I have now started to read the book by Yu Liu, Seeds of a Different Eden, that I mentioned in an earlier post. Liu charts the influence of China on English gardens in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is one of the best expositions I have read on the centuries-old debate about whether that influence was real or coincidental.
Liu argues that the Chinese conception of landscape directly or indirectly affected a number of people involved in the development of the English landscape garden, including Sir William Temple, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.
Liu also makes a distinction between the translation of authentic Chinese ideas into English aesthetics and philosophy and the adulteration and superficial adoption of those ideas in the form of chinoiserie.
This is where I would slightly disagree with Liu: I think the encounter with authentic Chinese concepts and their expression as chinoiserie design are like two sides of the same coin. Even if chinoiserie often represents a misunderstanding of Chinese culture, it is nevertheless a form of playful engagement with it. Moreover, even the most fanciful chinoiserie reveals something about how China was perceived.
At Stourhead in Wiltshire, for instance, a ’Chinese Seat’ was constructed as an integral part of what was to become one of the classic English landscape gardens. Situated halfway up one of the surrounding hills, it allowed one to literally view an ‘English’ garden from a ‘Chinese’ viewpoint.
In the gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Shugborough in Staffordshire, too, Chinese-style pavilions were placed in close proximity to classical and Gothic structures, indicating that they represented shared or related symbolic values and were seen to be mutually compatible.
So I would advocate using chinoiserie as visual evidence, however fragmentary, of the changing European attitudes to China. And if it is sometimes just plain bonkers then that just adds to the fun of it all.