Science and Heritage Programme

Culture and Trade through the Prism of Technical Art History - a Study of Chinese Export Paintings

The Nottingham Trent University

Award Holder - Dr Haida Liang


Culture and Trade Through the Prism of Technical Art History - a Study of Chinese Export Paintings

The Victoria & Albert Museum has a large collection of Chinese export paintings from the 18th and 19th  century painted by artisans from Canton and other Chinese ports. These paintings were often sold as souvenirs to Europeans. They typically depict contemporary life in China, illustrating the various trades, costumes, boats, birds, insects and plants, aimed at satisfying foreign clients and their curiosity (and perception) of China and Chinese things. These paintings are valuable for the study of trade and cultural exchange between Britain and China in the 18th and 19th century.

There is considerable interest in these paintings amongst researchers studying the economic and cultural history, international trade and cultural exchange of that epoch both within the UK and internationally. A number of museums, libraries and charities in the UK have similar collections. Internationally, similar collections exist in continental Europe, Russia, America and Asia. While the majority were painted as souvenirs for tourists, some were painted for scientific research.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) owns a large collection of early 19th century Chinese watercolour paintings of plants. These were commissioned by the RHS and the Chinese artisans in Canton and Macau were supervised by the RHS representative John Reeves to paint accurately plant species to serve as a plant catalogue. This collection is different from most Chinese export paintings in that they were scientific drawings and well documented by both the RHS's minutes and Reeves' notebooks. Their paintings are, therefore, confidently dated. A mixture of both Chinese and European painting techniques and materials were used on some of these paintings. For example, European paper and pigments such as Whatman paper and Prussian blue were used.  

Technical art history is an emerging field especially for East Asian art. While there is considerable curatorial interest in the historical study of Chinese export paintings, there have been relatively few studies involving scientific analysis. Most institutions do not allow samples to be taken from paper-based objects because of conservation ethics. Consequently, conventional scientific analysis (often destructive) can only be conducted on residuals fallen off the paintings. These studies are therefore rather limited and the results may not even be representative of the paintings on the whole.

One of the major problems with the study of  paper-based objects is the lack of a wide range of non-invasive instruments to systematically study a large collection of materials. With the development of imaging science and technology, it is increasingly possible to conduct effective scientific examinations non-invasively. This proposal intends to address art historical and conservation research questions related to these paintings through the application of novel imaging technology developed in past research council funded projects in combination with complementary non-invasive spectroscopic techniques. This will be the first time a wide range of complementary non-invasive imaging and spectroscopic techniques are used to study a well-defined collection to address specific questions such as the nature and provenance of the painting material, date and provenance of the paintings, the relation between the painting/drawing techniques and the provenance of the material, the light sensitivity and the state of conservation of the paintings.

The project will explore trade and cultural exchanges through insights from technical art history; contribute to the new emerging field of technical art history for East Asian art; demonstrate the usefulness of non-invasive scientific examination for the understanding, enjoyment and preservation of paper-based objects; contribute to future exhibitions of these paintings; and establish a network of interdisciplinary researchers with a broad common interest in the study of paper-based objects.


This research will have wide ranging impacts from academia (e.g. art history, history, cultural studies, conservation, conservation science, optics and imaging science), public sectors (e.g. national collections, museums and heritage management organisations), business/private sector (auction houses, private conservation studios), third sector (e.g. charities such as National Trust, Royal Horticultural Society) and the general public.

Chinese export paintings are currently attracting a lot of attention from scholars around the world (from UK, continental Europe, the Americas to South East Asia and China). Since these paintings are scattered around various museums globally, the research will contribute to knowledge both within the UK and internationally. It will benefit art historians studying Chinese export art, historians studying trade and cultural exchange between China and Europe in the 18th and 19th century, and benefit research in cultural identity and cultural perception in the 18th and 19th century Europe and China. Since currently China is again Europe's major trading partner, studies of the historical Europe-China trade will lend itself to a new perspective on the contemporary economic policies.

This research benefits not only the stakeholders of collections of Chinese export paintings such as museums (e.g. the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum), libraries and archives (e.g. the British Library) and charities (e.g. the Royal Horticultural Society, the National Trust and Briton Pavillon) within the UK but also around the world (e.g. Singapore National Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, State Hermitage Museum, Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Philadelphia Museum of Art etc.).

This increased appreciation of Chinese export art is also reflected in the prices reached in Western auction houses for ceramics, pictures etc.

The benefits are not only in technical art history and curatorial studies but also in conservation. Identification of the material will help with conservation decisions and a study of the light sensitivity of the material can inform display policy and the selection of the best environmental conditions for both display and storage.

The results of this research will inform the planned future exhibition of the Reeves collection at the Royal Horticultural Society, a potential future exhibitions of Chinese export art at the V&A and potentially the V&A exhibition next year on "Masterpieces: The Making of Chinese Paintings 700-1900". The scientific images and analysis results can also feature in some of these exhibitions and therefore introduce the general public to cross-disciplinary research and better understanding of the collections. Exhibitions are also the best way of outreach for science. The results will be disseminated through a variety of outreach activities that Dr Burgio at the V&A is regularly involved in. These activities target different types of audiences and range from gallery talks given to V&A visitors and other activities such as National Science and Engineering Week, to presentations to school children in regions outside London (often from a mixed socio-economic background), to pieces written for the V&A website as well as V&A Facebook entries, and short articles for the V&A Conservation Journal which is sent internationally to other museums/galleries as well as academic institutions and private practitioners with an interest in cultural heritage.

Through working on this project, postdoctoral research staff will gain transferable skills such as improved communication skills, experiences working across disciplines, organisational skills (e.g. organising workshops), experiences in international collaboration and outreach.