Chinese export watercolours on pith
A variety of subjects was created, mostly illustrating Chinese customs or practices seemingly exotic to Western eyes. Sold in their thousands, mainly by studios in and around Canton (Guangzhou), the watercolours were part of a great raft of goods eagerly sought by Australians, including silk, tea, ceramics and jade.
The vivid colour of these works derives principally from the ‘pith’ surface. Watercolour does not sink into pith as it does into normal paper, but sits on the surface like little jewels. In fact, pith is not manufactured like paper. It is a type of veneer, cut from the inner spongy tissue of a small tree indigenous to southern China.
Watercolours on pith were commonly sold in sets of 11 or 12, bound into albums with silk brocade covers. Individual watercolours were often removed from the albums and stuck into scrapbooks – scrapbooking was a particularly popular pastime in the 19th century.
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