From Lima to Canton and Beyond: An AI-aided heritage materials research platform for studying globalisation through art

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: School of Science & Technology

Abstract

Inspired by the Enlightenment, from the late 18th century, the European colonial powers such as Britain and Spain, and local officials in their colonial dependencies, were collecting information from around the world. Maps and charts, as well as scientific drawings of flora and fauna, were commissioned, and local artists were often employed to draw and paint these. Several Spanish scientific expeditions, such as the Royal Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela today), led by José Celestino Mutis from 1783 to 1816, among others, hired local artists, such as Francisco Javier Cortés to provide the illustrations.

Botanical paintings following European conventions of scientific drawings were also commissioned from Chinese export artists in Canton (Guangzhou, China) by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanical Gardens in London and painted on Whatman papers sent from London. Similarly, during this period, the East Indian Company was actively employing Chinese and Indian artists to paint flora and fauna in South East Asia and India respectively. These cultural encounters have often resulted in hybrid artistic practices.

By about 1818, in the context of the coming of Peruvian independence, watercolours of Peruvian subjects are documented in Lima. The earliest are associated with Cortés, soon to be joined by his presumed pupil, Francisco "Pancho" Fierro in the 1820s. By the 1830s, watercolours by Fierro, his followers, and imitators became widespread, and were eventually produced in the thousands, with the phenomenon tapering off around 1850-60. Similar ethnographic drawings are found in Colombia and Ecuador. In the meantime, trade in Chinese export painting, depicting daily life of locals, from Canton flourished in the late 18th to the 19th century. Costume paintings of Peruvian types are also found in albums with provenances and artistic styles suggesting that they were made in studios in Canton. These works produced in north-western South America and in Canton from 1780 to 1850 are connected to a complex web of social, political, artistic, geographic, economic, and technological phenomena, all of which affected 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.

This project will focus on a large group of ethnographic as well as selected scientific watercolours (e.g. maps and botanical drawings), made for export to Europe or North America by local artists in north-western Latin America and Asia. These are now found in widely dispersed public collections in the US and UK. One of the project goals is to use the study as a lens to reveal details of global trade and information exchange networks among the Americas, Asia and Europe ca. 1780-1850. Pigments, dyes and paper are commodities that were traded extensively throughout history; their identity and the way they are used are often traceable to their geographic and cultural origins. This period also saw the synthesis of new pigments, especially in Europe, making it easier to date an object using these pigments.

Advanced imaging and material analysis techniques, used by heritage scientists and conservators to detect, identify and understand the composition of artworks/heritage items, create large data sets that require expert processing and interpretation (hence, creating a barrier to entry and use by non-scientists). This project aims to streamline the data collection and interpretation processes and open the results to researchers and audiences in the humanities by (1) advancing an AI-assisted method of data analysis, (2) providing an online, linked open data platform for the results and their interpretation, and (3) demonstrating the impact of the collected and interpreted data for humanities research in this large scale humanities-led project.

Publications

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