Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Splendid $200,000 Album of Early 19th Century Chinese Export Watercolors

By Stephen J. Gertz

A remarkable early to mid-nineteenth century Chinese album, containing 141 full-page watercolors of exceptional quality, journeyed from the Celestial Kingdom to the library of a British noble thence disembarked to rare book shop in London where it is now being offered for sale. The asking price is $195,768 (£125,000).

Depicting the various ranks of Chinese society, including royalty, mandarins and other officials, warriors and archers, along with costumes of different provinces, as well as various trades and industries, the watercolors, created for export, are vivid and often highlighted with gilt.

Noteworthy are the large number of subjects pictured, the unusually large size of each painting, and the use of very fine, thin and delicate paper.

Later collections of Chinese export watercolors were routinely executed on less expensive, stronger and thicker "pith" paper (made from the pith of a plant related to ginseng); the demand in Europe for small, inexpensive, and easily transportable art souvenirs had grown huge and earlier watercolors of the finest quality, as here, were not practical to produce on the necessary scale to satisfy what had once been carriage-trade items but had evolved into a mass middle-class market.

The album thus represents an earlier, more prestigious style of export watercolor paintings specifically meant for wealthy Europeans. These are Chinese watercolors of the highest quality, designed and executed to the highest standards.

The album was once owned by Annie Pearson, Viscountess Cowdray (1881-1931), Steward of Colchester and wife of Lord Weetman Dickinson Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray. She likely acquired it from a previous owner.

“'Export' paintings, mainly oil paintings, as well as watercolours, gouaches on paper, board and glass, started in the mid eighteenth century and reached their climax in the mid nineteenth century but declined when photography became fashionable...

"In order to satisfy the great demand of the market...Guangdong painters opened workshops in the area of the Western factories (or 'Hong') where foreigners lived. They employed painters specialized in different sections and made many imitations with Western materials, paper and silk. After the Opium War between China and Britain in 1840, China was forced to open ports. When Shanghai was opened as a port in 1843, Great Britain, the United States and France established 'concession zones' in the city between 1845 to 1849. In the same way as had happened in Guangzhou, Guangzhou 'export' painters, among other Chinese painters, thrived in the new commercial emporium by producing 'export' paintings...

"'Export' painters, at the same time, produced lots of commercial paintings of the popular themes about the Chinese society. Since the purpose of producing 'export' paintings was entirely commercial, most artists rarely signed their works or, at the most, just added to them a monogram identifying the pictorial workshop to which they belonged" (Export Paintings, Civil and Municipal Affairs Bureau of Macao S.A.R.).

[CHINA SCHOOL Watercolors of Chinese Costume and Trade]. N.p. [Guangzhou?]: N.p., n.d. [c.  early-mid 19th century]. Large quarto (38.4 x 32 cm). 141 full-page watercolors on thin Chinese paper, some with gilt highlights, nearly all captioned in Chinese in ink in lower right corner. Each mounted on paper, recto only.

Bound in mid-nineteenth century half morocco, gilt, with spine compartments decorated in gilt. Bookplate of Annie, Viscountess of Cowdray.

Images courtesy of Shapero Rare Books, with our thanks.

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