Perpetual amazement

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, Surrey, showing the part-Javavese tea table, a Chinese porcelain vase and chairs inspired by Chinese Coromandel lacquer. ©NTPL/John Hammond

One thing that always surprises me about the phenomenon of chinoiserie is that people in the eighteenth century were so extremely keen to use East Asian elements in their houses and gardens. China  was so much more remote and incomprehensible then than it is to us now, and yet Asian products were used to decorate the most intimate domestic spaces.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English tended to be virulently anti-catholic, and yet they were happy to embrace objects from a culture that was not just non-Protestant, but entirely non-Christian.

The west front of Shugborough, Staffordshire, by Nicholas Dall, with the Chinese House (left) and several classical monuments. ©NTPL/John Hammond

And what continues to amaze me as well is the flexibility with which chinoiserie garden pavilions were mixed with classical pavilions and monuments without any sense of incongruity, as for instance at Shugborough, Stowe and Stourhead. In some ways our mid-eighteenth-century ancestors were much more broad-minded than we are.

I am aware of all the usual answers: that people loved the beauty and glamour of lacquer, porcelain and silk, and that they misinterpteted the meaning of the motifs to suit their preconceptions, etc. etc. – but that still doesn’t entirely take away my astonishment.

More about the deployment of chinoiserie in the English garden here (pp. 9 & 10).

5 Responses to “Perpetual amazement”

  1. Hels Says:

    I love the idea that in some gardens, the family and visitors could travel the world in their own back yard so to speak, visiting Chinese pagodas, Indian temples and ancient Roman structures in one walk.

  2. columnist Says:

    Ah – that’s organised religion for you! Easier to embrace an alien culture rather than another religion, albeit one that worships the same God, and all through the basic tenet of “love one another”. We know how hollow all of that is!

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, as you say the act of walking between vistas, cultures and historical periods seems to have been central to that kind of garden.

    Kew is of course another great example of that, where in the mid-eighteenth-century there were Islamic-inspired pavilions as well as classical and Chinese ones, set along a circular walk (as memorably explained to us by Dr Patrick Eyres during last year’s Ashridge Garden History Summer School).

    Columnist, I was trying to emphasize the flexible open-mindedness of the eighteenth-century English, not their bigotry and xenophobia :)

  4. le style et la matiere Says:

    Do you think their formal appreciation really encompassed an open-mindedness of E. Asian cultures? I usually imagine it mostly an avid seeking of novelty. True that both sides wished to appropriate what was exotic, which indicates somehow being on equal footing — even if each side knew itself to be, in its heart of hearts, the best!! Amazement must have been just the word, even way back when.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes novelty must have been part of it, but chinoiserie was so persistently and repeatedly fashionable that novelty cannot have been the only cause. After all, by the mid-eighteenth century East Asian goods had been flowing into Europe in large numbers for more than a hundred years. And goods like lacquer seem to have been valued even some time after they were first imported, albeit in a different way, e.g. in the case of the lacquer chests that were later incorporated into wall panelling.

    But I do think the word ‘appropriation’ you mention is key, and the ambivalence around that: wanting to know about and ‘own’ other cultures, but at the same time setting those cultures apart as ‘unknowable’, and thereby making them more desirable – sounds like a subject for the proposed collection of essays on ‘libidinal economy’ mentioned on the Enfilade blog recently (http://enfilade18thc.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/call-for-articles-libidinal-lives-in-the-long-nineteenth-century/)!

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