Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chinese Watercolors Spice Up The British Library

By Nancy Mattoon

Native to Borneo, this greenish-brown fruit
is said to, "taste like heaven but smell like hell."

(All Images Courtesy of The British Library.)

Eight watercolors by an anonymous Chinese artist, created in the late 19th century, have recently been digitized on the website of the British Library. These historic paintings are botanical illustrations of spices, the most coveted commodity Asia had to offer the West in the 1800's, aside from opium. They are part of the Raffles Family Collection, which contains over 150 natural history and topographical drawings from Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as family correspondence and papers, and an important collection of diplomatic letters.

Nutmeg originates from the Banda islands
in the Moluccas in eastern Indonesia.

The watercolors are probably by Chinese artists based in Sumatra or Penang during the early 19th century, and identify fruits, herbs and spices which were central to the cuisine and culture of Southeast Asia at that time. These plants were used to flavor and preserve food, but were also found in herbal medicines, soaps, perfumes, and traditional handicrafts. Westerners introduced the plants to Europe, and the spice trade became the stimulus for much of the exploration of the New World which followed.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
in an 1824 engraving.

The Raffles Family Collection documents the career of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781–1826), known for two major achievements: the establishment of Singapore in 1819, and, in 1826, founding the Zoological Society of London (later, the London Zoo). Raffles was born on a ship off the Jamaican coast, and spent most of his short life (he died of a probable brain tumor at age 45) exploring the lands he reached by sea. He lost both his first wife and four of his five children to various tropical maladies, but never wavered in his quest to discover and colonize new settlements for the British crown.

Javanese turmeric is noted
for its deep yellow color.

An employee of the British East India Company, Raffles spent his whole career in Southeast Asia, in what are now the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. He started out in Penang, and from 1811 to 1816 was Lieutenant-Governor of Java. His last posting, from 1817 to 1824, was to Bengkulu on the west coast of Sumatra. One of Raffles’ greatest passions, throughout his career in the Orient, was the study of natural history. He collected and documented both plant and animal specimens, and commissioned countless drawings of his discoveries, mostly from Chinese artists. He was also an amateur writer, publishing a history of Java in 1817. Over a half-dozen plant and animal species bear his name, including a woodpecker, an ant, a fish, a spider, and an entire genus of parasitic flowers, Rafflesia.

Rafflesia arnoldii, a parasitical plant native to Sumatra.
First discovered by a Malay servant, but attributed to Raffles,
who commissioned this print made by the
Weddell firm of botanical engravers in 1826.

Excruciating and near-constant headaches caused Raffles to leave Singapore in February of 1824. He packed his enormous collections from Sumatra and Singapore, including about 2500 natural history drawings, one-of-a-kind Malay manuscripts, and animals specially captured for the voyage, aboard the ship Fame, forming what he called a "veritable Noah’s Ark." The vessel set sail on the morning of February 2, 1824 and began its long journey across the seas to Britain. That evening, a drunken sailor set a brandy cask on fire, forcing an emergency evacuation of the ship. Miraculously everyone on board was saved, but passengers and crew watched helplessly from the lifeboats as the Fame was consumed by flames. Raffles and his family lost all of their personal possessions, the fruits of his years of research, his caged animals, and an irreplaceable collection of specimens.

Sunda wrinkled hornbill (male).
The hornbill is native to Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo.
This illustration from 1815 was by an unknown Chinese artist.

But in a testament to Raffles’ incredible determination, the very next day after his lifeboat reached Bengkulu, he began to rebuild his collection of scientific materials. He re-sketched his map of Sumatra, and found artists to recreate his natural history drawings. By the time he finally sailed for England just over two months later, Raffles had managed to accumulate 100 new drawings of plants, birds, and other animals. Together with an earlier collection from Penang, these works are now held in the British Library. The drawings have recently been fully described and illustrated in a published catalog: H.J. Noltie, Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (London: the British Library and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in association with Bernard Quaritch, 2009).

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