India and China

Plate 591 from the John Reeves collection

Flower illustration from the Reeves collection, plate 591

Our Indian and Chinese art collections consist chiefly of pieces commissioned by officials working for the East India Company in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century.

The Indian artwork collection contains around 15,000 individual pieces produced since 1750.

The Chinese collection contains more than 2,000 scientifically important botanical and zoological paintings collected by John Reeves during his time in China (1812-1831). There are also a small number of pieces from collections not commissioned by Reeves.

East India Company officials working in India and China became an invaluable resource for the research and documentation of Asian natural history. They commissioned and created artwork for various reasons. Some were fascinated by science and natural history. Others commissioned and created work to help them understand, for commercial purposes, the areas into which the East India Company was expanding.

A number of collectors, such as Thomas Hardwicke (1755-1835), a career soldier, did not identify plants and animals themselves. Instead they exchanged artwork with professional scientists. Others, including physicians Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) and William Roxburgh (1751-1815), commissioned work to assist with their own scientific studies.

While Hardwicke's collection is still extensive, it is believed to have originally been almost three times its current size. He often had many copies of the same image made to exchange, sell and share with friends and colleagues. 

Most of the work in in the Indian and Chinese art collections is unsigned and was created by commissioned artists. A few pieces are signed, but in most cases the only text on the pieces are notes by the collectors or recipients of the work.


While many of the collectors were not scientists, they understood natural processes. They took great care to capture plants and animals at various stages of their life cycles in the pieces they commissioned.

This way of illustrating specimens was unique to Europe, so the local artists received specific guidance to ensure the pictures captured only the essential details of each specimen.

Asian artistic methods are identifiable in some pieces, through the use of colour and intricate detail, but they all show clear evidence of the European collectors' instruction. As a result, many of the pieces are early examples of the development of a new style of painting.

The Reeves collection

Reeves worked as a tea merchant with the East India Company in China. He was also a keen amateur naturalist and artist. Specimens from all over Asia appear in his collection.

Reeves's work in the trading port of Canton, China, gave him access to exotic flora and fauna from all over the continent. He also developed a network of local contacts who supplied him with specimens from within China and other Asian countries. He later became a correspondent with the Horticultural Society of London, sending specimens and drawings back to England. 

Reeves's son, John Russell Reeves, later joined him in Canton. He shared his father's enthusiasm for natural history and eventually became a well-known naturalist in China for scientists in England. On Reeves's death in 1877, his widow presented the drawings he had inherited from his father to the British Museum's natural history department.


Composition: Watercolour drawings


  • John Reeves
  • Thomas Hardwicke
  • William Roxburgh
  • John Fleming
  • Lady Mary Impey
  • Nathaniel Wallich