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TitlePaintings of the Shanghai Bund (1850-1879)
AuthorsMatthew Woodbury
Date 1850-1879
Ressource ID3
Ressource ProviderChristian Henriot
Paintings of the Shanghai Bund, like those described in this section, provide an important resource in understanding the city’s development before photographic technology became widely available. These paintings, from the third quarter of the nineteenth century, are some of the earliest representations of the Bund and give us one set of representations of what life in Shanghai was like at the beginning of the city’s period as a treaty port.

While these images are certainly valuable records, it is, of course, important to recognize that paintings are inherently subjective. Scale, detail, and distance can be elaborated or underemphasized, empty space is prone to being artistically shortened, and there is by no means any way of ensuring that the characters who populate any one painting are realistically situated or portrayed. By comparing paintings across time, however, and justifying what is shown with other resources, it is still possible to use these images as an important component of how to understand the early development of the Shanghai Bund.

These early paintings of the Bund followed a fairly standardized pattern. The artist’s position is on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River, an ideal spot from which to view the Bund. From this vantage point the canvas usually encompasses the International Settlement from Suzhou Creek in the north to the Yangqingbang Creek in the south excepting the two earliest paintings (from 1850 and 1854) that focus more on the central Bund. All of the paintings portray early Shanghai as a littoral space, connecting land and sea, with buildings in the background and a foreground filled with numerous types of barges, jetties, and pleasure boats.

Bund 1850

The first painting we have of the Shanghai Bund, from 1850, sets the precedent for much of the representational work that would follow it over the subsequent decades. The artist’s position on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River, as with this work, became a standard position from which to view the buildings and activities on the Bund. This particular painting addresses both the Bund proper as well as linking the banks with the ostensible subject of the work, a regatta. In the foreground, three two-man boats are tied neck and neck as they proceed up the river. A diverse flotilla of small vessels, four small sailboats and a dozen or so rowboats, watch the proceedings.

Also watching the regatta’s progress are a collection of pedestrians standing near the wharf between the firms of Gibb, Livingstone & Co. and Augustine Heard & Co.. Flanking these two mercantile establishments to the north and the south are the first structural forays into what would eventually become a major financial and cosmopolitan center. At the extreme right of the painting, in a building with a wrap-around porch can be seen one building in the compound of the British Consulate. Situated at the confluence of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek, the consulate was to retain this position as the northern anchor of the Bund for the duration of Shanghai’s existence as an international treaty port. The next building south of the British consulate, at the southwest corner of the intersection of Consulate Road (later to be renamed Peking Road) and the waterfront, stands the first Jardine, Matheson & Co. building. This firm, like the British consulate, was to retain its same location for over a century – albeit in different buildings – became one of the premier hongs in the Shanghai market.

Neighboring the Jardine property to the south can be seen the small structures belonging to David Sassoon and the Pacific and Orient (P & O) Company. The larger square edifice on the northwest corner of Park Lane (later renamed Nangking Road) and the compound of buildings on the southwest corner in front of which stand pedestrians watching the regatta belonged to Augustine Heard & Co. and Gibb Livingstone & Co. respectively. The Oriental Bank, neighboring the property of Livingstone, stands at the center of the painting. Its two-story structure with a full front porch and hipped roof are typical of early Shanghai architecture and the building’s commercial function reflects the overwhelmingly mercantile atmosphere of the city. On the southern end of the block the Shaw Brother’s building can be seen on the corner of Rope Walk Road (later Kiukiang Road).

The Dent and Co. compound, which in addition to commercial interests served as the Portuguese consulate, occupied the entire block between Rope Walk Road and Custom House Road (later Hankow Road). Further south, the distinctive shape of the first Customs House is readily apparent as the only indigenous architectural structure in the painting. With the tile roof and curved eaves of traditional Chinese construction, the Customs House anchors the left side of the painting. Furthermore, it appears as if there is a troop of uniformed soldiers gathered outside what is the only strictly governmental building – with the exception of the British consulate - on the waterfront. Sharing the block with the Custom’s House, the firm of Turner & Co. serves as the southernmost reach of this particular work.

Bund 1854

A second painting, dated to 1854, adopts a nearly identical viewpoint and style to that of its 1850 predecessor. As a landscape piece viewed from the eastern side of the river, the Bund is depicted as a long row of buildings fronted by a relatively wide foreshore that terminates in a series of seven piers, braced with timbers and each surrounded by half a dozen Chinese-rigged vessels. In contrast to the recreational and almost bucolic setting of the previous painting, this 1854 work leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this landscape exists in the service of transport and trade. Bare of vegetation, whether by artistic license or accurate representation is unclear, the buildings on the Bund are easily accessible to the observer.

On the right hand side of the painting, the British consulate serves as the traditional northern anchor for depictions of the Bund. Progressing southward the new Jardine Matheson building, constructed in 1851, is an impressive two –storey structure that reflects the status of the Matheson company as one of the region’s premier mercantile concerns. Largely, however, the buildings between the new Matheson structure and the Customs House do not differ significantly from their earlier depictions. The Oriental Bank, however, is shown in this piece as having a flat-façade instead of the front-porches shown in the 1850 painting.

For the first time, however, we are treated to a view of the Bund south of the Turner and Co. buildings. The Smith Kennedy hong, along with Turner and the Custom’s House, completes the block bordered by Custom House Road and Mission Road. The extensive compound with the American flag to the south of Kennedy’s belonged to Russell & Co.. Their two-storey building on the southwest corner of Mission Road and the Bund is easily seen along with what looks like three separate warehouse structures.

Bund 1857

This view of the Bund from 1857 continues the typology developed in earlier painting. The scope of the painting covers the whole Bund from the British Consulate to the edge of the French Concession on the settlement’s southern boundary. This is the first painting that includes the entire area of what will become known as “the Bund” proper. Perhaps earlier painters did not think the collection of buildings south of the Russell & Co. compound worthy of representation or preferred to focus their efforts on the central and northern Bund.

The new Augustine, Heard & Co. building, a three-storey structure with a pitched roof, on the northern end of the Bund is the only new addition to the skyline north of the Customs House. Some differences, however, include the Customs House is depiction without the ornate front gate that it is shown with the in the 1854 representation. Furthermore the Turner and Co. building, two lots to the south of the Customs House, appears slightly larger, although this may very well be the exercise of artistic license. The major addition to the Russell & Co. lot of a second large structure (on the corner facing Tuner and Co.) fills out the firm’s frontage along the Bund. The very northern edge of the French Concession is just visible on the painting’s left side.

On the Bund itself numerous pedestrians populate the entire length, but the various wharves (more like ramps going to water level) are devoid of cargo.

A large number of ships are also present in the foreground with the interesting appearance of a steam paddle-boat flying a British merchant ensign and a Royal navy frigate prominently holding the center of the painting. These two boats are accompanied by a host of smaller vessels with both Chinese and European hulls and rigging represented.

Bund 1862

This view of the Bund at dawn takes in an even wider panorama of the Bund, from Suzhou Creek north of the British consular compound to well into the French concession south of the Bund.

From the British Consulate to Park Lane there are no significant departures from the 1857 painting. The P&O flag still flies next to Augustine Heard and Co. (who fly the Russian flag and there has no been any major building. On the southwest corner of Nanking Road, however, the new two-storey Central Hotel now stands next to the Oriental Bank building.

South of the Customs House, which occupies the center of this painting, the Russell compound is richly portrayed with much attention being paid to the balconies and gateways that seem to set this particular company architecturally from the rest of the Bund. Three lots south of Russell and Co. the first building of the Shanghai Club can be seen on the penultimate lot before the end of the International Settlement.

The foreground of the painting depicts a numerous and diversified flotilla of all shapes and sizes. While most of the vessels are still sail-driven, there are three smokestacks visible on one larger ship and two smaller tenders. The international nature of the ships shown in this painting, shown by Russian, British, and French merchant ensigns, reflect the diverse nationalities found on the Bund. While the activity on the river itself exaggerates the commercial nature of Shanghai, the scows and barges along the Bund are a more realistic reflection of mercantile activity in the Settlement.

Bund 1867-68

This painting again takes in the view of the Bund from the British Consulate to the French Concession. Although much rougher in its depiction of Shanghai, it nevertheless provides a recognizable look at Shanghai.

Perhaps the most radical changes to the architecture of the Bund in this painting when compared with the 1862 work are in the northernmost block of the Bund between the Suzhou Creek Bridge and Peking Road. The settlements street names changed in 1865 when the north-south roads received titles according to Chinese provinces and those that ran east-west Chinese cities. The four lots immediately south of the British Consulate can now be confirmed as buildings distinct from consular use. The first structure, a two-storey flat roofed building, was built by the German trading firm of Pustau and Co. Neighboring this building on the south is the Masonic Hall, one of a handful of buildings on the Bund not dedicated to commercial interests.  The distinctive roundel windows on the top floor of the Hall, however, are not visible this picture. Two new buildings to the south of the Masonic Hall complete this block of the Bund to Peking Road. The first, the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, occupies a two-story building with a flat roof while its neighbor on the corner lot, Siemssen & Co., has a pitched roof.

South of the P. & O. compound, the new Gibb, Livingston & Co. building now matches the neighboring Augustine Heard and Co. building, although without the latter’s distinctive viewing platform.

Apart from the pared-down detail of this painting, the only other significant change is to the façade of the Shanghai Club that, according to later photos, is an accurate representation. Instead of the porte-cochere shown in the 1862 painting the Club now has a two-storey front porch with a crowning pediment. The river, however, is much more realistically treated with many ships docked at the roadstead either loading cargo or waiting offshore. Interestingly, all those ships that have ensigns are all either Royal Navy or British merchant marine. The painter also included several steam powered tenders and paddle steamers that are making their way among the larger ships.

Bund 1879

This final painting is painted with the buildings of the Bund only occupying a small strip between river and sky. Nonetheless, the development over the ten years since the prior painting reveals a new, “second generation,” of Shanghai construction.

At the north end of the Bund, a new public garden is visible with a white pagoda in its center. The lack of mature trees, however, reveals the relative youth of this park built on reclaimed riverbed. Likewise in another act of civic beautification, the initial plantings of trees are just barely visible where the Bund meets the river.

The first change is the new building on the empty land owned by the P. & O. Company. While the P & O flag is still flying over the building, they shared the premises with the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China. Another new construction visible in this 1879 painting are the two twin buildings constructed by David Sassoon on the northwest corner of Nanking Road. These buildings occupied all of the previously open space between the Augustus Heard & Co. building and Nanking Road itself. Opposite the new Sassoon structures, the old HSBC building had been turned into (with what looks like the addition of a third floor) the Central Hotel. Neighboring the Central Hotel to the south, the new Oriental Bank building, constructed in a renaissance-style and sporting a belfry, stands as the tallest structure on its block.

On the northwest corner of Hankow Road, the new Dent & Co. building looks about double the size of the structure that formally stood there and is now taller than the Customs House across the street. On the south side of the Customs House, the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building has taken over Turner & Co.’s lot.

On the river, with the exception of one American vessel, all of the larger ships whether steam-powered ferries or sail-rigged warships fly the British flag. The Bund itself is shown as a hive of activity, with clusters of small boats around each of the wharves along the entire length of the Bund. Interestingly, the artist also included five de-masted ships docked against the Bund, these opium ships, most likely opium dens, are indicative of a very lucrative source of income for some Shanghainese during the period after the opium wars.


Opium hulks aside, by 1879 with many buildings now two or three stories the Shanghai Bund looks worthy of its status as significant port for the China trade. The diversity and number of financial institutions, a growing International Settlement, and the wealth of shipping shown in the paintings reinforce the conception of Shanghai as a burgeoning center of international trade. While paintings would eventually give way to the objective eye of the camera, these sources provide a valuable glimpse into the Bund’s early history and growth.
CommentThe reader can choose to see the individual paintings in the Image database or examine them in the iSlide viewer under Visual narrative menu. To access "The Shanghai Bund through Paintings and Photographs (1849-1938)",click on the link below.
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