholar
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    The signing of peace between Germany and Russia, and the resulting ‘need’ to establish a Siberian Front in conjunction with White Russians, was reflected in fundraising activities in the fall of 1918, with the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild in England advising the British Women’s Work Association to focus exclusively on that zone: C. Lucas (ed.) (1926) The Empire at War, vol 5. (London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press), p. 464.Google Scholar
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    English-language newspapers often troubled over Japan’s intentions regarding an Asian ‘empire’, with but one interesting example, ‘Japan and Its Neighbours’, occupying the entire front page of the 8 July 1916 N-C H. Google Scholar
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    ‘The Picture Exhibition’, N-C H, 8 December 1917 and ‘The Picture Exhibition’, North-China Daily News of the same date. The Public School for the Chinese, founded in 1904, had some 400 students who were taught by both British and Chinese instructors: (1918) The Educational Directory and Year Book of China A Reference Book for All Interested in Western Education in China (Shanghai: Edward Evans), p. 46.Google Scholar
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    ‘Arts and Crafts’, Shanghai Times, 22 December 1915 and ‘The Exhibition of Pictures, Arts and Crafts’, N-C H, 24 December 1915.Google Scholar
  24. 39.
    For the formation of the BWA, addressed to women who were afraid of ‘living out of the Western world … and stagnating mentally’, see N-C H, 26 February 1921. The BWA Art Section enjoyed an active membership of 30–40 during the 1920s.Google Scholar
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    The goals of the Faculty of Arts were presented by Elfrida Tharle-Hughes as part of her tour of Asian cities: see N-C H of 20 January 1923.Google Scholar
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    L.B. Wilson, ‘Picture Exhibition of B.W.A.’, N-C H, 23 April 1927.Google Scholar
  27. 42.
    Macleod was soon forgotten by this very population, or so it would appear from reading I.I. Kounin and A. Yaron (1940) The Diamond Jubilee of the International Settlement of Shanghai (US: Post Mercury Co.). There it was simply stated that in terms of painting, ‘Shanghai is poor enough in this field of artistic endeavour, but of late there have come to the fore a number of Russian artists who have placed their works on exhibition and received well-merited acclamation’ (p. 206).Google Scholar
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    For Sowerby, see K. Stevens (1998–9) ‘Naturalist, Author, Artist, Explorer and Editor, and an almost Forgotten President’, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 38, 121–36, and Bickers, Britain in China, p. 168.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    ‘Relatively’ is a deliberate adverb — J. Zheng (December 2006–June 2007) ‘The Shanghai Fine Arts College and Modern Artists in the Public Sphere’ (1913–1937) East Asian History, pp. 32–3, 226–7, establishes that College exhibitions from the same period included as many as 6,000 artworks.Google Scholar
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    ‘Art Exhibition Opened’ N-C H, 17 May 1924 and ‘The Art Exhibition’, N-C H, 24 May 1924. The organising committee for the first CSSA exhibition is listed in (1924) China Journal, 2, 295.Google Scholar
  31. 52.
    On Ronald Macleod’s decision to leave China, see A. Ricard (1961) Mist on the Window Panes (London: Hutchinson), pp. 79–81. For Joe Frost, see Wright, Twentieth Century (p. 620, 624) and G. Leck (2006) Captives of Empire: The Japanese Internment of Allied Civilians in China, 1941–1945 (Bangor: Shandy Press), p. 574.Google Scholar
  32. 53.
    Macleod exhibited her work in a room adjacent to a large showing of Iacovleff’s China subjects at the Grafton Galleries, London, in May 1920. She had a solo show at the Alpine Club Gallery, London, in 1926. Both exhibitions were reviewed in The Times and in art journals, and one image from the 1926 exhibition was reproduced in the The Supplement to the Illustrated London News, 16 April 1927.Google Scholar
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    T.N.L. Brown (1971) The History of the Manchester Geographical Society, 1884–1950 (Manchester: Manchester University Press), p. 68.Google Scholar
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    Faure, ‘Mackay Treaty’, p. 84. According to British businessmen in Shanghai, the Chinese government was not observing the obligations of the Treaty during the summer of 1905. The intensity of their reaction, which included petitions and individual telegrams, is documented in The Times, 1 July 1905, and it provides an early twentieth-century example of how Britain in Shanghai could act as an irritant at the centre.Google Scholar
  35. 64.
    Among British women with art training who lived in Shanghai and began to exhibit prior to the 1930s were Dorothy Burgess Roberts, Gladys Smedley Denham and Eleanor Moore Robertson. For the latter, see A. Tanner (1997) Eleanor Allen Mooreand Robert Cecil Robertson (Helensburgh: Springbank Press).Google Scholar
  36. 65.
    W.E. Leveson, ‘The Future of Shanghai’, The Times, 13 May 1931.Google Scholar
  37. 68.
    P. French (2010) Old Shanghai A-Z (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press), p. 126 in reference to the British Women’s Association.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Catherine MacKenzie 2013

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  • Catherine MacKenzie

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