A trio of 19th century Chinese pith paper portraits
A finely painted gentleman in traditional Chinese dress
Each painting measures 8cm x 12.5cm
Each frame measures 14.5cm x 19cm
As the pith paper is very delicate there is some foxing and a few rips or dents visible upon very close inspection, but in relatively very good condition compared to similar paintings of this period. Professionally framed and matted. Two of the frames are chipped.
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. The albums of pith paintings 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. Hanging them in strong light soon gives them that washed-out look, so keep them displayed away from direct sunlight.
Pith comes from the central column of spongy cellular tissue in the stem of a small tree called Tetrapanax Papyrifera, native to south-west China. For use in painting, it is cut by hand with a knife into thin sheets from short lengths of the spongy tissue. Cutting is highly skilled and the constraints of the process mean that the finished sheets for painting seldom, if ever, measure more than about 30cms by 20cms. The sheets are dried, trimmed and used for painting without any further processing.
Because of the nature of pith and its cellular structure, the gouache used by the Chinese sat on the surface and produced a bright and even sparkling effect. Very fine detail could be achieved but pith did not lend itself to the flat wash of colour favoured for European watercolours. Developed to appeal to the “foreign barbarian” visitors to China, paintings on pith were produced by artisans rather than by the intellectual elite and they were therefore not accepted as Chinese art.
Carl Crossman in his book The Decorative Arts of the China Trade (originally published under the title The China Trade) gives an excellent list of export painters with a note of those known to have painted on pith. These include Tingqua, Sunqua and Youqua. From 1757 until 1842 Canton was the only Chinese port open to trade with the west and it is no surprise that of the eight studios identified by Crossman as producing works on pith, six were in Canton.
It seems that the 1830s and 1840s may have been the heyday of pith painting. As the result of the Treaty of Nanking, in 1842 additional Chinese ports were opened up for foreign trade and Hong Kong was established as a major trading centre. Painters like Tingqua and Sunqua opened studios in Hong Kong but by 1846 photography had arrived, China was losing its exotic isolation, Japanese art and design were ousting Chinoiserie and conflicts nearer home were getting more media attention. By 1860 references to China in the Illustrated London News, plentiful three years earlier, were few and far between.
Painters on pith did not in general sign their work (the sole exception is Sunqua whose name can be found on the face of three paintings on pith). Usually the only way we can safely attribute paintings to a particular artist or artist’s studio is when we find them in an album which has a studio plate. Unfortunately the number of such albums is diminishing as galleries remove the pictures and frame them up for sale.
There are collections of paintings on pith in such prestigious museums as the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam, the Hermitage, the Peabody/Essex Museum in Massachusetts and the Hong Kong Museum of Art.