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China illuminated

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Chinese House hosts an exhibition of steel and wood-block engravings by 19th century illustrator and artist Thomas Allom

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Pagoda on the rocks at Macao, one of more than 40 China-inspired steel engravings by 19th century artist Thomas Allom comprising the "China Revisited" exhibition, on display at Chinese House in Phnom Penh.

 Imagining china in steel and wood

As interest in the culture and customs of China blossomed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, few resources existed that could shed light on the Far East. Thomas Allom (1804-1872) travelled extensively in China during the 1840s, meticulously documenting his experiences in hundreds of steel and wood-block engravings published in the highly regarded four-volume set China Illustrated, published between 1843 and 1847. Allom’s detailed illustrations provided the best glimpse of the life, customs and architecture of Imperial China available in his day. A skilled topographical illustrator and artist, Allom was also a founding member of the Royal Academy of British Architects.

Wandering under a giant arch that fills the middle of the Chinese House, more than 100 people inspected 65 wood-framed black-and-white engravings as an exhibition of Chinese-inspired 19th-century art opened on Sunday.

The exhibition's curator, Nick Wood, said the timing was perfect for images to go on display with the Chinese House - a French-built, Chinese-designed lounge bar and gallery - opening and Lunar New Year taking place almost simultaneously.

"Chinese New Year is about looking forward, but it is also a time to reflect," Wood said.

"It is this nice symbiotic relationship between looking forward, with Chinese House opening and reflecting on the past with this collection."

The majority of art on offer is steel-engraved prints by British topographic illustrator Thomas Allom who, through numerous trips to China in the early 1840s, created pieces that captured Asian life, land and architecture.

Allom's technique of steel engraving was originally developed in the late 18th century as a way of printing banknotes, but soon became popular with explorers as a way of visually recording what they had seen on their travels.

Also in the collection are an array of newspaper prints of China from French journal Le Tour du Monde and English magazine Illustrated London News.

Unlike Allom's steel-engraved prints, the newspaper prints were created by a wood-block engraving process used by newspapers across Europe and the United States before photographs were used.

Collecting the pieces

Prior to going on display, an anonymous private art collector acquired the pieces over 40 years through his travels around Europe.

"The collection came together over a long period of time," Wood said.

"Many of the prints were found in English street-markets and French quays."

Wood said the exhibition would give people in Phnom Penh the opportunity to gain a previously unseen insight into what life was like in China and Southeast Asia three centuries ago.

"The images have been seen by many people across Europe," he said.

"But this exhibition is quite unique here. Most people in Southeast Asia have not been able to see what things looked like 150 years ago."

All works on display are for sale, and the exhibition will remain open until February 3 at the Chinese House, 45 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh.

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