Trading Paintings: Artistic and cultural interactions with 19th Century China

Trading Paintings: Artistic And Cultural Interactions With 19th Century China

Venue: The Guildhall Art Gallery
Dates: January – March 2024

China Insight Foundation has joined forces with curator Helen Swinnerton (Helen is experienced in curating China Trade art, with 17 years managing HSBC’s art and archives in Hong Kong,) and archivist Geoffrey Browell (Geoff is an archivist and historian responsible for extensive London based collections relating to modern conflict, medicine and health, and the arts), to stage an exhibition of unique Pith paintings, owned by collector Alastair Blackburn and his wife Xu Wen.

The collection is thought to be the largest in world. It has not previously been displayed and many of the pieces are in excellent condition, which is rare owing to the fragility of pith paper and its vulnerability to fading.

This fascinating and rare exhibition will introduce artworks that are both a product and a pictorial record of early trade and cultural interaction between China and the West, in the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when access to China was extremely restricted and the West was fascinated with the mysterious country

Our association with this exhibition, scheduled to open in early 2024, demonstrates China Insight Foundation’s long-held dedication to fostering an understanding of China and Chinese people for the benefit of the UK and British people. We share a long, interwoven history, primarily through trade, with China. In the 18th and 19th centuries, despite restrictions, commerce between our two countries grew. In Britain, there was great demand for silks, porcelain and tea and during the nineteenth century ‘Chinoiserie’ was all the rage. In the late twentieth century and early 21st, the UK has once again sought to open trade routes with China, as it opened up under the reforms of Deng XiaoPing, embracing ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’.

The themes in the paintings mirror the owners’ own story. Jasmin is from China and Alastair is from the UK and they aim to promote cultural and economic connections between the two countries.

Through this exhibition of 200 paintings across three galleries, we hope a wider audience will be able to enjoy and appreciate this rich visual record and its many themes from travel stories to international trade and cultural exchange.




Next the exhibition will explore the bustling street life of the port cities captured in the pith paintings.

The paintings bring to life street traders, flower sellers, musicians and entertainers, religious figures, an outdoor barber, a fisherman, a wood cutter and numerous other occupations.

Details for shops are painstak- ingly rendered to the point where the goods on sale inside the shops are recognisable.

Bound volumes of paintings will be digitised and available for visitors to flick through.



As part of the CIF dedication to educate people in Britain about the cultural history of China, we plan to open the exhibition to the existing network of schools that the Guildhall Gallery has established, along with our own network, created through our own educational programme. and relevant to all ages.

Audience Engagement Activities include:

  • Tours, talks and demonstrations aimed at inspiring the next generation of historians, storytellers, and artists;
  • A Chinese artist teaching workshops that revive the art of pith paintings, using the ancient technique to depict modern subjects;
  • Talks and tours led by experts on Chinese Export paintings, offering their own interpretations of the works on display;
  • The exhibition will also be a forum for talks and activities aimed at fostering economic and cultural interaction today.

For further details of ways in which you can support this unique and fascinating exhibition, please contact Sarah Slavin, China Insight Foundation’s Development Director, at Or for general enquiries about the nature of our work and our mission, please contact Guo Xu at