Antique 19th-century Chinese Pith Painting, Prisoners before Magistrate
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An original 19th-century watercolour painting, Antique 19th-century Chinese Pith Painting Prisoners before Magistrate.
This vibrant watercolour on pith depicts two figures kneeling before a man seated at an ornate desk. The pith is tipped on to a backing sheet at the four corners. Inscribed below on the backing is: "Prisoners before Magistrate".
The judicial theme of this souvenir painting is not immediately obvious, given its bright colours and decorative motifs. The prisoners appear ornately dressed. The image is perhaps an idealised one recreated for its Western viewer, rather than being entirely realistic.
There is discolouration at the corners where the pith paper is glued down. Very small losses at the edges as shown, and a hairline crack at the upper left corner.
9.1cm x 5.8cm.
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.