CHINESE BOTANICAL WATERCOLOURS -- WIN ACHUN and others (artists). Two albums of botanical watercolours of fruit, flowering shrubs, trees and plants. [n.p. but ?Canton: n.d. but watermarked 1794-1801].
2 volumes, large 2° (550 x 420mm). 395 FINE WATERCOLOUR DRAWINGS, occasionally heightened with gum-arabic, one album (titled 'Flowers' on spine) containing 230 drawings, the second (titled 'Fruit') containing 165, unsigned, but including a group of 100 drawings identified in a contemporary western hand as being by Win Achun, the others by at least two other unknown hands, the majority of the plants identified (in characters) by their Chinese name. (Slight oxidisation of colour to about 15 drawings, 5 with appreciable creasing, small marginal tears to several watercolours, 4 slightly spotted.) Contemporary diced russia, tooled in gilt and blind, spines in seven compartments with double raised bands, lettered in the second 'Chinese Drawings' and the sixth 'Flowers' or 'Fruit', t.e.g., by L. Staggemeier, with his yellow ticket, (the 'Flowers' volume with spine chipped at head and foot, lower cover detached, the upper joint weak, the 'Fruit' volume rebacked with old spine laid down).
Provenance: John Roberts (director of the East India Company, catalogue entry from an early auction on front free-endpaper of 'Flowers' volume); Wentworth Henry Canning, 2nd Viscount Allendale (armorial bookplate).
A FINE COLLECTION OF CHINESE BOTANICAL STUDIES, INCLUDING A VERY RARE GROUP BY AN IDENTIFIED CHINESE ARTIST. According to an early auction catalogue clipping the collection was 'executed expressly for the Late J.Roberts, Esq. (A Director and Chairman of the East India Company) and are sold by order of his executors. It would be difficult to convey an adequate idea of the taste, beauty and spirit with which the Drawings are executed, and I am assured by a very competent judge who was in China, when the Drawings were made, that their fidelity is equal to their beauty. All the Botanical Drawings were submitted by the Artist to the inspection and received the approbation of Mr.Kerr, the Botanist, who was sent from Kew to China by his Britannic Majesty.'
William Kerr was in Canton in 1803, and visited Java and other far eastern locations before his death in Ceylon in 1814, and it is likely that on this visit these drawings were ordered or selected. The drawings would have been bound in about 1810, the date when Staggemeier's partnership with Welcher appears to have been dissolved. The titles are slightly misleading as both volumes contain fruit and flowers. The drawings are all on English laid paper, either unmarked or on undated 'I.Taylor' watermarked paper, a small group of 11 leaves towards the end of the 'Fruits' volume are on 'J.Whatman' paper, three of these (nos.195, 198 and 205) are dated 1794, and one (no.215) is dated 1801. 11 drawings in the 'Fruits' volume are on smaller format paper. The subjects are presented as botanical specimens according to western ideas, with a sprig of foliage showing where possible bud, flower, immature and mature fruits or seed heads, with examples of both fruit and flowers dissected beneath.
The 'Flowers' volume includes 26 drawings of chrysanthemums, 18 orchids (including 2 'duplicates'), 9 roses, 6 camellias and 5 azaleas. The 'Fruits' comprises 65 drawings of fruit by unidentified artist(s), including mangosteen, paw-paw, lychee (5), mango (5), palms (5), banannas (2), pineapple (2), grape, star-fruit, chesnut, pomegranate (2), peanut and chili. These are followed by a leaf of Chinese paper, inscribed in pencil '100 Drawings by Win Achun', and 100 leaves of drawings flowers and fruit by a single hand, including lychee (9), citrus fruits (6), plums (2), peach (2), chesnut, camellias (5), tree peonies (4), magnolia (2), honeysuckle, azalea, gardenias, melons (2), orchids (8), lilies (3), narcissi, chrysanthemum (2) and poppy.
This collection forms part of a well-established tradition of almost exclusively anonymous Chinese artists, working in and around the coastal trading ports, producing work for Western consumption, more particularly the members of the East India and Dutch East India Companies. That the work was mostly produced to order, working from master-copies (see duplicate drawings in the 'Flower' album [nos.48 and 216 and 49 and 218]), does not detract from the high quality of draughtsmanship. The drawings, whilst meeting western demands for botanical accuracy, have that fine Chinese feeling and tradition for design and delicacy almost bringing the plants to life. Win Achun's drawings, particularly the group of Tree Peonies (nos.105-108), are arguably a match for anything that western botanical artists were producing at the time. (2)