Photo (1): Sketches at Hong Kong

Submitted by David on Sat, 09/09/2023 - 12:00
'Sketches at Hong Kong'

One year after the 1881 census, the Illustrated London News (ILN) published this full-page engraving, titled ‘Sketches at Hong Kong’.

The ILN was almost the same age as British Hong Kong, first appearing in 1842. It caused a stir, looking very different from the typical newspaper of the time. Where the newspaper norm was text and lots of it, issue No. 1 of the ILN crammed 32 illustrations into its 16 pages.

This new style was a great success, with the growth of the ILN outpacing even Hong Kong’s. By the end of 1842 circulation had passed 60,000. It reached 200,000 in 1855, and continued to grow.

The illustrations that drove these sales were produced by skilled engravers. They’d receive artists’ sketches, or later photographs, and set to work engraving the images for use on the printing presses. I imagined they’d be engraving metal plates, but in fact they used wooden blocks. Not just any wood though, they used a very dense, hard type of wood known as boxwood. In use, the boxwood blocks were harder wearing than the metal plates of the day, an important point when they’d have to print hundreds of thousands of copies. 

The huge volume of copies printed means that many have survived, making them a good source of images of early Hong Kong. We mustn’t assume they’re all accurate, however. If the original image wasn’t very clear the engravers would need to use their own judgement, and having never been to Hong Kong they could easily make mistakes.

Fortunately there aren’t any glaring mistakes here. The artist not only did a good job of sketching, but also of choosing scenes that would be popular with overseas viewers. I doubt the artist had any plans to start a trend, but as we look at the postcards sold to tourists thirty, forty, and even fifty years later, we’ll see many of these themes repeated.

The engraving has a lot more detail than you can see here. To take a closer look you can use Gwulo's Zoom feature. I've recorded a short video showing how it works: How to zoom in to photos on Gwulo


The engraving and text shown above come from the draft of my next book, Volume 5 of the Old Hong Kong Photos and The Tales They Tell series. I'll post several more chapters to Gwulo in the coming weeks, while I work on getting the draft ready to be published.

Sharing the draft is also a good chance to get some extra eyes on the text, so please let me know if you spot any mistakes.

Volumes 1-4 of the series are available to order from the Gwulo website, in local bookstores, and from Amazon (affiliate link).