Desperately seeking symmetry

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet on a William Kent-style stand, at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When I was preparing a talk on chinoiserie recently I was reminded of the clash of styles evident in the decoration of lacquer cabinets in British country houses. This example at Penrhyn Castle shows the typical East Asian love of asymmetry in the design of the doors.

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet on a Dutch gilt stand, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When these cabinets were being imported into Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Europeans were still very much in thrall to symmetry. This Japanese cabinet at Ham House shows how branches were added to the tree on the right, and extra birds were added to the sky, to balance out the composition.

Seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet, at Petworth House, West Sussex. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The importers seem to have gone further still, and swapped doors from different cabinets, to make up symmetrical sets. This seems to be the case with this cabinet at Petworth, where a distant landscape (on the right) now shares the same space as a pair of monster chickens (on the left).

Seventeenth-century pier-glass, pier-table and candle-stands inset with Chinese Coromandel lacquer, at Ham House, Surrey. ©NTPL/John Hammond

East Asia seems to have been such a distant place in the imagination of Europeans that even the most fantastical scenarios became plausible there. English craftsmen (and, presumably, patrons) were happy to see fragments of lacquer landscapes fitted sideways and upside down around European mirrors, as in this one at Ham.

English japanned cabinet of about 1690, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/John Hammond

When English craftsmen began to produce imitation lacquer cabinets, they perpetuated these mythical compositions – and indeed they were at liberty to make them even more ‘European’ and symmetrical.

English japanned cabinet at Mount Stewart, Co. Down. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Giant fowl combined with liliput pavilions became something of a motif in its own right, as seen once again in this example at Mount Stewart.

Japanned wardrobe by Thomas Chippendale at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Fantasy overtook reality so such an extent that when Thomas Chippendale created his chinoiserie furniture in the 1750s-1770s it was based more on European imitations than on authentic East Asian lacquer.

15 Responses to “Desperately seeking symmetry”

  1. Guy Says:

    Utterly fascinating – I shall now cease to perpetuate the myth.

    A happy recent discoverer of your blog.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Guy, and welcome.

  3. style court Says:

    Endlessly fascinating subject. Wish I could be in the audience to hear your talk.

    The ‘monster’ fowl you describe call to mind surrealism. It would be interesting to examine the compositions of the handpainted papers made for export, too. Great post!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That is the revealing thing: in the original Chinese wallpapers all the elements are more or less on the same scale, and generally very realistically painted (so that a botanical expert can often determine which species of flower are shown, for example). Of course Europeans then often added flowers and birds to them, making them less realistic but more to European taste.

    Similarly, scenes on original Japanese and Chinese lacquer are usually to scale (at least according to the conventions of East Asian perspective).

    That is why I think that whenever you encounter a ‘surreal’ juxtaposition on a piece of lacquer, it must have been doctored by a western importer – or it is a western imitation copying such doctored pieces, or perhaps even a Far Eastern piece made to order after a doctored or imitation original. It would have been a great subject for a Foucault or a Derrida :)

  5. littleaugury Says:

    It is interesting and amusing that their hankering for lacquer and gilt and landscape was overridden by their assumption that they didn’t accept the Eastern design aesthetic with equal enthusiasm. No you point it out some of it just looks wrong. It does seem Chippendale at least “balanced” the symmetry to get a more pleasing composition. Wonderful to here of this quirk in taste. I do love lacquer and all its derivatives and had a good decorative painter that left me with some wonderful pieces- posted on my blog not too long ago.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed – I suppose they thought they were improving it – and presumably the ‘improvements’ were based on market research, on what they thought would make it more saleable.

    And yes with Chippendale’s work – and with the slightly earlier japanned pieces by Giles Grendey – this chinoiserie style really seems to have ‘come of age’, have become a style in its own right rather than just an imitation.

  7. columnist Says:

    Perhaps a case of “fearful symmetry”:

    Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand dare seize the fire?

    And what shoulder, & what art,
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And when thy heart began to beat,
    What dread hand? & what dread feet?

    What the hammer? what the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? what dread grasp
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears
    And water’d heaven with their tears,
    Did he smile his work to see?
    Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

    Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

    William Blake – The Tyger

  8. le style et la matiere Says:

    More evidence of the sellers mistrust of artists!
    Fascinating post.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, a response in poetic form: how very Japanese of you :) Perhaps Blake’s poem signals a greater acceptance of asymmetry in the west – since he calls symmetry ‘fearful’?

    Le Style: Indeed, the retailer always thinks he knows best.

  10. style court Says:

    Emile –

    Thanks for the informative reply. Appreciate it!

  11. Magnaverde Says:

    The richocheting influences seem quite amusing, like a fun-house hall of mirrors. I’ll never look at a period Chinoiserie cabinet again without comparing the relative scale of the left & right panels. Not, of course, that I see that many pieces to compare.

    I can’t remember where, but I’ve read that the taste for assymetry may have been helped along by Thos Chippendale’s habit of showing two alternate designs for a chimneypiece or mirror frame on a single plate of his ‘Director’. Even if that was not his intent in using split pages, it seems possible that such a mashup could have occurred, especially if an adventurous–or clueless–client had ready money on hand.

    But do you know of any pieces of the period–not necessarily from Chippendale’s own shop–that were, in fact, based on such a hybrid page? Or is such an ‘infuence’ nothing but unsubtantiated conjecture?

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That is an interesting idea, and one can imagine some nouveau riche getting it terribly wrong in that way – something Hogarth might have charicatured. Certainly people using chinoiserie decoration were regularly ridiculed for mixing things up in an inapropriate way and not knowing the significance of the various styles. But I haven’t heard of someone actually joining together two alternate versions of a design. Perhaps that was too obvious an error, and the style police would have been onto them like a shot.

  13. fugitive ink Says:

    Like many of the posts of this extremely impressive blog – which I’ve only just discovered, via the Country House – this is the sort of thing that will make me look much more closely, and critically, at something I’ve all too often taken for granted before – ‘mindfulness’ being another Eastern import, I suppose, or at any rate a welcome Eastern reminder of something sporadically out of fashion here in the West. But in any event, thanks for another fascinating post.

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you very much indeed for your encouraging words – I may not be able to provide such mindfulness-provoking posts all the time, though :)

  15. Fact and fiction « Treasure Hunt Says:

    [...] response to an earlier discussion about East Asian lacquer Guy Tobin of Rose Uniacke very kindly sent me these images of a Japanese [...]

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