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This article is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.Pictures from a Library
34: The Unexpected Story of the Chinese Papermaker
A SLIGHT FIGURE HUNCHES over a contraption to lift a frame through slurry contained within a vat. The layer of mush that he slowly sifts will be transformed into paper once dry and flat. His back towards us, we see him concentrated in his task, his work-clothes muted in tones of blue and grey, and his hair styled with the vestige of a Chinese queue. Made in Canton in the 1790s, this watercolour is one of a hundred or so drawings collected together and bound into an album. Part of the collection of Alexander William Crawford Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford, it was sold to Enriqueta Rylands for her library in Manchester in 1901.
Using an actual piece of paper and an artist’s radiant skill, this delicate delineation entices the viewer into the papermaker’s world to see the ancient art of Chinese papermaking in action. As Marshall McLuhan might have observed, medium and message appear to work in concert. Yet, all is not as it seems. A second glance confirms that some aspects of this image don’t ring true. Not only are the conventions of representation eccentric by Chinese standards (the ‘bodily posture [...] the manner of indicating volume and distance’, Craig Clunas), some of the paraphernalia pictured in the image isn’t specifically Chinese or ancient. The ‘hand holding the brush may have been Chinese’ but the drawing’s guiding ideas are ‘purely Western’ (Clunas). The machine in the centre of the image was, for example, invented by the Dutch in the 1680s and is known as an ‘Engine’ or ‘Hollander Beater’. One just like it was installed in the mill of the great English papermaker James Whatman at Turkey Mill in Kent in the 1730s. From the 1740s onwards it played its part as Whatman wove and laid new types of paper that were of ‘perfection superior to most’ (Edward Hasted).
Soon ‘Whatman’s Turkey’ was the paper of choice for the affairs of state, public record and diplomacy. And, as the tentacles of British ‘interests’ extended farther and farther East, Whatman developed paper that was able to resist the testing environments of Asian climates. Through his network of contacts in the East India Company he cornered the markets in Asia and so his products were ubiquitous in Canton between the 1790s and the 1820s. Spectral imaging techniques should shortly confirm whether the drawing of our Chinese papermaker sits on a paper produced in Kent rather than Canton. Meanwhile, we can entertain the possibility that the medium in this case undermines its message as our occidental papermaker meets his oriental counterpart through an interface of paper.
IMAGE Making paper, Chinese Drawings
52, C. 1790. © the University of Manchester, 2017.
This article is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.