© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London | Licence: CC BY-NC-ND
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London | Licence: CC BY-NC-ND

The Porcelain Tower at Nankin [Nanjing, China]

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From the Collection


From an album by James Henry Butt (1844-1936) containing 51 watercolour drawings, 50 mounted on separate pages, with one loose item and three blank sheets. They are mainly in chronological order and were presumably mounted in the album and captioned later, generally in pencil on the album page below the image, though some have monograph signatures, brief inscriptions and dates. The opening view of Cape Town is followed by 45 Eastern ones, mostly coastal, with two figure studies of Japanese girls. The last two drawings are an undated view of Posillipo, near Naples and one of Start Point, Devon, the latter made in August 1870 before Butt's next (home) posting in May 1871. He made all the others while second and subsequently third lieutenant of HMS 'Sylvia', survey ship, Commander Edward Wolfe Brooker (1827-70), which sailed for the China Station in late 1866 via Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and the Andaman Islands to undertake hydrographic work mainly in southern and western Japan. No. 2 of 51. inscribed by the artist on the album page 'Porcelain tower at Nankin (destroyed by Taipings in 1858)'. A partial date ../65 under the bottom left corner of the drawing may indicate it was done in England, since Butt's title shows why he could not have seen what it represents, though the date of destruction was in fact 1856. The tower, also called the Porcelain Pagoda was a celebrated Buddhist structure, built at Nanjing in the early 15th century of elaborately decorated white-glazed ceramic brick and illuminated at night with about 140 lamps, as shown on the drawing. It was nine storeys, 260 feet tall (79 m) and 97 feet (30 m) across the octagonal base, with a central staircase. In 1801 it was damaged by lightning and restored, but during the Taeping rebellion of the 1850s the rebels who took over the city first destroyed the stairway to prevent its use as an observation tower against them and in 1856 completely demolished it. It was then largely forgotten until later archaeological investigation recovered parts, many now in the Nanjing Museum, and there have been recent proposals to rebuild it. There are various Western eyewitness accounts of the tower, and images of it. Butt's view is apparently based on a rather more heavily populated British 19th-century landscape-format engraving, adapted to vertical format.
Credit Line: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

From the Watercolour World


Nanjing, China