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Botanical, Art, Asian, Chinese Export, Set of Four, Antique Watercolors, 1829


Chinese Export School
Set of Four Botanical Paintings
China: c. 1829
Watercolor on watermarked dated J. Whatman paper
10.75 x 15 inches, image
12.5 x 17 inches, overall, average approximate
$5,200, the set of four

Four vividly colored watercolor paintings of floral bouquets in graceful arrangements. They are most likely Chinese export paintings, based on their style, medium, date and subject matter. Three of them prominently feature peonies, the most popular flower in Chinese art, and the paintings also include other flowers typically included in such paintings, including camellias and hibiscus. These works also follow the Chinese convention in the use of broad flat areas of color with subtle shading and delineation of the veining of the leaves, as well as the naturalistic portrayal of the leaves (such as browned and irregular insect-eaten edges).  They are painted on J. Whatman English made paper, dated 1829, also typical of Chinese Export works.

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Chinese export paintings were made by native Chinese artists, often from Hong Kong and Canton, for export to Britain, Europe and America, or for visiting tourists.  They typically portrayed natural history subjects including Chinese cultivated flowers and indigenous birds, Chinese acrobats and trades, indigenous Chinese peoples in formal dress, and renditions of trade ships in Chinese ports. Chinese export art combined the traditional Chinese approach to renderings in art with Western aesthetics concerning light, shadow and the inclusion of realistic detail. From around 1820, many watercolors were painted on Chinese papers made of mixed fibers, including pith and rice straw, a practice that reached its peak in the 1830s and 1840s, though it remained in use throughout the 19th century. Other examples were done on paper imported from British manufacturers, such as James Whatman (watermarked “J. WHATMAN,” sometimes with the date of manufacture).  For example, the Chinese export botanicals in the Reeves Collection of the British Royal Horticultural Society were commissioned by John Reeves, a tea inspector for the East India Company in Canton, and include both paintings made on thick Whatman watercolor paper and on fine, almost transparent, Chinese papers. Like these examples, the vast majority of paintings produced for the 19th century export art trade were unsigned, because they were considered commercial products made by artisans.

In recent years, there has been increased interest in studying and collecting Chinese Export botanicals.  For example the Peabody Essex Museum sponsored an exhibit in 2004, “Peonies on Paper: Chinese Export Botanical Painting,” and in 2010 the Royal Horticultural Society concluded a three-year conservation research project on the Reeves Collection and began a second phase of digitizing and conserving the works in order to make them available as a research collection.

The Whatman paper company began in Kent, England, in 1740, when James Whatman married Ann Harris, a widow who had inherited Turkey Mill, a paper mill begun by her deceased husband. Whatman perceived an opportunity to produce fine paper for the British market, which at the time imported its high-quality paper from France and Holland. By the early 1750s, he built a thriving business and in 1756 introduced the major technical innovation of “wove” paper, which remained the smoothest available sheet for the next 30 years. After Whatman’s death in 1759, his son, also named James, took over and expanded the business with a similar ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.  In 1794, he sold the business, which continues to manufacture paper today, although during the 20th century the Whatman company shifted its emphasis from fine art papers to producing paper filters for scientific and industrial applications.

Paper watermarked: J. WHATMAN/ TURKEY MILL/ 1829

Condition: Each generally very good with the usual overall toning, wear, handling.  Minor edge wear, a few small restored edge chips, can be matted out. Some light mat toning from former matting, can be rematted out (indicated by image size above). Paper variously watermarked J. WHATMAN/ TURKEY MILL/ 1829, though the watermark is absent on one example, and partly cut off on another.


Bailey, Kate. “The Reeves Collection of Chinese botanical drawings.” The Plantsman. December 2010. pp. 218-225. Online at Royal Horicultural Society: (25 March 2014).

“History.”  Whatman.  2005.  (21 December 2005).

“Peonies on Paper: Chinese Export Botanical Painting.”  Peabody Essex Museum.  2004. (25 March 2014).

Additional information


19th Century