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China Trade album - making silk

Date: c 1860
Overall: 250 x 365 mm, 326.7 g
Display dimensions (Open): 250 x 730 mm
Medium: Paper, watercolours
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Painting album
Object No: 00045359

User Terms

    A 19th century China Trade album containing a set of 12 watercolour paintings on pith 'paper', illustrating the processes of making silk - beginning with picking mulberry leaves and ending with presenting the finished silk to a merchant. The paintings are mounted on paper,and the edges are covered with a silk-like border. The album is bound in cardboard covered in red brocaded silk. Chinese pith paintings were created for the export market as trade with the west expanded, between 1700 and 1900. They were made for sale to merchants, shipmasters and other western visitors.
    SignificanceThe album of pith paintings represents the maritime trade between China and the western world of the 19th century, in which Australia had an important part. The illustrations of silk-making promoted one of the major commodities of the Chinese export trade. Complete albums of pith paintings are now rare; individual paintings taken from them are more commonly found. 'China Trade' art and objects were carried home by the seafarers and others who traded with China.
    History'China Trade' painting and other forms of art were produced from 1700 to 1900 by artists painting in the Western manner for traders and ships' officers who visited the China coast. Pith paintings were created exclusively for this export market. Paintings were usually by anonymous artists working in studios in the trading ports.

    Pith 'paper' is made from pith extracted from the stems of the Tetrapanax Papyriferum plant, native to southern China and Taiwan. The pith is dried, cut into lengths, and very finely peeled to give the paper-like sheets. Its cellular structure makes it highly reactive to moisture. When water-based paint is applied, the cells swell causing the painted image to appear in relief and giving brilliance to the colours.

    Pith seems not to have been adopted for painting until about 1820. Some European museums claim that their paintings on pith (often erroneously called “rice paper” or “mulberry pith”) come from the end of the eighteenth century but there do not seem to be any dateable examples that are so early.

    Pith presumably came into use for painting to satisfy the increasing demand for small, inexpensive and easily transported souvenirs, following the massive growth in the China Trade in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Paintings in oils, on board and canvas were costly and difficult to carry home. Earlier and more prestigious export water-colours had often been on a larger scale and painted on fine Chinese paper or on paper imported from Europe. The albums of pith paintings (and later the little glass-fronted boxes) were inexpensive, light, easy to pack and gave the pictures some protection on the long voyage home. Because many were sold in albums and hence protected from the light, they retain their bright colours to this day.

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