Affordable ‘Made in China’ merchandise is not a 20th century phenomenon – and has a tradition stretching back in time further than I expected, as I discovered when I was asked to analyse a number of so-called Chinese ‘export’ paintings. These were produced in China, usually in Canton (now Guangzhou), at the beginning of the 1800s. They were often sent back to Europe and America as souvenirs, by East India Company (EIC) employees stationed in China.
The genesis of these watercolours on paper is diverse: some of them were true souvenirs, produced quickly and cheaply by Chinese painters, and then taken back to Europe as exotic mementos. These drawings show Chinese people in typical clothing, which must have looked incredibly outlandish and exciting to westerners at the time; but they also show local architecture, flowers, insects, birds and fish.
By contrast, other drawings were commissioned for very specific reasons: for example the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) authorised John Reeves (1774 – 1856), an EIC tea inspector based in Canton and Macau, to collect specimens of exotic plants, flowers and fruit to send back to London. Reeves also paid local painters to draw the plants in full bloom, and with botanical features so that gardeners at the RHS would know how the plant should look. The V&A has botanical drawings similar in style to the Reeves ones at the RHS, but they are not dated, or provenanced as accurately.
In 2013–14 the V&A collaborated with Nottingham Trent University and the Royal Horticultural Society to analyse 40 pictures from the V&A and the RHS collections. We used non-invasive methods and identified pigments and dyes, to ascertain points of similarity and difference between the two collections.
We were also able to obtain very clear images of the preparatory drawings, which are hidden under the painted surface of the objects.
We studied the likely provenance of the materials used by the Chinese painters to produce these watercolours. In many cases we identified traditional materials that were normally used for the production of watercolours for the domestic market. These included natural materials such as azurite, indigo and gamboge, but also synthetic colorants such as lead white and red lead. In other cases, it is clear that the Chinese painters had western materials available: many of the Reeves botanical drawings are on western paper (most commonly Whatman paper), and some of the pigments used are thought to have been imported from the west (chrome yellow). Some of the drawings have dry graphite pencil underdrawings, which is unusual because traditional Chinese underdrawings are typically traced with liquid ink.
These drawings mix European and oriental traditions, and as such are an interesting hybrid: I am sure there is a lot more to discover, if only we had enough manpower and time to devote to them!
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Hongxing Zhang, V&A Senior Curator of Chinese Collections, for his assistance in accessing the V&A watercolours. This project was co-authored by Charlotte Brooks (RHS), Kate Bailey, Sonia Bellesia and Lucia Burgio (V&A), Haida Liang and Andrei Lucian (NTU). It was supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) Science and Heritage Programme Research Development Award AH/K006339/1.