A Chinese Gatecrasher at the Great Exhibition: A Visit to the National Art Library (Victoria & Albert Museum)

A Chinese Gatecrasher at the Great Exhibition: A Visit to the National Art Library (Victoria & Albert Museum)

During my student days I felt too intimidated to try to access the National Art Library, despite my countless visits to the V&A on the way home via South Kensington. How foolish of me! There were no barrier to entry, but then again, there were also no clear signs on how I should have come to access and browse this library, and even with renewed purpose and confidence after the IHR course, I still felt some trepidation on going to register for a reader’s ticket.

Firstly, a logistical note for the first time visitor: leave your bag at the cloakroom by the entrance. There are plastic bags available. If you haven’t already registered for the NAL card, its £1 for an average sized bag. If you have the NAL card, its free to use the cloakroom, but it’s that Catch-22 where if you’re a first time visitor who hasn’t got the card up but are going to the library to obtain one, then you’ll simply have to shell out the £1. If you go to the Library doors carrying your bag, they will tell you to go back to the cloakroom. There aren’t any lockers nearby, so you’ll just have to go down the stairs and back through the gift shop to the cloakroom at the front entrance again.

After registering with my ID and explaining the research I wanted to do in brief, I was granted a very generous 5 year reader’s ticket, and that was it. Dated 2021, an implicit assumption and reminder that the library would be here in 2021 granting me access to all of its volumes for the next 5 years when I didn’t even know what I’d be doing in the next 5 years! The librarian asked me to sign my new card, and then, there it was, my ticket. I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at him, expecting some explanation, some formal introduction, or reminders to not take in my pens and clipboards. With many other libraries and archives often giving a perfunctory explanation to first time users of their resources, I was surprised that they assumed that I knew what I was doing, or perhaps my performance of the foreign artist-designer-researcher had been too convincing. The librarian gestured to me go along, so I awkwardly slunk off to a corner of the room like a small terrified spider trying to hide itself in the corner, clinging to the open shelves at the edge of the room and going around in a few circles, keenly aware of the creaky floor amplified by the volume of the space in the library – the librarians wheeling their comically squeaky trolley across the room, the raspy breathing of researchers and their intense and very serious flipping of huge dusty books on cushioned pads. Finally, having crawled all around the edge of the library back to the front entrance in one great circle, I seized upon a map affixed to the front of the library which showed there was an open shelf for the “GREAT EXHIBITION”.

No doubt much has been written on the subject of “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” in 1851, and I have since found that many extremely pertinent volumes (such as Tallis’ inimitable account of the Great Exhibition) can actually be found online in digital form. But here, gathered together into a collection, the considerable size and unexpected heft of the volumes emphatically declare the existence of these records; it is so much easier to browse through it manually, to sift through and determine what material within it is truly of note.

Robert Ellis’ preface to the catalogue acknowledges the ‘extreme challenge’ involved in contending with the vastness of the collection and the element of disorder – in trying to put together a catalogue with over 15000 contributors, manuscripts, drawings, etc, all of which required to be put into some order of composition in time for the catalogue’s publication. The introduction to the section on the colonies also expresses the importance of the visit to the exhibition to handle objects in person:

There appear only two available methods by which a manufacturer can be made acquainted with the existence of foreign products likely to be useful in his business; one is, by the collection of such information as is obtainable respecting them, and arranging it according to the most prominent properties of such substances. When these are so arranged, it is comparatively easy for any one to ascertain whether India, or any other foreign country, contains any useful or ornamental product which might be employed instead of, and be cheaper than, that already in use.

But with the most simple arrangement and clearly-conveyed information, the manufacturer generally would feel little interest about unknown natural products and their strange names, unless he had an opportunity of seeing and of personally examining them. Then, a glance of his practised eye, or the slightest handling of a new substance, informs him whether it is likely to be of use for his purposes.

This wasn’t some special trade fair just for the rich, or traders and manufacturers and people working in industry. This was a spectacular extravaganza for the masses. The exhibition ran for 141 days (1 May 1851 to 11 October 1851, closed on Sundays) and had been attended by very large numbers of people from all over – imagine, that 6,039,195 people visited it, of which over 4,439,419 had come in the last 80 days when the ticket prices had been very sensibly lowered over the duration of the exhibition (just a shilling). It was also abetted by railway developments – in the pre-railway age stagecoach fares were about 6d (6 pence / half a shilling) for each mile, an average labourer in London might earn 20-30 shillings a week and outside of London it was likely to be less than that, but with the railways there were “shilling days” where one could get a return ticket for a train down to London for around 4-6 shillings (3rd class). (Thomas Cook had started his company ten years prior in 1841 with similar shilling day rail excursions for all and sundry and there were many such packages to ferry anyone and everyone to London for an excursion to the Great Exhibition. King’s Cross had opened in 1850, connecting London to much of the north and midlands…)

A fantastic satirical etching by George Cruikshank: originally from Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or, The adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys and family who came up to London to “enjoy themselves”, and to see the Great Exhibition. On the way to the library I had been complaining to George about the painfully slow traffic in Knightsbridge and difficulty in getting in and out of buses and trains due to the sheer number of students on excursion and tour groups becoming stuck inside stations… I guess some things haven’t changed since then…
Other absolutely useless but depressing figures found in the tally books: During the exhibition, a rather frightful 1,092,337 bottles of soft drinks (supplied by a Messir Schweppe!) were consumed, 943,691 Bath buns were eaten (which forever altered people’s understanding of Bath buns and ended up being known as “London Bath Buns” as these buns were more irregularly shaped, very fruited, highly sugary and generally heavier than their counterparts from Bath), and also another 870,027 plain buns were consumed.

I could go on and on about the criteria for the selection of exhibits as well as the dubious selection and Prizes given out, which resulted in some many absurdities and ‘innovations’ and ‘offenses against good taste’ (in some opinions) being put on display, but perhaps that should be for another post.

Today what I’m excited about is the story of a mysterious chinese man who basically gatecrashed the opening in grand style, captured here in Selous’s official portrait for the opening.

The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851
Henry Courtney Selous. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
From the V&A Website: “The identity of the man in Chinese dress who stands in the group on the right of the painting with foreign commissioners and chairmen of juries has been subject to debate, as no official Chinese delegation attended the opening of the Great Exhibition. In a printed key to Selous’s painting, published in a newspaper in 1852 (V&A museum number 329:1-1889), his name is given as Hee Sing, and a note records that he ‘happened to be present on the occasion’, implying that he had no official position in the opening ceremony. However, it has recently been suggested that this man can be identified as Mr Xisheng (alternative spelling Hesing), who arrived in England in 1848 onboard the first Chinese ship to have entered British waters, the Keying. A medal in the collection of the Shanghai History Museum, bearing a portrait of Xisheng, records this event with the following inscription:


Googling for the name HEE SING brings me to a book which notes that it was recounted by Lyon Playfair in his memoirs that “a Chinaman dressed in magnifient robes, suddenly emerged from the crowd and prostrated himself before the throne. Who he was nobody knew. He might possibly be the Emperor of China himself who had come secretly to the ceremony.”

Organisers were completely fooled and taken in by his immaculate dressing and ‘dignified’ behaviour (executing an elaborate kowtow to the Queen) and thus they regarded him as someone significant and placed him between the archbishop of Canterbury and the Duke of Wellington where he was immortalised in many portraits of the opening ceremony. He is mentioned as the “bogus Chinese mandarin” in some sources…

More on the “Keying” from the Illustrated London News of 29 July 1848:

The ROYAL CHINESE JUNK “KEYING” manned by a Chinese Crew. Visitors received by a Mandarin of rank and Chinese Artist of celebrity. Grand Saloon, gorgeously furnished in the most approved style of the Celestial Empire. Collection of Chinese Curiosities, &c. The “Keying” is now open for Exhibition, from Ten to six, in the East India Docks, adjoining the Railway and Steam-boat Pier, Blackwall.—Admission, One Shilling.

ADMISSION, ONE SHILLING.—During the limited period which the ROYAL CHINESE JUNK will remain in London, the charge for admission will be reduced to One Shilling. This most interesting Exhibition, which has been justly called “the greatest novelty in Europe,” has been visited by her Majesty the Queen, all the Royal Family, and an immense number of persons, including nearly all the nobility and foreigners of distinction in London. Junk Tickets, including fare and admission, are issued by the Blackwall and Eastern Counties Railways. Omnibuses direct, and conveyance also by Steam-boat from all the Piers between Westminster and Woolwich; fare 4d. Catalogues obtainable only on board, price 6d.

In short, Hesing (who acts as “Mandarin of rank” on the Keying, and is also captain of the ship) gatecrashes the opening of the Great Exhibition and convinces everyone there as well that he must be VERY IMPORTANT since he dresses like he must be important and behaves like he must be important, and strangely no one thought to ask him who he was (why???). It is not clear to me – and it seems it is also not clear to everyone else looking back on the event – on whether Hesing was an authentic mandarin official or simply performed as “Mandarin of rank”. But it does sound like the Keying had been a popular and quite affordable NOVELTY (red flag) exhibition on an epic Chinese Junk brought over by some “enterprising english businessmen” (another red flag). I wonder what Hesing’s account of the whole affair would have been like. Was he just acting as his ‘character’, as the “Mandarin of rank”? Or was he trying to assert his role as an “true Mandarin of rank” in the face of other people’s doubts of his authenticity? And what happened to Hesing and the Keying after all this? So many questions and more to search for…