Monday - 01 September 2014

Singapore and the China Seas, saved from the bonfire

22 March 2010Written by ATG Reporter

WILTSHIRE auctioneers Netherhampton Salerooms were celebrating a new house record on March 3 after a disbound album of Far Eastern topographical drawings sold for £43,000.

The 40 finely executed pencil and ink sketches, titled Views of the China Seas & Macao taken during Capt. D. Ross' Surveys by M. Houghton, had been plucked by the vendor from her grandmother's hands as they were cast onto a bonfire.

The immediate stimulus for surveys such as this, undertaken in the early 19th century along the coastlines of the Middle and Far East, was the desire to aid trade through local knowledge. Specifically this meant knowledge of coastal geography in regions where local sailors, with experience of the shallows and channels, could outwit the less certain ships of the East India Company.

The name of Captain Daniel Ross is well known in the history of hydrography, but research suggests some confusion exists between two men who shared the same name, rank and profession.

The better documented of the two is Captain Daniel Ross (1807-40), who held the position of Marine Surveyor General during the first complete survey of the Gulf coast by the Bombay Marine.

However, the Captain Daniel Ross we are dealing with here was his father, sent by the East India Company to Cochin China to survey the Paracel Islands in 1807. His charts were finally published in 1821, six years before he died as a privateer in 1827.

Judging by other items included in the sale (including a mid 19th century Anglo-Indian portrait miniature of Captain William Hercules Ross of the 30th Bengal Native Infantry sold at £1100) the owner had a connection to the Ross family.

But, while sufficiently confident of the importance of the consignment to picture the title page on the cover of the catalogue and suggest an estimate of £2000-3000, Netherhampton specialist Bill Hoade had been unable to positively identify the other protagonist in the short period of time between consignment and cataloguing (see last week's Letters page).

M. Houghton's identity only emerged later in reference to 20 watercolours of the Coast of Oman and the Trucial States by one Lieutenant Houghton in the British Museum.

Michael Houghton was a career sailor and accomplished marine draughtsman who worked under both generations of the Ross family (father and son). He would rise to become a lieutenant and in 1833 would himself become Marine Surveyor General in Bombay. But, born in 1797, he was only 18 years old when he embarked upon the survey of the China Seas.

The arrangement of the drawings in the album is not chronological and - as sketchbook pages vary in size from 3 x 4in (7.5 x 10cm) to 8 x 14in (20 x 35cm) - most probably represent a personal selection of "on the spot" drawings from a larger body of work. However, according to the contemporary titles and other inscriptions to the wash line mounts, they cover a fairly short period between 1816 and 1819. There are tantalising references.

Both the title page and a drawing dated 1816 of Hysansue Harbour in the Yellow Sea includes reference to HMS Alceste, raising the possibility that Ross and Houghton were on the voyage that took Lord Amherst (1773-1857), in his role as Ambassador Extraordinary to the court of the Emperor Jiaqing.

The primary object of his mission (to establish more satisfactory commercial relations between the East India Company and the Chinese) was frustrated.

Amherst refused to perform the kowtow and was denied an audience with the emperor while, after a cruise along the coast of Korea and to the Ryukyu Islands, his ship was wrecked on rocks in the Java Sea and the broken vessel burnt by Malay Dyaks.

Two more of the collection's highlights are a fine large-format drawing of the Franciscan monastery at Macao 'taken from the window of the Swedish Factory' and the view of Singapore from the Rocky Point, 1819- the founding date of modern-day Singapore.

It was in February 1819 that Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) signed a rudimentary treaty between the nominal chiefs of the island of Singapore that called for the exclusivity of trade and the British protection of the area. To the mount was the additional inscription: This was the appearance of Singapore when they first landed to form a settlement.

Such a rich seam of material ripe for further study generated great interest and bidding from national and international clients in the room and on telephones. The buyer, at a multi-estimate £43,000 (plus 15 per cent buyer's premium) was a member of the London trade.

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Written by

ATG Reporter

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