Group of 12 flowers and insects.
Mid to late nineteenth century.
Pith 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.
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. It has had a variety of uses, some going back many centuries. At the imperial court both men and women wore coloured flowers made from pith in their hair. For use in painting, it is cut by hand with a knife into thin sheets from short lengths of the spongy tissue.
Because of the nature of pith and its cellular structure, the gouache used by the Chinese sat on the surface allowing fine detail and bright colour.
12 hand painted water-colours on pith paper of flowers and insects, within pale blue silk borders. A few cracks and light stains. Framed and glazed, overall dimensions: 37.5cm by 26.5cm by 2cm.
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