Guangzhou, then called Canton by Westerners, was the only Chinese port open to foreign trading until the Opium Wars of the 19th century, and it became a rare hub of direct interactions between the two cultures. One of these resulted in a surprisingly moving series of paintings portraying bodies disfigured by tumors.
Guan Qiaochang Lamqua (sometimes called Lam Qua) studied art under English painter George Chinnery, and he was the grandson of the famed Canton artist Spoilum. His portraits have a European style, while capturing daily life in China. He was commissioned by American missionary and doctor Peter Parker (no relation to the superhero web weaver) to create a visual medical record of Parker’s patients. The paintings were also a tool for the physician to rally funds for his pro bono medical work at his Ophthalmic Hospital in Guangzhou, opened in 1835. Lamqua painted Parker’s own portrait in the 1840s (embedded below), depicting the Massachusetts man sitting in a chair while a patient is being treated behind him, a doorway open to a vista of the harbor.
Art UK, an online initiative with images from around 3,000 British museums, features some of Lamqua’s paintings from the Gordon Museum of Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity, which you can explore online. These 24 oil on canvas pieces are examples of the numerous works Lamqua painted for Parker between 1836 and 1855. Other paintings are now at Yale University’s Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, as well as the Wellcome Collection in London, examples of which are included in this post.
Larissa Heinrich in her book The Afterlife of Images writes that Parker “needed something that would serve as ‘both a medical record and as proof of his expertise’ when attempting to justify his request for funding back home,” while at the same time familiarizing “Chinese medical students and laypeople with the healing potential of Western medicine.” Parker is often credited with introducing sulphuric ether anesthesia to China, and although he specialized in eye diseases, he eventually became skilled with tumor removal and more general medicine for the thousands of patients who came to his hospital.
The paintings are unflinching with their subjects, which can make them hard to look at, yet they are unexpectedly humane. The tumors bulge and blister from backs, foreheads, breasts, and arms in grotesque shapes. Lamqua doesn’t sensationalize them, simply presenting these malformations as part of the quiet, holistic portraits. Sometimes there are even views of a surrounding setting, with a plant seen through an open window, or a rocky landscape where another person walks in the background.
Lamqua was famed for portraiture before Parker, but he mostly concentrated on officials and the elite. Often the people in these tumor portraits are those who would never be painted otherwise. They double as a series on the lower and middle classes of 19th-century China, albeit its extremes of medical need. And in the 1830s, these became a rare glimpse of China for those who saw them in the United States during Parker’s fundraising tours. The directness of the painting, and the attention spent on each detail in pre-photography era, makes them unique works of pathos and pathology.