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ISAAC Mobile Lab visits USA

The ISAAC Mobile Lab is visiting our US partner organisations to collect data as part of the AHRC funded research project From Lima to Canton and Beyond: An AI-aided heritage materials research platform for studying globalisation through art.


In September 2021, the ISAAC Mobile Lab team completed the first half of the data collection, taking our PRISMS spectral imaging equipment, OCT, XRF and Raman to analyse collections from China, Southeast Asia and India which are currently in the collections of the National Archives, London, the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Botanical Gardens Kew.



Over Easter 2023, we're visiting our partners at the Library of Congress, Indiana University's Lilly Library, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art, the Hispanic Society of America, and Yale, to collect data on watercolours from Peru, Chinese export paintings of Peruvian subjects, and Chinese paintings for domestic consumption in the late 18th century to mid-19th century.


Why Lima to Canton?


Chinese export paintings from the 18th and 19th Century were painted by artists from Canton and other Chinese ports, and often sold to visitors as souvenirs. They typically depict contemporary life in China, illustrating the various trades, costumes, boats, birds, insects and plants.

Meanwhile, from the late 18th century, European colonial powers such as Britain and Spain were collecting information from around the world. In Britain, the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanical Gardens in London commissioned botanical drawings by Chinese export artists in Canton, and a Royal Botanical Expedition to South America commissioned local South American artists to provide botanical illustrations.


Examples of Chinese paintings from the collection at the Royal Botanical Gardens Kew, UK



By about 1818, in the context of the coming independence of Peru, watercolours of Peruvian subjects are documented in Lima, the capital city of Peru. However, paintings showing Peruvian type costumes are also found in albums which appear to have been produced in Canton, China.


These paintings, with Peruvian subjects but produced in both north-western South America and in China from 1780 to 1850, are clearly connected to a complex web of social, political, artistic, geographic, economic, and technological relationships. The study of these paintings is therefore extremely valuable for the study of economic and cultural history, international trade and cultural exchange in the 18th and 19th Century, allowing us to understand the motives for their creation, the materials from which they were made, the means of their dispersal and preservation, and the lives of the people who made, sold, bought, and collected them.



Chinese export paintings of Peruvian subjects at Indiana University's Lilly Library; analysis by the ISAAC Mobile Lab using Raman, FORS and microscopy April 2023.


Whilst there is considerable curatorial interest in the historical study of Chinese export paintings, there have been relatively few studies involving scientific analysis. This is not surprising because works of art on substrates made from plant material, such as paper (matted plant fibres formed from a pulp) or pith (thin slices of plant stem), are fragile and the paint layers are rather thin, making it impossible to take samples without causing significant damage. As a result, destructive scientific analysis can only be conducted on fragments which have already detached from the paintings, which may not be representative of the objects on the whole.


With the development of imaging science and technology, it is increasingly possible to conduct effective non-invasive scientific examination. The ISAAC Mobile Lab uses non-invasive techniques such as multispectral imaging (PRISMS), microfade spectrometry, optical coherence tomography (OCT) and Fibre Optic Reflectance Spectrometry (FORS) in combination with complementary non-invasive spectroscopic techniques such as Raman microscopy and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy.


Analysis of 18th and 19th Century (Qing Dynasty) Chinese paintings, produced for domestic consumption during the same period as the export paintings, is also being conducted. This allows us to characterise the Chinese pigment palette at that time, and provides important information about local and traded pigments. At the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Asian Art, the ISAAC Mobile Lab conducted XRF, PRISMS, FORS, FTIR, Raman & microscopy analysis of pigments on two silk hanging scrolls; "Lohan under a canopy; a lion, and two attendants"(accession number F1911.278) and "Assemblage of Objects to Celebrate the Chinese New Year" (accession number F1916.133). Both scrolls have been mounted onto panels and are of considerable size, meaning that remote analysis techniques such as XRF and PRISMS are ideal.



Left: XRF analysis of Lohan Under a Canopy; a Lion and Two Attendants; Right: PRISMS analysis of Assemblage of objects to celebrate the Chinese New Year at the National Museum of Asian Art, April 2023



Analysis using FORS, Raman spectroscopy and optical microscopy needs to be conducted much closer to the object, so for this, we use a specially constructed stage to support the instrumentation above the scrolls. To reduce the analysis time and to limit handling of the object, our Mobile Lab instrumentation is combined in close proximity so that multiple analyses can be conducted on the same area of a painting at the same time.


Dr Sotiria Kogou, Co-ordinator of the ISAAC Mobile Lab, performing close analysis on Lohan Under a Canopy; a Lion and Two Attendants at the National Museum of Asian Art. This artwork measures 125.7 x 55.8 cm, including the panels/ frame.


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