“The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life 1843-1853” by Andrew Hillier

Alcock detail

The title (and cover) of Andrew Hillier’s new book The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life 1843-1853 might lead one to think that it is primarily a collection of drawings and paintings; but while the volume is indeed profusely-illustrated, it is rather more a biography of Henrietta Alcock, the wife of Rutherford Alcock, one of the first British consuls in the treaty ports of Xiamen, Fuzhou and Shanghai in the years immediately after the First Opium War. Both were, as it turns out, proficient at both sketching and watercolors. 

Rutherford Alcock is one of those men who, a few decades ago, might have needed no introduction but perhaps now does. A surgeon by training, he joined the China Consular Service in 1844 and had a distinguished quarter-century of postings in China and Japan, including close to a decade in Shanghai. He married Henrietta in 1841; she unfortunately died (of causes unrecorded) in Shanghai in 1853, never having returned to England.


The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life, 1843-1853, Andrew Hillier (City University of Hong Kong Press, December 2024)
The Alcock Album: Scenes of China Consular Life, 1843-1853, Andrew Hillier (City University of Hong Kong Press, May 2024)

Hillier’s focus is on Henrietta rather than Rutherford, on the domestic, rather than the more explicitly political and imperial. He writes that by


focusing on the intimate and companionate nature of Henrietta’s relationship with Rutherford Alcock, this book has shown the significant role which the wife of a consul could play in the treaty port world …


and that


as “servants of empire”, these women need to be brought out of the shadows for a proper understanding of Britain’s presence in China.


In this, Hillier has form: an earlier book is My Dearest Martha: The Life and Letters of Eliza Hillier, the Hillier in question being an ancestor who has a cameo in this more recent book. Hillier’s family had a long history in what would then have been called the East. (Both a Hillier and Harry Parkes, a sometime assistant to Alcock and good friend to Henrietta, and a protagonist in this book, make appearances in Simon Landy’s The King and the Consul: A British Tragedy in Old Siam”.)

Hillier quotes liberally from Henrietta’s letters, augmented by letters and writings from others. She comes across as affable and adaptable; complaints about the largely unsuitable accommodation come mostly from her husband and others. The narrative is filled in with historical details of the treaty ports and British activities.

Rutherford appears as an attentive and protective husband. In his professional life, however, he seems to have been less forbearing. After the so-called “Tsingpu Outrage”, in which three missionaries (who seem to have gone off-piste) had been attacked, he ordered the Royal Navy to blockade fourteen hundred barges that were due to carry the annual rice tribute to Peking and “at Alcock’s insistence, ten suspected offenders were openly cangued on the Bund.”  “The family,” deadpans Hillier, “were no doubt supportive of Alcock’s tough stance.” The Chinese, one suspects, were less so.

Hillier’s genteel prose style mirrors that of his subjects and the period they lived in, displaying the occasional tendency to engage in some almost novelistic conjecture:


Parkes was probably on the lookout for a wife and, if the person he found was unexpected, she would certainly have received Henrietta’s approval.


Hillier’s affection for his subject, furthermore, is evident. She was


a woman of spirit: intelligent, literary, serious at times (particularly when it came to religion), light-hearted at others, strong-willed, and well-able to hold her own, in whatever company—male or female, merchant, missionary, or consular official—she found herself in, she both shaped and was shaped by this new British world.


He quotes a “prologue” Henrietta wrote for an “Amateur Theatrical Performance”, which went in part:


I must have dropped the paper, why, what a pity—
A written prologue and extremely witty,
Which, in smooth rhymes and a most charming way
Said all, that now I don’t know how to say—


“Skilful and witty as it is,” Hillier writes, “it makes us wonder what else Henrietta may have written in a similar vein.” Not really: suffice it to say that Henrietta seems to have been a better artist than poet.


Despite the title, Hillier does not really focus on the album as a collection of artwork. It was, apparently, compiled after Henrietta’s death by her sister Emma, who had lived with the couple in China. It ended up at London’s Martyn Gregory Gallery in the mid-1990s.

Although the illustrations, drawings and watercolors of landscapes, ships on the river and interiors, likely have more value as historical records than as art, the Alcocks were not without talent. This is one of those cases where a picture really is worth a thousand words. Here is China very much seen through Western eyes and Western sensibilities, but sensitive and observant eyes nonetheless. But if the focus is on Henrietta, especially as portrayed through her artwork, it would have been helpful to have included in the captions themselves (rather than just in a separate listing) which were hers and which not.

That quibble aside, Hillier is an affecting writer and The Alcock Album provides a very human and well-researched portrait of British imperial life in China at the midpoint of the 19th-century.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.