Ming-Qing taste

Detail of a Coromandel lacquer screen at Basildon Park, Berkshire. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

I am reading a fascinating book by Jonathan Hay called Sensuous Surfaces, about the role of the decorative objects in early modern China. Hay describes how the growth of the population and of the economy in China towards the end of the sixteenth century caused a surge in conspicuous consumption.

Detail of embroidered Chinese silk hangings, early eighteenth century, on the State Bed at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. Hay notes how the symbol of the phoenix, once reserved for the Empress, had been appropriated by upper middle class women by the seventeenth century. ©NTPL/Mark Fiennes

The burgeoning middle classes expressed their new identity by creating richly patterned interiors using intricately crafted luxury objects. They favoured bright colours, contrasting materials and surface texture.

Vase with robin's egg blue glaze, Yongzheng period (1722-1736), at Wightwick Manor, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This middle class taste that developed from the late Ming to the middle of the Qing period (i.e. from about 1570 to about 1840) was a conscious departure from the very lavish but stylistically more restrained court style.

Chinese carved jades and other hardstones, at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

Here I have tried to bring together a few objects from National Trust collections that seem to exemplify this wonderfully ‘bling’ taste, to cheer us all up a bit in this sober post-holiday period.

4 Responses to “Ming-Qing taste”

  1. Barry Leach Says:

    The robin’s egg blue vase is particularly beautiful. The Coromandel lacquer, cut through the various coloured layers (as I think it is made) is fascinating. The tales, true or not, of how it is made – layer after thin and poisonous layer applied in a humid, dust-free atmosphere on a boat at sea – caught my imagination long ago. As I say, true or not.

    By the way, the Thomas Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was superb. I bought the book, of course, and one of the portraits fits right in with my themes of recent weeks.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barry, good to hear you caught the Lawrence exhibition at the NPG – which portrait are you referring to?

    As I am not an expert on lacquer I quickly checked my copy of the British Museum’s ‘Chinese Export Art and Design’, where it says that Coromandel lacquer (known as kuan cai or ‘engraved polychrome’) was created by covering an object with layers of black or brown lacquer and then carving out the design and filling the carved areas with either coloured lacquer or oil paints.

    The story about lacquer work being done in the middle of a lake may be a myth – imagine schlepping screens and utensils out there and trying to apply lacquer in a wobbly boat :) – but the craftsmen would certainly have needed a dust-free environment in which to work. And oriental lacquer can indeed cause severe allergic reactions to the skin.

  3. style court Says:

    Emile —

    As always the images you choose as illustration are stunning. You have me so curious about this book.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I cannot do justice to Hay’s subtle and detailed argument here, but I think he answers a need in discussing Chinese art and design in the context for which it was originally made.

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