Album of watercolors of Asian fruits
A short note from 1958 documents a visit to Dumbarton Oaks by Mildred and Bill Archer, in the company of Richard Ettinghausen of the Freer Gallery. Mildred Archer was curator of Prints and Drawings at the India Office Library, a collection that would later move to the British Library. Mildred Bliss was not present, but one of her staff documented the visit for her:
“The Archers came with Mr. Ettinghausen + examined the ‘Chinese’ plates. They say they are definitely Chinese, but may have been painted in Malaya or Sumatra or anywhere the British were. They [the Archers] showed how the painting was identified as Chinese, certain tricks of painting – white paint on bark, + pale blue backgrounds to white flowers, which the Indians never did. They dated the plates as ca. 1798–1810. They advised getting a botanist to name the fruits, which of course would also indicate the country. Also to have the English names (almost indiscipherable [sic]) brought out with infra red.
"Mrs. Archer has some practically identical plates. 10 or 12 were usually made at one time. She is getting out a catalogue of such work + will send us a copy.”
That catalogue, published in 1962, includes a “Chinese drawing” of a watermelon that is nearly identical to plate 15 in the Dumbarton Oaks album of 28 watercolor plates. The paintings in the Dumbarton Oaks album appear to be in two styles. Twelve plates include elaborate arrangements of multiple fruits, such as cacao, breadfruit, and pineapple, entwined by foliage and flowers. Another 10 plates are in a simpler style, showing just one fruit accompanied by its own cross section, foliage, flowers, and one of its seeds. (Theis in this second style.) An illustrated index gives the plant names in Arabic script (possibly Malay) and a Roman script (possibly some form of Dutch); it is this Roman script for which the Archers recommended infrared photography. The watermarks on the album’s pages corroborate Archer’s dating of the album circa 1798–1810.
But what tradition is at work here? Why would a set of hand-painted illustrations in England be nearly identical to a set that found its way to Dumbarton Oaks? Henry Noltie, in Raffles’ Ark Redrawn, writes that “such stylized drawings of exotic fruit were popular among [East India] Company servants,” explaining why they are found in the libraries at Kew and Edinburgh, among others. Noltie identifies a “Straits School” of Chinese artist-copyists working in Penang, Malacca, and Singapore from circa 1770 to 1850. (These artists, it should be noted, were working for a European market but were also inheritors of a long tradition of Chinese painting, exemplified by the seventeenth-century Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.)
These collections of botanical illustrations were keepsakes for Europeans stationed abroad. But they were also scientifically important, sometimes documenting plants that had yet to be officially described in the European botanical literature, such as nutmeg. The images speak to the widespread appeal of botanical specimens at the end of the eighteenth century; surely not all of the owners of these images had need of the seeds and cross-section views, and yet they are featured prominently in these images.
Archer, Mildred. Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library. London: Published for the Commonwealth Relations Office by H. M. Stationery Office, 1962.
Noltie, Henry J. Raffles' Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. London: British Library; Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; London: In association with Bernard Quaritch, 2009.
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