Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China
Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China
Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China
Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China
Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China
Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China

Rare Set of 20 Chinese Export Watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China

c. 1790 China

Offered by Thomas Coulborn & Sons


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A rare set of twenty Chinese export watercolours representing the Customs and Trades of China.

As trade with China increased throughout the eighteenth century, the Western curiosity regarding life in the East grew with it. In the pre-photography world, paintings (particularly watercolours that could more easily be bound in albums and transported back), were the medium in which this fascination was sated. Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, no visit to Canton was complete without the purchase of a set of watercolours. To supply this increasing demand, Chinese artisans rapidly produced watercolours containing very similar figures and scenes. Perhaps the most famous of these is George Henry Mason’s Costume of China, an album published in 1800 and based upon a series of watercolours attributed to the Chinese artist Pu Qua. To appeal to this foreign market, these images were often highly romanticised and displayed an increased use of Western perspective and shading. The blank backgrounds of this series are very significant; no attempt has been made to put the figures in a Westernized context, instead retaining the Chinese tradition of depicting and celebrating the activity in isolation.

A favourite subject matter of Chinese export art was images of figures and daily life, and this is exactly what this unusual and beautiful set of watercolours depict. Dating from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), these watercolours portray scenes as diverse as a common market scene to fully-uniformed Chinese soldiers practicing their art. However, this set is unusual – instead of representing singular figures involved in their day-to-day labour (as seen in Mason’s work), these compositions illustrate groups of figures indulging in similar activities. As such, these images are far more elaborate and detailed than the former, more traditional Chinese exports; and though these activities may be equally romanticised, they provide us with a far more rounded view of daily life.
We include some notes below on the various activities depicted, but there is more work to be done to explain some of the customs and rituals shown.
Image Notes:
• Image 1: A procession of lamas/bonzes. The Chinese clergy were the only group to entirely shave their heads. Their general wear consisted of a loose robe with a broad collar of silk or velvet. The differing colours of the garments depended upon the particular sect or monastery to which they belonged - the individual at the front may have inhabited the Poo-ta-la temple, which was situated near Zhe-hol, the Imperial residence of the Tartars, and were allowed to wear the royal colour, yellow.
• Image 2: Fruit Market scene. Representing sellers of sliced soft bean curd, apples and plums. Chinese peasants of the time mostly subsisted on the great variety of indigenous Chinese vegetables, rice and roots. Those of better means indulged in richer foods, such as the highly seasoned bird’s nest soup.
• Image 3: Visiting an Apothecary. The Chinese diagnosed illness by feeling the pulse points and prescribing medicinal herbs.
• Image 4: Stages of silk-making. Far Left: silkworms are reared in large, rectangular bamboo mats. Bowl on Left: silk cocoons are placed in hot water and stirred with chopsticks, which act by picking up the loose ends of the filament and leading them to the reel: a step known as tixu (lifting filaments). Threads are wound on to a hand-reel, and the silk worker (with her baby in a sling on her back) guides the thread with her left hand, while rotating the reel clockwise; resulting in a thread with a slight twist: a step known as jiesi or luosi (spooling).
• Image 5: Appears to be some form of courting ritual or dance with match makers and family looking on?
• Image 6: Depicts the offering of various wares; Man in the foreground is a labourer with a wheelbarrow - heavy articles could be tied to the poles. Man on L a hunter. Lower and middle-ranked Chinese ate a wide variety of meat, ranging from the ducks and geese displayed on this hunter’s pole to young dogs, which were considered a particular delicacy. The central figure remains a mystery while the lady on the right appears to be a member of the elite who has purchased a small bird for her child.
• Image 7: A Tournament. Chinese soldiers never wore full uniform except on duty. The full dress uniform (that we can see here) consisted of a large embroidered tunic, brought in at the waist by a broad belt. This was fastened in front by an ornamental clasp. Archers carried ready-strung bows fastened to the left hip. It was a respectable and honourable pursuit, and earned a higher wage than would a labourer.
• Image 8: A group of musicians. The woman sitting on the left is playing some form of percussion with what appear to be chopsticks and a plate, moving right there is a woman playing castanets, a men playing a sanxian (three-stringed guitar), a woman playing the pipa and a woman on the far right playing a small gong and chimes. The flowers held by the child on the left may be a Chinese Pink (Dianthus Chinensis).
• Image 9: This image shows a group of female peasantry at work. They, unlike socially superior Chinese women, had use of their feet (as they had not been bound); though this was considered extremely vulgar. In the summer months, as displayed here, they did not wear shoes or stockings, and earned their livelihood by hard labour. In some provinces it was said that the women dragged the ploughs in the fields, while their husbands were content with simply helping at difficult intervals.
• Image 10: Red Ribbon Dance. According to Chinese legend, an assassination attempt was made on the Chinese emperor during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 420 A.D.). A man named Hsiang Po thwarted it by using the silk of his sleeve to block the sword of the attacker. When the Chinese people heard of this, they showed their gratitude with a dance using short pieces of cloth and ribbon, which symbolized Hsiang Po's sleeve. The red ribbon dance thus became a dance of celebration. In this dance, the performers twirl, flick, and swish red ribbons attached to poles. Although there are no specific, predefined sequences to a red ribbon dance, it is characterized by abrupt, dramatic movements. The dancers need to move the poles quickly in order to move the entire ribbon, and to convey the sense of joy and happiness the dance symbolizes.
• Image 11: Bird sellers. Small feeders are visible in the cages, which were generally made of bamboo or rattan. Many Chinese kept birds for decorative or singing purposes, though they were also kept for their fighting abilities.
• Image 12: A group of foreign tradesmen. Images of this ilk depicting people from the bordering races of Turkestan, Tibet or Mongolia first became popular during the Tang dynasty. These are possibly Manchu guards, carrying arrows and pipes.
• Image 13: Tradesmen selling tea and sweet cakes, while the teapot seller looks on, sitting on a bamboo stool. Tea (tchá) was always presented to a visitor in China, whatever time of day they might arrive. It was served in porcelain cups, and was never mixed with milk or sugar. It was relished by both the Chinese and the Europeans of the time as a refreshing and thirst-quenching beverage.
• Image 14: A visit to the brothel. A humorous depiction of the reluctance and embarrassment of a male visitor seated on the right hand side. The company are seated at a Western-style round table with red lacquered chairs.
• Image 15: Making offerings. Traditionally offerings of valuable goods were made to deceased ancestors, but the peasant guards on the right may be receiving the gifts for other purposes?
• Image 16: A saddle is being prepared while apples are given to a mother and child. Buying a horse?
• Image 17: A group of performers. This image shows a variety of different performers, from the man with his tame monkeys on the left, to the dancers on the right. Both of these groups would perform to the sound of the drum and the gong, pictured in the middle.
• Image 18: Mandarins in summer dress. The long, loose habit that can be seen was considerably more adapted to warm weather, and many wore a silken net underneath to prevent over-perspiration. The shoes were made of breathable woven rattan, and they also wore a light red rattan cap. It was usual to carry a handkerchief and a fan. The latter was not only functional, but also a formal article of clothing during warm weather; and was even carried by the military.
• Image 19: Mandarins of distinction. The dress of a Mandarin consisted of a long vest reaching to the ankle, with sleeves that were wider at the shoulder and gradually narrowing at the wrist. As can be seen here, they were rounded off in a horse-shoe shape, covering the whole hand. No man of distinction entered public areas without heeled satin, silk or calico boots. Full dress also consisted of a heavily embroidered blue silk gown, over which was worn a silk surcoat. This was topped off by a string of expensive coral beads worn around the neck. The cap was edged with satin, velvet or fur, and on the crown would be placed badges from the emperor. Civil Mandarins of high social standing would wear embroidered birds on their chests, whereas those of a military background would sport a dragon. Colours were equally ceremonial; emperors and princes were allowed to wear yellow, violet was worn by Mandarins on ceremonial occasions, and white was universally adopted for mourning.
• Image 20: A group of male musicians. From left to right of this little group on the left of the image there is a pipa, a trumpet, a drum and a pair of cymbals. These represent some of the most common instruments of the time. It seems that this group are performing to several individuals of a higher social status, as can be seen by the brighter colours of their clothing and the more elaborate styles.
Cowdray family, Cowdray Park
- Alexander, W. & Mason, G.H., 'Trades and Traditions of Old China' (Singapore: Sun Tree Publishing), 1994
- Alexander, W. & Mason, G.H., 'Views of 18th Century China: Costumes, History, Customs' (London: Studio Editions), 1988
- Chiang, Y., 'The Chinese Eye: An Interpretation of Chinese Painting' (London: Methuen & Co.), 1935
- Clunas, C., 'Chinese Export Watercolours' (London: V&A), 1984
- Crossman, C.L., 'The Decorative Arts of the China Trade' (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club), 1991
- Gregory, M., 'Tingqua’s China' (London: Martyn Gregory), 1986
- 'Late Qing China Trade Paintings' (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of Art), 1982
- 'Martyn Gregory 25th Annual Exhibition of China Trade Paintings' (London: Martyn Gregory Galleries), 2002
- 'Souvenir From Canton: Chinese Export Paintings from the Victoria & Albert Museum' (London: V&A Publishing), 2003
- Tillotson, G.H.R., 'Fan Kwae Pictures' (London: Spink & Son), 1987
- The Peabody Essex Museum collections website: http://www.pem.org/
- The V&A object database
Height 44.50 cm (17.52 inches)
Width 54.30 cm (21.38 inches)
Stock Code
Thomas Coulborn & Sons

Thomas Coulborn & Sons
Vesey Manor
64 Birmingham Road
Sutton Coldfield
West Midlands
B72 1QP

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