Chinese Peepal Leaf Paintings

These exquisite and rare 19th-century Chinese watercolours are painted on beautifully preserved peepal leaf skeletons. The peepal tree, otherwise known as sacred fig or Bodhi tree, is native to south-west China, Indochina and the Indian subcontinent. Its leaves form perfect, delicate, transparent skeletons once dried, and as such are uniquely suited to this art form. The skeleton would typically be varnished, before being painting with vivid, backgroundless genre scenes.

Like Chinese paintings on pith, paintings on peepal leaves were produced for the export market in the 19th century. These small, lightweight artworks were made for Western merchants and travellers from around 1825 onwards. By 1833 the monopoly of trade by the English East India Company had come to an end, opening the China trade to dozens of British companies and seeing the number of merchants and volume of trade flourish. Paintings were produced in port cities to meet increasingly high Western demands for Chinese souvenirs.

Typically paintings on peepal leaves and on pith would depict attractive local subjects such as customs, costumes and trades, and indigenous flora and fauna. The painting style would combine a traditional Chinese approach of flattened sweeps of colour with aspects of Western influence in detail and realism.