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.
Dedication page (all in the same hand, presumably written in 1903):
Painted by native Chinese artists – from nature and given to Dr. J.R. Riley in Fuchan, China, in 1850.
“To Adah from Papa”
April 9 –1867.
To Fannie from Momma, May 12, 1903.
Condition: Generally very good with the usual overall light toning and wear. Some with minor irregularities, chips, short tears at edges. Some images extend to far edge of left or right side, as issued.
Bailey, Kate. “The Reeves Collection of Chinese botanical drawings.” The Plantsman. December 2010. pp. 218-225. Online at Royal Horicultural Society: http://www.rhs.org.uk/Plants/RHS-Publications/Journals/The-Plantsman/2010-issues/December/Chinese-botanical-drawings (25 March 2014).
“History.” Whatman. 2005. http://www.whatman.com/about/?pageID=2.3.133 (21 December 2005).
“Peonies on Paper: Chinese Export Botanical Painting.” Peabody Essex Museum. 2004. http://www.pem.org/exhibitions/44-peonies_on_paper_chinese_export_botanical_painting (25 March 2014).