CHINA, Company School
[An album of original botanical watercolours]
[Shanghai: no date but circa 1790]. Folio. (17 1/8 x 12 3/4 inches). 20 original watercolour and bodycolour drawings (14 x 11 1/2 inches and smaller) on Chinese paper, mounted one to a page.
Mid-19th century dark red morocco gilt, covers with an elaborate gilt border of two thick fillets flanking a highly decorative roll, with cornerpieces of large square stylised flower-heads, the border enclosing a large central panel blocked in semi-relief with highly elaborate panels to an overall Adam-influenced design centering on an oval with a large flowerhead, within a lozenge, this panel filled with stylized scrolling foliage and flowerheads, the spine in five unequal compartments, each gilt with numerous small tools, the third compartment with a design centered on a shaped lozenge, the others with a repeat design of a broken oval with numerous small tools, elaborate gilt turn-ins, white watered-silk textured paper endpapers, damascened steel clasp, gilt edges.
A fine early collection of beautifully composed images, in a style that recalls traditional Chinese compositions, whilst also making allowances for the differing Western taste of the European patrons who supported a thriving school of highly talented natural history artists in Shanghai from the late 18th century onwards.
The drawings are all on Chinese paper, suggesting an early date. From about 1800 onwards, the Shanghai artists were generally supplied with English wove paper (often 'Whatman' paper). The supposition of an early date is also supported by the style of drawing, which still shows strong traces of the traditional Chinese style of painting. The artist or artists of these drawings have not yet learned to portray their subjects according to the western notion of a 'botanical drawing' - i.e. with samples of the fruit or seeds, and perhaps a dissection of a flower to show its structure. This collection forms part of what was to become a well-established tradition of almost exclusively anonymous Chinese artists, working in and around the coastal trading ports, producing work for Western patrons, more particularly the members of the East India and Dutch East India Companies. The best of the drawings are arguably a match for anything that Western botanical artists were producing at the time. The quality of the album into which these drawings have been carefully mounted suggest that, at an early date, their outstanding quality was recognized. The subjects include a striking amaranthus, a mallow, tree peonies, narcissi, prunus, begonia, iris, one watercolour including an unidentified bird and a very fine image of a spray of wild white dog-rose being visited by five bees and three butterflies.