Fish by Reeves

John Reeves (1774-1856)
Drawing overview
The Common Carp
The Reeves Drawing Collection
Exhibition and publication details
References and further reading


John Reeves (1774-1856)

John Reeves, an English tea inspector by trade, was appointed Inspector of Tea for the East India Company in 1808. Four years later he was sent to China and spent the next 19 years living at Macao, working in Canton during the tea season.

A keen amateur naturalist, Reeves documented the animals and plants in and around Canton. He also collected specimens and commissioned talented Chinese artists to paint them in the Western scientific tradition under his supervision. The largest proportion of these drawings were of marine and freshwater fish.

He generously shared his collections with other naturalists, and in particular they attracted the interest of Sir John Richardson (1787-1865), who was also a keen naturalist. As a result, Reeves engaged the Chinese artists to make copies of all of his fish drawings so that a complete set could be given to Richardson. Richardson subsequently wrote an important scientific paper on the fishes of Japan and China, describing around 80 new fish species that were based entirely on these drawings.

Reeves also sent living specimens of beautiful Chinese flowering plants back to England, and was responsible for the introduction of many attractive garden plants to the West, including chrysanthemums, azaleas and wisteria. His zoological specimens are held in the Natural History Museum, Department of Zoology.

Reeves returned to England in 1831. In 1817 he was made a Fellow of both the Linnean Society and of the Royal Society. He was also honoured by having his name, reevesii, applied to nearly 30 species of animals, and a plant genus.



Drawing overview

Fish are especially difficult to draw accurately, as they rapidly lose their natural colours and start to shrink once they are dead. Their natural shape is also lost once they are removed from water.

This painting of Cyprinus hybiscoides by an unknown Chinese artist, (c.1828-1830), is a fairly naturalistic attempt. Watercolour with silver and opaque pigments has been used, and there are also gum Arabic touches. A Chinese inscription appears underneath the head. While the artist has depicted all of the scales accurately, some shading has been added. The fish has also been drawn exactly as it appeared, including the damage to the tail and dorsal fins. It has however, been drawn in an unnatural pose.

The drawing is therefore very similar to a modern scientific illustration, but without the touching up of any imperfections, which would be the case in a modern day drawing.



The Common Carp

Cyprinus hybiscoidesis an ornamental carp. When John Richardson first described it in 1846, it was thought to be distinct from the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), however it is now considered to just be a variety, and its current scientific name is Cyprinus carpio var. rubrofuscus.

Carp are freshwater fish. They originally came from China and countries east of the Caspian Sea and were transported widely as food and ornamental fish. Over the years, selective breeding has produced many different varieties, each being given different names. Common Carp are now cosmopolitan and are a popular introduced feature of many garden ponds. They can live to a great age.



The John Reeves Drawings Collection

This collection of artwork that was presented to the British Museum exceeds 2000 watercolours of plants and animals including birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, crustaceans, insects and shells. It was the first large collection of Chinese natural history artwork to be brought to the West and so is therefore important not only for the beauty and accuracy of the paintings, but also for its scientific significance.

The collection was presented to the British Museum in 1877 by Elizabeth Reeves, the widow of John Russell Reeves (the son of John Reeves).

This drawing comes from the set of fish drawings used by Richardson, and was presented by Richardson to the British Museum in 1860.



Exhibition and publication details

Whitehead, P. J. P. (1969) The Reeves Collection of Chinese Fish Drawings. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Historical Series, vol. 3, no. 7, pp.91-233.

Whitehead, P. J. P. & Edwards, P. I. (1974) Chinese natural history drawings : selected from the Reeves Collection in the British Museum (Natural History). Trustees of the BM(NH): London. 109 pp.



References and further reading

Billard, R. (1999) Carp : biology and culture. Springer: New York ; London. 342 pp.

Richardson, J. (1846) Report on the Ichthyology of the Seas of China and Japan. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 15, pp. 187-320.