Antique 19th-century Chinese Pith Painting, Junk Boat with Oarsman

An original 19th-century watercolour painting on pith, Junk Boat with Oarsman.

This vibrant watercolour on pith depicts a wooden Chinese junk boat at sail with eight oarsman and a figure visible at the stern. The pith is tipped on to a backing sheet at each corner.

Characteristically, the sail includes several horizontal "battens" which provide shape and strength, a Chinese design dating back to the third century C.E. The orange-red detail along the side of the boat is raised in vivid relief.

Chinese sailing vessels were some of the most successful ship designs in history, and represent the nation’s prowess in trade, military and travel. Junks incorporated technical advances which were later adopted in Western shipbuilding, such as the stern-mounted rudder.

There are small surface nicks indentations and minor pith paper losses as shown.
10.3cm x 14.9cm.

This painting on pith forms part of a larger collection we have acquired which was contained in a single album. The collection comprises a large variety of traditional subjects including flowers, insects, shells, landscapes, junk boats, musicians, lantern carriers and torture scenes. By virtue of having been kept in an album, these pith paintings have retained their characteristic vibrancy, and many are in remarkably good condition.

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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