Brilliant little jewels

Watercolours on pith paper that were produced in China for the Western export trade through most of the 19th century still have an extraordinary vividness.

In Australia, pith paper watercolours were advertised as early as April 1829, described in the Sydney Gazette as ‘rice paper paintings’ under the title ‘New China Goods’.

The Chinese landscapes, trades and customs depict something of the colour and excitement Western visitors would have experienced in and around the Chinese trading ports, especially Canton, in the 19th century.

Upon traveling up the Pearl River towards Canton on his first visit in 1825, the American merchant William C Hunter was struck by the scene. On one side of the riverfront were the Hongs, the trading stations or factories of the European powers (the only port open to the West until the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing) and on the other Honam-side was the location of thriving local merchant activity. Hunter wrote that:

The number of cargo boats from the interior, of passenger boats, floating residences and up-country craft, with Government cruisers and flower boats, was prodigious. To these must be added sampans, ferry boats plying to and from Honam, and quantities of barbers’ boats, vendors of every description of food, of clothes, of toys, and what would be called household requirements… besides boats of fortune-tellers and of theatrical performers – in short, imagine a city afloat, and it conveys a very correct idea of the incessant movement, the subdued noises, the life and gaiety of the river.1


An album of watercolours on pith paper in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection captures a little of the atmosphere around Canton that was described by Hunter. The album includes vegetable sellers, fishmongers, butchers, flower merchants and fortune tellers and carries the paper label of the ‘Kheshing’ studio located on the ‘Honamside’ of the river. Such an album, a crafted souvenir, would have been an ideal way for Western merchants like Hunter to take a piece of China home.

In fact, the Western fascination for all things Chinese had developed with the boom in trade, especially of tea and silk, in the 18th century. Examples of Chinese crafts were also eagerly sort by Western merchants both for themselves and for trade at home. Early Sydney newspapers are full of lists of the latest Chinese export goods in porcelain, ivory, jade, lacquer ware, furniture, mother-of-pearl, silver and artworks in oils and watercolours.

Although Chinese watercolours on either European or Chinese paper were made for the export market in the 18th century, pith paper was first used for watercolours in the mid-1820s. In Australia, pith paper watercolours were advertised as early as April 1829, described in the Sydney Gazette as ‘rice paper paintings’ under the title ‘New China Goods’. The term ‘rice paper paintings’ was the most common phrase used to describe watercolours on pith paper. These works were usually sold for the remainder of the 19th century as being painted or drawn on rice paper and until recent times they have often been misattributed as rice paper rather than pith.

What is pith?

Pith is not manufactured like paper, but derived by cutting into thin strips the inner spongy tissue of a small tree, tetrapanax papyriferum, which is indigenous to southern China and Taiwan. Pith had the advantage of being both inexpensive and easy to access for the Chinese painters. But perhaps most importantly, unlike the soft wash-like effect typical of European watercolours on paper, watercolour did not sink into pith paper but rather, sat on its surface like enamel or so many brilliant little jewels.

A variety of subjects were commonly produced on pith paper, mostly depicting Chinese customs or practices that were seemingly exotic to Western eyes. A pair of albums in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection illustrate amongst the most popular of subjects: the stages in the production processes for tea and silk. Other subjects depicted in pith paper watercolours include theatre scenes; ports and landscapes; flowers, animals and insects and Mandarins and ladies in colourful costumes. In effect, watercolours on pith paper were the perfect memento of China: cheap, exotic and colourful.

The popularity of pith paper watercolours must have spread fast. In 1835, just a decade after they were first produced, around 30 studios specialising in pith paper watercolours had been established in and around Canton. The Australian newspaper reproduced a report from the Glasgow Constitutional stating that:

by 1844 the United Kingdom imported annually ‘no fewer than ten thousand of the rice paper drawings’.

The larger studios of Tingqua & Lamqua were described by Western visitors as being amongst the sights of Canton. The output of smaller studios was often less striking though the quality remained consistent as the outline of each figure was typically traced from a common studio template. Charles Toogood Downing described the process in a visit to one of the studios in the 1830s: “whatever the subject may be – whether a boat, a bird or a mandarin – it is laid upon the table, and the rice paper is placed over it; and then on account of the transparency of the latter, a figure is easily sketched…”2

Watercolours on pith were commonly sold in sets of 11 or 12, bound into albums with silk brocade covers. The pith paper was supplied held in place on a backing sheet and usually surrounded by a silk or paper ribbon. Later in the 19th century, smaller watercolours on pith, often of a single figure or small scene, were sold in little fabric covered boxes with glass lids. Although the albums were sometimes kept intact, some were dismantled and framed and others were stuck into scrapbooks.


Keeping a scrapbook was a particularly popular 19th century pastime in many Western countries, especially for women and children. Although some were compiled for a single purpose or around a single theme, many were assembled in a seemingly random fashion and might comprise both the personal and the commercial. A scrapbook belonging to Bessie Rouse (1843-1924) of Rouse Hill House, probably dating from the late 1860s, includes drawings of landscapes and pets, hand written verse, cut-out colour images of animals and plants as well as a page of four small watercolours on pith paper of Chinese women with musical instruments. Another scrapbook, belonging to Jane Ursula Thurstans (1834-1905) from when she was 16 years old in 1851 and attending school in Tettenhall, near Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, includes contributions by Jane, her siblings and friends and comprises topographical sketches, small flower drawings, valentines, a silhouette, and a watercolour on pith paper of a Chinese mother and her child. The later scrapbook is held in the Caroline Simpson Collection.

The pith paper watercolours that were added to scrapbooks may have been Chinese mementos from a friend or relative, but they are also likely to have been included simply because they illustrated a vibrant or striking subject. By the 1870s and 80s, the development of cheap, colour chromolithographic printing led to the fall in popularity of pith paper watercolours for scrapbooks. Chromolithography was employed for a wide range of commercial and artistic uses, though printers also issued sheets of cut-out ‘scraps’ often on sentimental themes especially for scrapbookers: angels, garlands of flowers and cute animals seem to be amongst the most common. Pith paper watercolours would have appeared relatively expensive and limited in subject matter compared to the enormous range of chromolithographic images that were flooding the market.

In 1884, a Melbourne newspaper, The Argus, published an extended article by ‘a recent visitor’ to Canton who described a trip to a ‘rice-paper shop’, one of the city’s extant watercolour studios. The writer was impressed with the work, particularly ‘the skillful treatment of subject and brilliancy of colour’ on display. Canton had by this date lost some of its lustre as other Chinese trading ports were established in the second half of the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, most of these studios had stopped producing pith paper watercolours. Perhaps the exotic had become mundane or too familiar for Western taste. Some studios did survive by adapting to become photography studios. Instead of the labour-intensive watercolours, the studios continued in the tourist trade by selling mass-produced photographic views of China and the East.

Further reading:

  • Craig Clunas, Chinese export watercolours, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1984
  • Carl L. Crossman, The decorative arts of the China Trade: paintings, furnishings, and exotic curiosities, Antique Collectors’ Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1991
  • Views from the west: collection of pith paper watercolours donated by Mr Ifan Williams to the city of Guangzhou, Zhonghua shu ju, Beijing, 2001


  1. W C Hunter, The Fan Kwae at Canton: before Treaty days 1825-1844 by an old resident, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, London, 1882, p14
  2. C Toogood Downing, The Fan-qui in China in 1836-7, Vol II, Henry Colburn, London, 1838, p98.

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Michael Lech

Michael Lech


Michael Lech is a curator at MHNSW. He has worked on exhibitions, presented talks and written extensively on various aspects of the history of the home in Australia. Michael’s work has covered areas such as interior design, the history of wallpapers and furnishing textiles, the heritage movement, Sydney’s department stores and design history in Australia.

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