Inside the Wattis Collection: Hong Kong’s First Governor

A rare portrait of Hong Kong’s first governor is the subject of this third and final part of a short series looking at treasured items to be found in the collection of antiquarian Jonathan Wattis in his current exhibition Hong Kong Round and About, showcasing pictures, ephemera and memorabilia of Hong Kong from 1842 to 1983.

Wattis Fine Art has been situated on the corner of Old Bailey Street and Hollywood Road since 1988. Antiquarian Jonathan and his partner Vicky Wattis have their gallery on the second floor overlooking Tai Kwun, whose origins date back to 1841 when it was first developed as the Victoria Gaol. That year, Captain William Caine was appointed chief magistrate to oversee the construction of the building, which was Hong Kong’s first magistracy and prison. 

It was less than a year before Hong Kong Island was formally ceded to the British after the First Opium War, the conditions of which were laid out in the Treaty of Nanking imposed on China by Britain in 1842. Britain had been flooding China with opium brought from India. Seizing a quantity of that opium, a senior Chinese official had the poppy-derived drug destroyed in a bid to prevent growing British influence. Under the treaty’s conditions, not only did the Chinese government have to open up five treaty ports and hand over Hong Kong Island in perpetuity, it also had to reimburse Britain for the destroyed opium. British firms based in Hong Kong continued a flourishing opium trade here in the initial decades of the colony. 

As you come through the entrance at Wattis Fine Art, there is a large, rare portrait of Henry Pottinger, a soldier and diplomat and the first governor of Hong Kong, and there he sits at a table reading the Treaty of Nanking. Outside his window you see a pagoda – an imaginary view of Nanking.  Pottinger is well dressed with shiny black shoes and a waxed moustache, the document bent over at the corners, an inkpot and feather plus other documents on his desk next to him.  

The portrait is a mezzotint, an engraving technique developed in the 17th century, and Pottinger is seen in varying rich layers of black and grey tone thanks to this monochrome printing method in which the copper plate is pitted with thousands of little dots that help to hold the ink during the printing process.

The engraving of Pottinger was published by Henry Graves & Co., Her Majesty’s Publishers, in London in 1847. Pottinger would discuss the terms with the Manchu statesman Keying — after whom a famous junk was named — who negotiated a number of treaties with the British throughout his career.  Pottinger had already had quite an extraordinary life of travel before he was asked to come to China. At the behest of the East India Company, he had explored what was then known as Central Persia and now would be modern Iran. The British foreign secretary Lord Palmerston then requested that Pottinger accept the post of envoy and plenipotentiary in China and superintendent of British trade. The British were keen to keep a foothold in the region, but Palmerston was not bothered whether it was Hong Kong or another island in the Guangdong area. Lord Aberdeen, who succeeded Palmerston, was less interested in any arrangement involving Hong Kong for the extra tension it would cause with the Manchu government, and also the cost of administering the island. 

But Pottinger had other ideas, pushing ahead in negotiations for Hong Kong to become a British territory and extolling the virtues of having this settlement and harbour for trade. He would eventually become the second administrator of Hong Kong (1841–1843), after Alexander Robert Johnston, and then the first governor when it became a crown colony. During his tenure, Hong Kong became the key port in China to trade opium. He also set up legislative and executive councils, although as governor he still held most of the power.

But he was only governor from June 1843 until his exit the following May.   While an astute diplomat, he was no administrator. Pottinger managed to anger and alienate merchants in Hong Kong both through trying to limit the smuggling of opium and also by changing what had been previously freehold land grants in the territory to leaseholds limited to 99 years. He was also keen to move on to India where he would later become the governor of Madras – although he struggled with the administration there too. 

His portrait was painted by Francis Grant, who also painted Queen Victoria and would later become the head of the Royal Academy. He was a Scottish painter and his portraits include British statesman Benjamin Disraeli and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, John Sumner.  

Scottish painter and engraver John Burnett created the engraving of Pottinger, which was then published by Henry Graves & Co, Her Majesty’s Publishers, in May 1847.  During his career he also worked on books for the Scottish poet Robert Burns.  

Hong Kong Around and About, a collection of pictures, ephemera and memorabilia 1842–1983, is on show at Wattis Fine Art until June 3, 2023. Click here for more information.

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