Antique 19th-century Painting on Chinese Pith, Fruit Still Life


An original 1845 watercolour painting, Fruit Still Life on Chinese Pith.

A beautiful and unusual large-scale painting on Chinese pith paper, in exceptionally rich colours. The pith is tipped on to a backing sheet, with a gold decorative border.

Some foxing and minor surface nicks and scratches as shown. There is age toning to the verso of the backing paper.
14.9cm x 19.9cm.

This painting forms part of a collection of works belonging to a Victorian lady, Fanny Atkinson. Two of the paintings in the collection are dated, 1845 and 1846. The pictures include many floral and natural history subjects, rendered with outstanding precision and detail, in jewel-like tones. There are also some unusual paintings on Chinese pith paper, and some striking grisaille landscape scenes featuring landmarks in England, Ireland and Switzerland. The presence of these subjects and the pith material suggest that Fanny Atkinson had embarked on Continental travel, and also had connections with the Far East, likely in the form of the British East India Company. 

Delicate pith paintings by local Chinese artists were collected by Western travellers and merchants 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 on pith were produced in port cities to meet the Western demand for local Chinese souvenirs. Relatively inexpensive and conveniently portable, they were often glued into albums to provide protection on the long voyage home.

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

Pith paper behaves very differently from conventional rag or woodpulp paper. Rather than being plant fibres matted together into a layer, pith is composed of plant cells sliced directly from the inner tissue of the Tetrapanex papyrifera plant, native to Southern China and Taiwan.

This unique composition makes it extremely vulnerable to damage by moisture and other environmental factors, becoming very brittle over time and subject to distinctive cracking. It is rare, therefore, that such paintings survive in pristine condition. Being routinely tipped onto album pages, they also often bear glue marks and related discolouration.

Pith also behaves unlike conventional paper as a painting support. Watercolour and gouache paint readily absorb into the plant cells of the pith to create a rich, velvety depth of colour, and then paint pools in relief on the surface, producing exquisitely vibrant raised details, of sparkling, jewel-like intensity.

Pith paintings are a fascinating record of the history, activities and socio-cultural exchanges taking place between China and the West in the 19th century. The juxtaposition of robust vibrancy of paint and translucent fragility of support is an enchanting combination prized by collectors around the world.

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Product code: JD-322

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