The very first works of art whose acquisition was to lay the foundation for the Hong Kong Museum of Art and its collections were historical pictures reflecting the life, customs and landscapes of China in the preceding centuries. Long before the museum itself was established, two benevolent businessmen, Sir Paul Chater and Sir Robert Hotung, donated their private art collections to the Hong Kong Government, which thus came into the possession of a large quantity of paintings, photographs and maps depicting the Pearl River Delta and scenes along China's coastline in the 18th and 19th centuries. Later, the government purchased a number of historical pictures that had been collected by Wyndham Law and Geoffrey Sayer. The custodianship of these works was then handed over to the City Museum and Art Gallery of Hong Kong, which opened in 1962 and was later to become the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Building on this core, the museum continues to acquire relevant works for its collection, which, with over 1,200 sets of pictorial objects now in its collection, has not only become an invaluable resource for historical study but also bears witness to the artistic achievements of a particular group of painters.
Many of the painters of these historical pictures were Western artists who came to China in the 18th and 19th century to trade or to tour. During their sojourns in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou, they churned out many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings depicting scenes of the daily life and landscape they encountered. After returning to their home countries, some reproduced their works in various types of prints, and it was through their ‘travelogues' that China, the Middle Kingdom at the heart of the exotic Far East, was introduced to the Western world.
Foreign traders and artists brought Western painting techniques with them to China, which several native Chinese artists took the time to master. Cannily spotting an opportunity, they set up art studios in Guangzhou and Hong Kong where they mass-produced genre scenes of treaty ports, portraits and still lifes, which were then sold to foreign tradesmen as souvenirs. China trade paintings found a huge market at that time, but with the growing popularity of photography in the late 19th century, they lost their pre-eminent place and eventually became part of the history that they were themselves intended to portray.
The works selected here highlight both the meticulous style of Chinese artists and the impassioned brushstrokes of Western painters. But perhaps what the visitor will find more striking is the simplicity of Hong Kong before her colonization in 1841, perhaps more attractive the romantic appeal of Macau's Praya Grande during the previous century, more impressive the past prosperity of the city of Guangzhou. Through these images that are by turns fascinating and yet vaguely familiar, the Historical Pictures Collection offers a rare insight into our distant past.