It was very common for European travellers to collect small watercolour paintings done by local artists in China during the 19th century. These paintings were intricately done and crucially, were easy to transport in albums and carry back to Europe as souvenirs. Paintings of this type are known as 'Chinese export paintings', and typically feature scenes of everyday Chinese life, botanical studies and birds or insects.
Apart from the quality of the painting itself, the charm of these paintings derive from the vibrancy of their colours and their translucency, which is due to the materials used. Traditional paper is made by binding plant fibres together, but in the case of these Chinese watercolours, the paintings is done directly onto an extremely fine slice of the Tetrapanax papyrifer plant stem - also known as 'pith paper'. This surface has a soft, velvety texture, and results in a unique 'embodding' effect whereby the layer of applied watercolour paint is raised.