This China-trade painting in gouache on paper shows what is almost certainly what was known as Pagoda Island in the Min River in Fuzhou (Foochow). The island provided a safe anchorage for large sailing boats in the 19th century, though was only frequented by western sailing ships from around the 1840s onwards. Included were the tea clippers which sailed to the area to collect tea for the London market. Accordingly, the painting shows various foreign ships including two three-masted clippers in the foreground, as well as warehouses and other commercial buildings connected to foreign trade. A pagoda rises above this scene.
The pagoda itself is in typical Hokkien style (although the local dialect was the Fuzhou dialect.) Pagodas of this form with seven or more storeys were to be found in several locations including on the banks of the Han River in Guangdong Province. It is likely that ‘pagodas’ such as the one illustrated here did not serve a religious function so much as being watch towers. This explains their prevalence in southern coastal China and their typical sighting near or along navigatable waterways.
China trade paintings were produced in southern China in the 19th century specifically for the European and US export markets. Many were of port scenes, but others also showed scenes from China life, birds and animals, local industries and so on. The paintings were produced by Chinese artists for Western clients. New research has shown that many of the paintings were executed by single artists and often with a surprising degree of accuracy in terms of recording topographical details. Paintings sometimes were in oil, but the overwhelming number were executed in watercolour and gouache.
The painting itself is in excellent condition. There is some minor water damage to the blue border around the painting to the top right corner. The painting currently has a gold frame (with glass).
Crossman, C.L, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade: Paintings, Furnishings and Exotic Curiosities, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1991.
Mok, M. K.W, ‘Redefining China trade painting: A decade of research’, Arts of Asia, November-December 2019.