Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The lost world of Fu Bingchang

July 13, 2012

Min Chin with a camera, Northern Hot Springs, February 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.

Fu Bingchang and Sun Ke, 1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.

Woman sitting in a cane chair, 1910s-1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.

Fu Bingchang with two women, 1930s – early 1940s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.

Fu Bingchang and Wang Chonghui standing in front of a motor car on a country road, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.

Jiang Fangling with round window, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.

Fu Bingchang in the dormitory of the Legislative Yuan, Sichuan, 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.

A slideshow of images from Visualising China with audio commentary is available on the BBC website, and a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the project can be accessed through the BBC iPlayer.

Chinese visitors

June 22, 2012

Portrait thought to be of Tan Che Qua, by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1770-1. ©The Royal College of Surgeons of England, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

I have just heard that another large group of paintings from the National Trust’s collections in the West Midlands, the North West and Northern Ireland have been added to the nationwide Your Paintings database. They include works by old masters such as Canaletto, Van Dyck, Chardin and Hogarth, as well as modern artists including Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson. More paintings from other National Trust properties will be added by the end of 2012.

Your Paintings is a remarkable database that aims to provide access (eventually) to almost all publicly owned paintings in the UK. On doing a search for ‘Chinese’ I found the above portrait of Tan Che Qua by John Hamilton Mortimer, which is in the Hunterian Museum, London. Simon Chaplin originally alerted us to this picture in a comment on my first post about the contemporary portrait of Huang Ya Dong at Knole, but it is great to now have a decent image of it readily available.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Tan Che Qua arrived in London in 1769 and established himself as a portrait modeller in clay, charging ten guineas for a bust and fifteen for a whole-length statuette. He exhibited work at the Royal Academy in 1770 and he is included in Johann Zoffany’s 1771-2 group portrait of Royal Academicians (third from the left at the back). Tan is thought to have returned to China in 1772, and his accounts of England and the English inspired Huang Ya Dong to make the same journey in 1774.

Another portrayal of a Chinese person in an English eighteenth-century painting that I found on Your Paintings is the group portrait by John Hoppner of Lady Staunton with her son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese servant, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on loan from HSBC.

Portrait of Lady Staunton and her son George Thomas Staunton with a Chinese servant, by John Hoppner, 1794, ©School of Oriental and African Studies, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

As a young boy George Thomas Staunton accompanied his father on Earl Macartney’s diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1792-4. He learned Chinese on the way there and impressed the Qianlong Emperor with his grasp of the language (he can be seen in a sketch by William Alexander of Lord Macartney’s presentation to the Emperor). In view of the date of the picture (1794) it seems to have been painted shortly after the return of father and son Staunton to Britain, possibly bringing the Chinese servant with them.

Later in life Staunton had a career in the East India Company based at Guangzhou, and he was a member of another diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1816. He assembled a library of 3,000 Chinese books and a collection of Chinese works of art and artefacts. He stocked the garden of his country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, with Chinese plants interspersed with chinoiserie pavilions. Staunton may have known James Bateman, the owner of Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire (both were members of the Royal Society at about the same time), and the example of Leigh Park may have influenced the garden at Biddulph, which similarly included Chinese plants and pseudo-Chinese structures and pavilions. Staunton’s own garden has, sadly, disappeared.

Cataloguing the Duchess’s teapot

January 17, 2012

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou white ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

At Ham House, Surrey, there is an old and rather iconic Chinese teapot, which normally lives on a tea table in the so-called Duchess’s Private Closet. It has traditionally been called the Duchess of Lauderdale’s teapot, as it is thought to have been owned by Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and later Countess and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698).

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139789). ©NTPL/John Bethell

The Duchess of Lauderdale played an important role in creating the appearance of Ham House as we can still see it today. Her husband John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, was an intimate of Charles II and was given the powerful post of Secretary of State for Scotland. At Ham the Lauderdales created grand suites of apartments with sumptuous furnishings sourced from across Europe and even from the Far East.

Chinese porcelain vase, Zhangzhou white ware, Kangxi period (1662-1722), height 334 mm, in the British Museum, on loan from the Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (inv. no. AN569782001). ©Trustees of the British Museum

We don’t have absolute proof that the Duchess owned the teapot, but it is thought to date from about 1650-1670, so the period fits. In the past it has been variously described as ‘celadon’ or as Ge, Tongqi or Dehua ware. However, the National Trust’s ceramics adviser Patricia Ferguson recently noticed that a vase with a similar glaze in the British Museum had been recatalogued as white Zhangzhou ware.

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, with the Chinese teapot on the Javanese tea table. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This is a rare type of underfired porcelain produced at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian province during the seventeenth century in imitation of the famous white-glazed Ding ware. Zhangzhou white wares were not generally made for export and this particular teapot must have come to Europe in the private cargo of a European merchant. At Ham House it sits on another late-seventeenth-century exotic rarity, a low Javanese table raised on a European base to serve as a tea table.

The Chinese wallpapers at Saltram

November 29, 2011

Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram. ©NTPL/John Hammond

After the recent flurry of posts about Chinese wallpapers and related subjects, both on this blog and on Style Court and Little Augury, I wanted to show a few of the intriguing eighteenth-century papers that have inspired the ones being created today by Fromental and De Gournay.

The Study, showing the astonishingly varied arrangement of papers used to decorate the walls. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Saltram, in Devon, was rebuilt and redecorated in the 1740s for John Parker and his heiress wife, Lady Catherine, daughter of the 1st Earl Poulett. They introduced high-quality plasterwork and also a variety of Chinese wallpapers.

A garden scene, in the Study. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The walls of the Study have a collection of sections of wallpaper and decorative pictures on paper of widely differing sizes and subjects divided and framed by (European) key-fret strips. It has the phantasmagoric feeling of a room-size picture book.

The Chinese Chippendale Bedroom. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Chinese Chippendale bedroom has a panoramic ‘wallpaper’, which in fact is a painted silk hanging showing people engaged in various occupations and industries. Mid-eighteenth-century Chinese paintings on glass hang on top of the wallpaper, and the chairs and hanging shelves with chinoiserie fretwork further enhance the exotic feeling of the room.

The Chinese Dressing Room. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room, painted on mulberry paper, is probably the oldest at Saltram, dating from the early eighteenth century, and depicts elegant people in a garden setting.

A number of the panels are repeated, and various birds and other elements have been cut out from other papers and pasted in, showing how the decorative value of the pattern was valued more than its realistic content.

One of the mirror paintings in the Mirror Room, with the panoramic paper behind. NTPL/Rob Matheson

The paper in the so-called Mirror Room was moved here in recent times from a room not on view to the public. It is made up of sections of a panoramic wallpaper, again augmented by glass paintings, fretwork furniture, lacquer and porcelain.

Many grand houses would have had more than one Chinese wallpaper in the past, but Saltram is one of the few where so many of them survive.

Chinese wallpaper: a living tradition

November 22, 2011

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Mahogany' colourway. ©Fromental

At the recent panel discussion about chinoiserie at Christie’s Education I met Lizzie Deshayes of Fromental, who held us spellbound with stories about how her company designs and makes bespoke Chinese wallpaper. I have since also met her husband and fellow director Tim Butcher, with whom she set up Fromental in 2005, and who is equally passionate about the subject.

Customised 'Nonsuch' pattern, part-embroidered, in 'Warrington' colourway on silk. ©Fromental

Fromental employs Chinese painters and embroiderers, based in a studio in Jiangsu province, who are skilled in using traditional materials and techniques. Fromental’s craftsmen can produce traditional Chinese wallpapers, as seen in historic houses, but they are equally adept at realising the contemporary designs created by Lizzie and Tim and their team.

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Kelly' colourway. ©Fromental

This uninhibited mixing of tradition and modernity gives Fromental’s wallpapers real design integrity: the papers are ‘now’ and yet at the same time you get the sense that they are part of a tradition. 

Part-embroidered 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Old Gold' colourway. ©Fromental

This also gives you a flavour of what the production process of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese wallpapers must have been like. Those earlier designers (about whom virtually nothing is known) were operating within a similar matrix of constraints and opportunities: a traditional pictorial language, the availability of craftsmanship, trends in taste and the economics of consumer demand.

Wallpaper in 'Sylvaner' pattern, 'Bolero' colourway. ©Fromental

What is fascinating too is that there is now a Chinese market for these wallpapers, which were originally made purely for export to the west. International interior designers have been introducing them to Chinese clients, who recognise the traditional motifs and techniques but also appreciate the sense of ‘western’ style that these wallpapers exude.

'Sylvaner' pattern on gold leaf, 'Burnish' colourway. ©Fromental

Here we have yet another twist in the long history of chinoiserie: what was once created in China for a western market is now being re-designed in the west and being adopted by the Chinese as an emblem of international taste.

As it happens, Fromental has also contributed to the joint National Trust – BBC project at Avebury Manor, which I hope to post about shortly.

More about the Chinese celebrity at Knole

May 16, 2011

The western settlement along the waterfront at Guangzhou (Canton), where Chinese and Europeans were allowed to meet and trade, on a late-eighteenth-century Chinese porcelain punchbowl at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

Andrew’s response to the previous post about the Chinese page Huang Ya Dong at Knole has revealed further details about him. It looks like Huang did make it back to Guanghzou by 1785, when he corresponded with Sir William Jones, a linguist who was soliciting his help with a translation of selections from the Chinese classics.

Portrait of Sir Joshua Reynolds by Angelica Kauffman, 1767, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

In his reply Huang warned of the difficulty of such a translation, saying it would take several years to complete. But he also recalled with pleasure the kindness of his English friends, and mentioned in particular dining with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Blake.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©NTPL/Horst Kolo, with the kind permission of Lord Sackville.

The source Andrew mentioned also led me to an interesting article about the Knole portrait of Huang in the Old Sennockian Newsletter for Easter 2006, in which Ong Seng analyses the sitter’s ‘Chinese’ pose and accoutrements. Seng detects an element of ‘chinoiserie’ in this, asserting that Reynolds is emphasizing Huang’s otherness.

Chinese gouache made for export to Europe showing elegant company in an interior with a view of a garden, late eighteenth century, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/Matthew Hollow

I think it more likely that Reynolds was just trying to create an ‘authentic’ setting for Huang, based on what was known from Chinese export art about Chinese dress, architecture and interior decoration. Compared to the outrageous Chinese fantasies of Luke Lightfoot, for instance, Reynolds’s portrait of Huang shows great restraint and delicacy.

The wilder shores of chinoiserie: relief by Luke Lightfoot, 1760s, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Nevertheless, the very fact that the 3rd Duke of Dorset commissioned this portrait from one of the celebrity artists of the day indicates that Huang was seen, on some levels at least, as a glamorous curiosity.

An old China hand identifying with Chinese customs and lifestyle: portrait of Thomas Kymer of Kidwelly by Gavin Hamilton, 1754, at Newton House, Carmarthenshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Another interesting source about Huang that I have found through Andrew’s reference is a letter dated 18 February 1775, probably by Reynolds, in which Huang is described as being 22 years old – which means that he must be about 23 at the time the Knole portrait was painted, a young man rather than an adolescent.

The empirical view of China: elevation and plan of a pagoda in William Chambers's Designs of Chinese Buildings, 1757. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The letter also reveals some of Huang’s own motives for coming to Britain. Apparently he had heard from the artist Tan Chitqua of his favourable reception in England, and he then ‘determined to make the voyage likewise, partly from curiosity, and a desire of improving himself in science, and partly with a view of procuring some advantages in trade, in which he and his elder brother are engaged.’ Rather than being the passive object of John Bradby Blake’s schemes, Huang clearly had his own agenda.

I am very grateful to both Andrew and Hongbo for bringing this up and leading us to discover more about this fascinating portrait.

A Chinese celebrity at Knole

May 13, 2011

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole. ©NTPL/Horst Kolo, with the kind permission of Lord Sackville.

Hongbo Du, a keen reader of this blog, recently asked me about the Chinese boy in the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (owned by Lord Sackville rather than by the National Trust) at Knole which can be seen on one of the walls of the Reynolds Room in this previous post.

The Knole guidebook mentions that he worked as a page in the household of John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset (1745-1799) and that he attended Sevenoaks School. The boy had been brought to England from Guangzhou (Canton) by the Duke’s old schoolfriend John Bradby Blake (1745-1773), who worked for the East India Company.

Portrait drawing of Huang Ya Dong by George Dance the younger (1741-1825). ©Trustees of the British Museum

However, when I did an online search for Blake I found out that he was a keen naturalist and that he had brought the boy, called Huang Ya Dong, to England because of his knowledge of the propagation and use of Chinese plants. 

Huang became a minor celebrity, advising Mrs Delaney and the Duchess of Portland on Chinese plants, Josiah Wedgewood on porcelain manufacture and the physician Andrew Duncan on acupuncture.

Portrait of the 3rd Duke of Dorset by Reynolds, 1769. Accepted in in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government and allocated to the National Trust, 1992. ©NTPL/John Hammond

There is an interesting parallel between Reynolds’s portrait of Huang and his grander, more romantic portrait of the Polynesian Omai (also painted in 1776): both are shown as exotic but dignified exemplars of faraway cultures. A later portrait of Huang by George Dance the younger in the British Museum, by contrast, shows him dressed in European garb.

It is not known what happened to Huang subsequently – he may simply have lived out his days as a servant at Knole (where he was known by the other servants as Warnoton). Perhaps he followed the 3rd Duke to Paris when he was appointed ambassador to the court of Louis XVI. But thanks to Hongbo’s enquiry we can now at least show the two known portraits of Huang together.

Splendid silks

January 5, 2011

Chinese silk on the c. 1720 state bed at Plas Newydd, Anglesey. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

I have just visted the Imperial Chinese Robes exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The robes have been lent by the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The colour combinations and the different textures of the silks are extraordinary. And I found it fascinating to learn more about the motifs used in the designs, and the occasions on which the different styles of clothing would have been used.

The state bed at Plas Newydd with its flying tester. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The silk shown here, at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, was used in a different context, but it does illustrate the longstanding British fascination with Chinese art and design, of which the current V&A exhibition is only the latest example.

Ming-Qing taste

January 3, 2011

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.


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