Antique Mid-19th-century Chinese Watercolour Painting on Pith -Qing Dynasty Lady

An original mid-19th-century Chinese watercolour painting on pith, Qing Dynasty Lady.

Chinese pith painting of a Qing Dynasty lady, cut out and mounted on writing paper. Chinese paintings on pith (sometimes mistakenly called rice paper) became very popular in the nineteenth century, and were widely exported. Pith paintings were generally small, inexpensive and light, making them easier to transport than paintings on board or canvas. The pith comes from the spongy material inside the stem of a Chinese plant, and it has the effect of making paint (gouache in this case) sit on its surface, rather than sinking into it. This makes Chinese pith paintings appear bright and even shiny.

In good condition for its age. Some small scratches on the image, and marks and age discoloration on the mount, as shown.
20.2cm x 12.3cm.

This work was found in an intriguing album of pictures, flower specimens and mementoes, with connections to some of the most dramatic events of the nineteenth century.

The Indian Mutiny (also known variously as the Indian Rebellion, the Sepoy Mutiny and the First Indian War of Independence) was an uprising that began among the soldiers of the East India Company’s army. The immediate trigger for the unrest was a rumour that the rifle cartridges used in the army were greased with tallow and lard, derived from beef (offensive to Hindus) and pork (offensive to Muslims): soldiers were ordered to tear the cartridge cases open with their mouths, increasing the offense still further. Violence erupted across northern India in 1857, and it took more than two years for the rebellion to be completely suppressed, at a cost of over 100,000 lives. The uprising led to the East India Company being dissolved, with the British Crown assuming direct control of India from then on.

Whoever collected the works in our album (and we don’t know exactly who they were), they seem to have been very close to the action during the Central India Campaign, which was one of the last series of battles of the Indian Mutiny. Among the pictures are a number of fascinating pencil studies and exquisite watercolour paintings of sites in central India, made by a ‘CWP’, and with handwritten notes saying when and where they were made. The dates and places correspond closely with the actions of the Central India Field Force under Sir Hugh Rose, which fought the Indian rebels around the town of Saugor (now Sagar in Madhya Pradesh), where a small British garrison had been besieged, before heading north to the city of Jhansi.

Several of the notes in our album speak of being in the Saugor area in February and March 1858, which is exactly when the fighting was taking place there. One drawing of what appears to be a military encampment near Saugor is described as showing ‘our tents’ – was our artist a soldier, or otherwise associated with the army, in the role of surveyor or engineer, perhaps? A photograph included in the album (assuming that it dates from around the time that the drawings and watercolours were made, it would have been one of the earliest photographs to be taken in India) also refers to ‘our house at Saugor’ – it looks rather grander than what an ordinary soldier would have been staying in.

Whoever our artist was, they clearly took a real interest in the history and culture of the country. One drawing of a temple on the Betwa river, for example, seems to have been made on the same day that fighting was going on just a few miles away, yet its accompanying notes go into some detail, recording the name of the deity represented by a large statue, for example.

It seems that the same person who made the drawings and watercolours of India also put together the album as a whole. A label inside the album reads ‘to dearest Clara from her own Willia[m]. Benares 26th January 1856’: this appears to be in the same hand as the notes on the works by ‘CWP.’

Did the album’s owner buy it in Benares (modern-day Varanasi) at the beginning of a posting to India, to give to his sweetheart on his return, together with keepsakes and records of where he’d been? It might explain some of the other things in it – pressed Indian flowers, sentimental poems copied out freehand, and a painting of forget-me-nots. There are many small prints, too, showing scenes in Scotland – was this where our album-compiler originally came from?

The album itself (which is available separately) is made of papier-mâché and lacquer, with beautiful hand-painted flowers, and others inlaid in shimmery blue and green mother-of-pearl. It is in fact a blotter: designed so that its two halves could be opened out and lain flat, it provided an even surface for writing on, and was intended to soak up any stray ink from the ‘dip’ ink pens that were commonly used in the 1850s. Several of the loose leaves of writing paper from the blotter appear to have been used as picture mounts.

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Product code: JF-371

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