Photocopying the Treaty of Nanking in January 1843 / Part 1

R. Derek Wood

[Part I published 1994, and Part II written in August 1997, not published in print, only on-line]

During the last week of June 1997 not only was the situation of the actual territory of Hong Kong transformed, when its jurisdiction passed back to the People’s Republic of China, but so was our knowledge about the original manuscripts of the Treaty of Nanking which in 1842 had transferred the control of the island from the Chinese government to Great Britain. The Chinese Government’s manuscript of the original Treaty which had long disappeared from Beijing had, it was revealed, survived elsewhere.  Because of that news, it became possible to reconsider an outstanding problem regarding the photocopying of the Treaty that took place in December 1842 and January 1843. In consequence this article is an updated and expanded version of a paper on the subject originally read at a symposium of the European Society for the History of Photography held in Oslo in August 1994 (1)

A contributor to a German newspaper described how he had an opportunity in the quiet of Christmas day 1842 of seeing ‘one of the most important documents of modern times’ at the Foreign Office in London:

On my asking for the room where was working Mr. Collins [sic., Collen] ..., who has purchased and uses Taylor’s Kalotype process, I was directed towards the Attic ... In a small room with closed shutters, I found Mr. Collins, who with the help of an assistant was busy by means of lights copying the Treaty.
The document itself is of Strawpaper, 4 foot long and about 10 inches wide; the letters are daintily painted figures and it has three elongated woodblock impressions in red ink as seals of authority. Two copies have been ordered: the first for the Queen intended to be framed under glass to hang in Buckingham Palace; the second goes with the signed Treaty, Mr. Collins laughed, ‘to astonish the natives’... The idea seems to have come up rather late, for everything had to be done within two days, by today. That is why they were working on it on Christmas day. (2)

Looking back from a world at the end of the 20th century when all types of technical communication are so much quicker, with photocopying of documents an entirely regular part of normal life, the contemporary production of a photocopy of the Treaty of Nanking represents an early practical realisation of a characteristic inherent in the photographic process: facsimile reproduction.  Urgently at work on Christmas day 1842, the photographer’s name was slightly mis-spelt as ‘Collins’. It was Henry Collen (1800-1879), originally an artist who in the eighteen-thirties was personally acquainted with the young Princess Victoria, being her drawing teacher and miniature painter. (3)For her fourteenth birthday on 24 May 1833 Victoria received a ‘little painting for my album’ from Collen, and on a least two occasions she sat for her portrait by him. (4)Henry Collen took his first professional photographic portrait on paper on 16 August 1841, and he signed a licence charging 30% of takings for the use in London of W. H. F. Talbot’s calotype technique. The specification of Talbot’s patent had been enrolled only eight days earlier. Collen’s premises were in Somerset Street in London, between Oxford Street and Manchester Square. By August 1842 he had also ‘taken a room’ a short walk away at the Polytechnic Institution at the top of Regent Street. (5)

An Album containing sixteen paper prints photographically copied by Collen from the Chinese character version of the treaty has survived until the present day.  It is now held in the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York State. The photographer and the album have previously been investigated by Larry Schaaf in an article ‘Henry Collen and the Treaty of Nanking’ published in History of Photography in 1982.(6)  The present writer has more recently published work on the diplomatic negotiations and preparation of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842-3 from research of Foreign Office documents now in the Public Record Office (PRO) in London which provides backgound information on the persons involved, on the preparation of the original treaty and published versions, so that the event in which Collen was involved can be seen in a wider context. (7)The purpose of the present article is first to make available some material revealed amongst Foreign Office records that specifically concerns Collen’s financial costs in the production of photographic copies of the treaty, and secondly to re-examine Collen’s album in the light of new evidence.

It was by this famous Treaty of Nanking that the island of Hong Kong was obtained by Great Britain in 1842. Signed at Nanking by Henry Pottinger on 29 August 1842, the Treaty was sent for ratification in London in the care of Major George Malcolm whose official position was ‘Secretary of Legation’ of the trade Mission led by Pottinger. Leaving Nanking on 16 September, he arrived in London on 10 December 1842. Henry Collen was at the top of one of the buildings of the Foreign Office in Downing Street during the quiet of the Christmas period producing a photographic facsimile of the Treaty.  After Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on the 28th December signed her Warrant for the Great Seal to be attached, the Treaty was passed to the Lord Chancellor, and Malcolm, promoted to Lt. Colonel, boarded a ship on 5 January to begin a journey of nine weeks to Hongkong carrying back the treaty and documents to be exchanged in ratification with the Chinese.

An original manuscript protocol of ‘China Treaty Nanking 29th August 1842’ (8)  does exist in the Public Record Office in London. Bound in a slim red volume along with a preceding twenty-two in English, it has sixteen pages of Chinese character text on one side of thin very translucent paper. The black ink characters have an appearance almost as dense seen from the reverse side of the paper as from the front. As the pages of Collen’s photographic facsimile now at the George Eastman Museum are exactly the same size as the original treaty, and because of the translucent nature of the paper on which the the Chinese characters were written, there can be little doubt that contact printing would have been the method used by the photographer, not imaged by a lens.

Other documents at the PRO are transcribed below as they relate to Henry Collen’s photographic activities. They consist of a list of Expenses incurred by Henry Collen and a price scale for photocopies, as well as three letters written by him in January 1843. They are filed amongst miscellaneous correspondence relating to financial Accounts of the Chief Clerk’s department of the Foreign Office. (9)

Documents on Collen’s Financial Costs.

29 Somerset Street
Janry 11 1843

Dear Sir, [Chief Clerk of Foreign Office]

I presume you have not yet held your court on my case, but hope you will excuse me for saying I shall be much obliged if you will take as early an opportunity, as may be consistent with your convenience, of doing so; I do not wish to be importunate, but I have "reasons as plenty as blackberries" for wishing it -

              I remain / Dear Sir
              Yours truly and obliged
                   Henry Collen


29 Somerset St  
 Janry 14 1843  

Dear Sir,
I forgot to mention that it will be necessary for me to have a trial sheet, that marked so will be the best for my purpose, perhaps you will have the kindness to send it to me. I perceive there is a notice of the copy of the treaty in the Athenaeum today. I regret this is the case on my own account, as well as because it is against your wish as I would have much rather have waited until a good statement could have been made public.

             Yours very truly
               Henry Collen


29 Somerset St    
Janry 28 1843    

Dear Sir,
After various mishaps and hinderances, I have obtained a good set of impressions of the treaty, and as I shall have a quiet day tomorrow a few miles from town shall be glad to do as much as I can to finish it, from the perfect copy, will you therefore have the kindness to let me have it by the bearer of this or by your own messenger before four o’clock

            I remain / Dear Sir
            Yours very truly
                Henry Collen

[To] G Lennox Conyngham Esq   [Chief Clerk]

[The following Expense sheet is undated and unsigned, but
with very similar handwriting to the above letters by
Collen is obviously his own list sent to the Foreign Office]

Expenses incurred on acct of
Photographic copy of Chinese treaty
[No date]

Glass (Claudet's)
Plate Glass
Coach hire
Plate Glass
Plate Glass
Cab and Bus
2 lbs HSS
NS + A
Ditto altered
Wages 2 1/2 weeks


0.13.6__________Cash on Acct– 3.0.0
2.6.5 X
0.18.6 X
2.6.5 X
2.6.5 X
 [HypoSulphite of Soda?]
 [Nitrate Silver + Ammonia?]
1.6.0 X
0.9.6 X
 [=2 guineas per week]

[* One Pound Sterling () at that time consisted of 20 Shillings (s)
of 12 pennies (d) each. 'One Guinea' was 1 pound and 1 shilling]


Photographic copy
of the treaty with China. 1843
      1st copy (including Model) 20 [sic, deleted] 35
      2 ditto ––– 10
      3 ––– 10  8 [sic, 8 is deleted]
      4 10  6 [sic]
      5 10  5 [sic]
      all after five Copies — 5  
  Jan: 13/43


The idea that Queen Victoria should have a framed photographic copy of the Chinese character section of the protocol Treaty had apparently been proposed only two days before Christmas 1842. Collen thus had to quickly do the work with little time to spare before all the official documents were sent to China in the care of Lieutenant-Colonel George Malcolm. However, even after Malcolm left England on 5th January 1843, it will be seen from the third letter written at the end of that month that Collen was preparing photographic prints from what he described as ‘the perfect copy’ (a tantalisingly ambiguous description) then held at the Foreign Office in London.

There is evidence that four original manuscripts of the Treaty were prepared at Nanking so that each side had two copies rather than one each.(10) Faded images of Chinese impressed seals and signatures on Collen’s photographic copy at George Eastman House demonstrates that it was truly taken from an official copy of the Treaty.  Comparison of the photocopy with the original protocol surviving in London at first seems to show an exact relationship between the size of the characters and their place on the page. Almost, but not quite. For example, one of the two photographic pages illustrated by L. Schaaf in 1982 show that the last Chinese characters at the bottom of the left column at end of article 2 do not align with the same characters in the previous column as in the original manuscript in London. This pointed to a commonsense conclusion that, if the George Eastman House photocopy had been produced by Collen during Christmas 1842, it must have been from the counterpart manuscript sent back to China with Lt. Colonel Malcolm. But when this subject was discussed by the author at the ESHPh symposium in August 1994 such a comparison could not be made, for the counterpart manuscript held by the Chinese at least until 1877 no longer existed at the State Archives in Beijing. There was no doubt that the manuscript of the Treaty of Nanking originally held by the Chinese Government had disappeared - the Chinese State archives in Beijing had only a printed version transcribed from that original more than a hundred years ago.   However, in the very last few days in June 1997, as Hong Kong passed back to the People’s Republic of China, a deliberately spectacular and politically motivated announcement was made in Taipei to reveal that Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist forces had secretly taken the original Treaty of Nanking, and some other 19th century covenants, when they retreated to Taiwan from China in 1949. During most of the years since 1949, as The Guardian newspaper of London reported under a heading ‘Taiwan holds lease to lost property’, the documents have been hidden in a sealed vault of the Taiwan Foreign Ministry. (11)

As the Chinese-held manuscript of the Treaty has surfaced in this way in Taiwan, it has unexpectedly became possible to make the necessary three-way comparison between Henry Collen’s photographic copy now at George Eastman House (GEH), USA, with both the British Government’s manuscript of the Treaty surviving in London and the Chinese government’s long-lost counterpart manuscript.  Such a comparison is conveniently expedited by the fact that two pictures accompanied the newpaper report of 24 June 1997 about the documents recently revealed in Taipei. One of those illustrations shows the surprising survival of the Great Seal of England in its silver box that had received proud attention of British newspapers in January 1843. (12)  The other, and most important, large illustration in The Guardian report shows the end pages of the English and Chinese versions of the Treaty on which the diplomats in 1842 had placed their signatures along with their state seals.  The present writer in England has purchased from GEH a ‘Research copy print’ of the last page of the Chinese text, showing also the signatures and seals, of Henry Collen’s photographic copy. The densities of the photographic images in Collen’s Album are not strong, so it is hardly practicable here to effectively reproduce appropriate illustrations in this article. However, it is now possible to say conclusively that Collen’s photographic copy was indeed produced by him from the particular ratified manuscript of the Treaty of Nanking that was sent back to China from London on 5 January 1843 and, after disappearing for many years from the State Archives in Beijing, has recently appeared in Taiwan in the hands of opponents of the present mainland Chinese Government.

In his letter to the Foreign Office dated 28 January 1843, three weeks after the ratified Treaty started on its journey back to China, Collen was saying that after various mishaps and hinderances he had obtained a ‘good set of impressions’ and would be ‘glad to do as much as I can to finish it’.  It is possible that the ‘perfect copy’ of the treaty that Collen wanted to take out from the Foreign Office at the end of January 1843 was a second duplicate signed and sealed manuscript of the Treaty that had arrived in London that month. (13)  Collen does seem to have continuing problems in producing good photocopies during that January. This accords with obvious defects in the copy that has survived at GEH especially if it actually went to China along with the manuscript on 5 January, rather than (as might be indicated by Collen’s continuing problems) sent on at a later date. The subject of Collen’s letter of 11 January is not entirely clear. If it concerned payment then his ‘reasons as plenty as blackberries’ would point to his pressing financial situation. But it might also be another indication of his technical problems, for at this period there is some indication that the saying about blackberries could be taken, at least in portrait painting circles, to mean defects as plenty as blackberries. (14)

The item above dated 13 January 1843 (two days after Collen’s first letter) has the appearance of a Foreign Office internal note about a proposed scale of charges agreed with Collen rather than a document sent in by the photographer himself. Although not providing evidence about the number of copies actually done, it does suggest that several copies, rather than one or two, were anticipated.  Three lots of plate glass were listed by Collen in his expense sheet, but only two frames. This suggests that two framed copies of the Treaty were produced – and if the German reporter was correct about ‘4 foot long and about ten inches wide’ then only 6 pages would have been framed, not the complete treaty of sixteen pages being ten feet by 13 inches. The extra plate glass could have been used to hold the translucent pages of the treaty in contact with the sensitised paper during exposure. It will be noticed that glass and framing are items emphasised (X) in Collen’s list of purchases. A wish to provide the young Queen with a framed copy was more likely to be the prime reason for Collen’s work rather than to satisfy office convenience at the Foreign Office.  Conceivably a decision might originally have been made by someone within the Foreign Office that photography would be a useful way to obtain a copy of the Chinese version of the Treaty if they were to be left for a while without a manuscript copy after Malcolm went to Hong Kong, but no documentation on such a decision has been found within Foreign Office files. As the Chinese characters were written on translucent paper it would have been very easy for Collen to have produced copies in white characters on a black background which would have been perfectly readable. However, the one surviving photocopy correctly shows black characters, so he did produce intermediate negatives. Even if the original intention had been to produce only one copy for framing, once a negative had been obtained the production of further copies for other people would have been a natural outcome.

'2 lbs HSS’ listed in the undated expense sheet indicates that Collen was fixing with HypoSulphite of Soda, but ‘NS + A’ is a little more problematic as well as being of special interest. If it referred to the purchase of Nitrate of Silver + Acid, with the acid being Gallic Acid used in the Calotype technique as a developer, then it would provide evidence that Collen was truly using that patented technique. The correspondent in the German newspaper had clearly spoken of ‘the fact that Calotype [author’s italics] facsimiles of the Chinese Treaty have been made’. Indeed Collen did not need to use the faster speed of the calotype technique for this photocopying but it would remain conceivable that he could have used Talbot’s technique just to produce negatives. But the initial letters of ‘NS + A’ on Collen’s list provide a more significant clue if it is accepted that they have the more likely meaning of Nitrate of Silver + Ammonia.  Then it would indicate that these chemicals were for a print-out technique using ammoniated silver nitrate recommended by Dr. Alfred S. Taylor in a pamphlet On the Art of Photogenic Drawing. (15)  This interpretation explains the German correspondent’s confusion about Collen purchasing and using ‘Taylor’s’ calotype technique. The situation was rather that Collen had to obtain a Calotype licence from Talbot but instead of Talbot’s technique, was using a pre-calotype print-out method suggested by Taylor. Collen was acquainted with Taylor, who at Guy’s hospital was Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and joint lecturer on Chemistry. At least since April 1842 they discussed photographic technique. A few months after Collen worked on the Treaty of Nanking, Dr. Taylor wrote to him that ‘I certainly shall take care to keep out of the patent clutches of Mr. Fox Talbot’. (16)

continue on next page (Part II)