Archive for the ‘Chinoiserie’ Category

Talking materiality

December 6, 2012
Commode decorated with Japanese lacquer, japanning, gilt brass mounts and a Portoro Macchie Larga marble top, by Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, early 1760s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Commode decorated with Japanese lacquer, japanning, gilt brass mounts and a Portoro Macchie Larga marble top, by Bernard Vanrisamburgh II, early 1760s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has a new gallery devoted exclusively to the history of furniture, the Dr Susan Weber Gallery. In the December 2012 issue of Apollo Edwin Heathcote has written an appreciative review of it.

Corner cupboard painted with chinoiserie designs in green on white, made by Thomas Chippendale for the actor David Garrick, 1768-1778. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Corner cupboard painted with chinoiserie designs in green on white, made by Thomas Chippendale for the actor David Garrick, 1768-1778. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rather than focusing on designers and styles, the new gallery aims to show how furniture was made and decorated. It highlights materials and techniques – or, in curatorial parlance, the ‘materiality’ of furniture. This approach has resulted in unexpected juxtapositions of objects from different periods and even from entirely different cultures.

Folding screen decorated with red and black lacquer, silver leaf and composite decoration, by Eileen Gray, c. 1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Folding screen decorated with red and black lacquer, silver leaf and composite decoration, by Eileen Gray, c. 1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my otaku-like fascination with orientalism, and I was interested to see how this new gallery has brought together radically different examples of  the use of lacquer, and its European imitation, japanning.

The emphasis on materiality also presents a contrast with the approach often seen in the display of historic houses, which is centred around provenance and tries to recreate and preserve historical groupings of objects. Interestingly, both approaches can lead to unexpected juxtapositions, but for entirely different reasons.

Petworth’s oriental vibe

November 27, 2012

Two Chinese lidded vases, Kangxi period (1662-1722), acquired by Elizabeth Duchess of Somerset in the late 17th century. They stand in front of a Chinese lacquer screen that dates from the same period but was acquired for Petworth in 1882 in the Hamilton Palace sale. ©National Trust Images/Christopher Hurst

In his new book about Petworth, Christopher Rowell highlights the sumptuous taste of Eizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset, the late 17th-century chatelaine of the house.

Portrait of Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Somerset with her son Algernon, by John Closterman, c. 1692. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Like her friend Queen Mary, Duchess Elizabeth was a keen collector of blue and white porcelain.

Some of Duchess Elizabeth’s Chinese vases on display in the Carved Room. They originally stood on the baroque carved stands which now hold some of the busts. ©National Trust Images/Bill Batten

Several dealers are known to have supplied porcelain to the Duchess, including a ‘Mrs Vanderhoven’, a ‘Mr Van Collema’, and a ‘Mrs Bull for Delf [i.e. Delft] ware.’

Some of the lacquer cabinets and coffers collected by Duchess Elizabeth in what is now called Mrs Wyndham’s Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Bill Batten

‘Mrs Harrison’, who also supplied the Queen, was paid £52 for ‘a Jappan Cabinet and frame’ in 1695.

The front of one of the 17th-century Japanese lacquer cabinets at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In characteristic baroque style, reflective materials were combined wherever possible. Two ‘India Cabinets’ (‘India’ being a generic terms for East Asian products) in the King of Spain’s Drawing Room were each surmounted by no fewer than 22 pieces of China. In Duchess Elizabeth’s China Closet, the walls were covered with mirrors ‘ornamented wth carved work & 45 pieces of China.’

Detail of the interior of the 17th-century Japanese lacquer cabinet below the Grand Staircase at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Christopher’s book can be purchased through the National Trust Bookshop and via Amazon.

The World of Interiors, c. 1735

October 19, 2012

The Nostell Priory doll’s house. ©National Trust Images/Mark Fiennes

The Winn  family doll’s house at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire, is a remarkable time capsule of the taste in country house interiors of the 1730s, almost the equivalent of an interior decoration magazine like The World of Interiors today.

The Hall. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

The furnishings and furniture were created with a high level of precision and detail, indicating that the house was made as a decorative model for the adults of the family, rather than for the children to play with.

The Drawing Room. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

All the fireplaces are copied from James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture of 1728. In the early 1730s Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet, was building a new house at Nostell and the doll’s house may have been commissioned at that time.

The Red Velvet Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

The late John Cornforth has pointed out how the Nostell doll’s house also illustrates the function of chinoiserie, or pseudo-oriental decoration, in the less formal spaces of 18th-century country houses.

The Chinese Dressing Room. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

While the principal or state bedroom is decorated with red velvet, its dressing room next door has walls hung with either Chinese wallpaper or leather hangings imitating Chinese motifs. One of the subsidiary family bedrooms on the floor above has a bed and curtains hung with Indian chintz.

The Chintz Bedroom. ©National Trust Images/Robert Thrift

So while ‘west’ stood for formality and grandeur, ‘east’ indicated a more intimate, informal and feminine atmosphere. And that characterisation has influenced the meaning of chinoiserie to this day.

A Regency Chinese garden

October 16, 2012

Leigh Park House, Hampshire, by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1831. © Portsmouth Museums and Records Service, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

On the 25th of October Jodi Eastberg will be giving a talk about the Regency linguist, diplomat, merchant, politician and China scholar Sir George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859).

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

Jodi Eastberg is Associate Professor of History at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has done extensive research into British perceptions of China through the life of Sir George Thomas Staunton.

Sir George Thomas Staunton, by Martin Archer Shee, © Government Art Collection, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Jodi is working on a biography of Staunton and is currently in the UK researching his banking records with Coutts & Co. in London.

View of the the lake at Leigh Park with various chinoiserie structures, watercolour by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1832

As I mentioned previously, Staunton learned Chinese at a young age and became an influential figure in the East India Company. His country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, reflected his interests, with Chinese collections in the house and Chinese plants and pavilions in the garden.

The lake at Leigh Park from the east, showing the Chinese-style pergola, summer house, bridge and boathouse, and the Mughal-style pavilion, watercolour by Joseph Francis Gilbert, c. 1832

The garden, in particular, seems to have been an enchanting Regency-style chinoiserie fantasy, with Chinese or pseudo-Chinese structures including a bridge, a boathouse, a pergola and a summer house, as well as a pseudo-Mughal onion-domed pavilion. Although the house is gone some of the garden structures survive.

Recent photograph of the lake, now called Leigh Water

The talk will be at Staunton Country Park (as Leigh Park is now called) on 25 October, from 10.30-12.00. Places are limited and anyone interested is asked to contact Kerry Bailey on 023 9245 3405 or via

Performing China

September 25, 2012

Mrs Yates as Mandane in ‘The Orphan of China’, by Tilly Kettle, exhibited 1765. Photo: © Tate, London 2012

I have just finished reading Chi-Ming Yang’s Performing China: Virtue, Commerce and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England. I found this book particularly interesting in that it presents the British cultural engagement with China in the 18th century as a kind of dialectic, a see-sawing between admiration and rejection.

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

Two children in Asian clothing, by Tilly Kettle, © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

In an age when Europe was being transformed by the effects of international trade, China presented an intriguing example of an empire that had somehow managed to combine ancient virtue with modern commerce.

Chinese goods like porcelain, lacquer and silk, which were being imported into Europe in increasing numbers, were both valuable commodities and symbols of an ancient civilisation, both advanced products to be emulated emulated and corrupting luxuries to be distrusted.

Portrait of Thomas Kymer of Kidwelly in Chinse costume, by Gavin Hamilton, 1754, at Newton House, Dinefwr. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The ambivalence towards Chinese culture was also evident in Arthur Murphy’s play The Orphan of China, a tragedy about conflicting familial and patriotic loyalties which had a long run on the London stage between 1759 and 1767.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Orphan, in Yang’s analysis, seems to have been its representation of Chinese virtue as recognisably admirable but simultaneously exotically excessive. It provided a useful template against which the British could measure their own, more objectified and individualistic sense of virtue.

I would tend to agree with Yang that this ambivalence or dialectic is a constant in the history of our engagement with China and is still relevant today.

More about the portrait of Mrs Yates as Mandane can be found on the Tate website, and a brief discussion of the portrait of the children in Asian clothing is on the site of the Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick.

Researching Chinese wallpaper

August 21, 2012

The Chinese Bedroom, originally a dressing room, at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Andrew Bush, Dr Helen Clifford and I are hoping to produce a little catalogue of the Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust. Andrew is the paper conservation adviser for the National Trust, and Helen is a scholar who is also participating in the East India Company at Home research project.

We are hoping to add to the publicly available information about the phenomenon of Chinese wallpapers, which is still not very well understood. Equally, we are keen to compare the examples in National Trust houses with other extant or recorded Chinese wallpapers.

Detail of a gilded rococo mirror by John Bladwell, c. 1752, against the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

At the moment we are aware of seventeen houses now owned by the National Trust which have or had Chinese wallpapers. Within the wider context of Britain and Ireland we have so far found references to about 65 other houses with such papers, and we will probably come across more of them as we progress with our research.

One serendipitous connection which I discovered a while back is the strong similarity between a Chinese wallpaper at Belton House and a section owned by fellow blogger the Columnist, suggesting that they may have been made by the same workshop. We hope to find more such links, so do contact me if you have any information or images that you wish to share.

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, showing pheasants. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I have been surprised by the wide geographical spread of the houses where Chinese wallpapers ended up, from Cornwall to East Lothian and from Norfolk to County Westmeath. This seems to indicate how powerful these papers were as a commercial product, their desirability clearly outweighing the obstacles of distance, time and cost.

Chinese nodding-head figurine, c. 1820, placed on a bracket against the wall in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, reflects some of these economic and social factors. It was purchased in 1751 by the Norfolk squire William Windham II as part of the redecoration of the house then being masterminded by architect James Paine.

The room it was intended for was then a dressing room, which together with the adjoining bedroom was decorated in shades of off-white. The paper, with its white background and light colouring, was obviously chosen to harmonise with this scheme.

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, showing a bird, flowers and fruit. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Windham was shocked that it was considered necessary for a specialist to be called in to hang the paper, ‘at 3s 6d per day while at Felbrigg & 6d per mile travelling charges which I think a cursed deal.’ Nevertheless ‘the India Paper hanger’ John Scruton did indeed hang this and other papers in the house between 30 March and 9 May 1752.

Life in the Chinese country house

August 7, 2012

Chinese gouache showing elegant company making music on a lakeside terrace. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

With apologies to Mark Girouard (who published the well-known social history of the country house, Life in the English Country House, in 1979) I thought it might be interesting to show this small set of Chinese paintings of interiors and gardens.

These pictures in body colour on paper depict elegant company engaged in various leisure activities in a series of interiors and gardens.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in a garden with a board game being played. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

We can see people playing musical instruments, playing a board game, arranging flowers and serving drinks (possibly tea).

Miniature trees can be seen growing in pots placed on balustrades and stands. Some people are sitting on chairs, others on seating platforms with bolsters, little tables and objets d’art close at hand.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in an interior with a view to a lake, one of the women holding a vase with flowers. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

One of the pictures appears to show a courtyard of a high official’s mansion or a palace. The symmetricality of this view seems reminiscent of western pictorial taste. Indeed, the style of these pictures generally is rather ‘western’, with the use of single-point perspective and shading.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company on a terrace with a view to a mansion or palace courtyard. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Paintings such as these were made for export to the west. This particular set is thought to date to about 1800. It would be interesting to learn more about how realistic these images were – whether the painters produced fantasy views of a semi-mythical ‘Cathay’ for foreign consumption, or whether these pictures, in spite of being destined for ignorant foreigners, were nevertheless based on indigenous traditions of realistically depicting upper class life. Do please comment if you know more about this subject.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in an interior with a woman serving drinks and a view to a circular garden doorway. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

These paintings were bequeathed to Claydon House in 1995, where they form an interesting counterpoint to the outrageously fantastical chinoiserie decoration by Luke Lightfoot of the 1760s.

Loving the leather

July 31, 2012

Leather screen decorated with chinoiserie motifs at Greyfriars, Worcestershire. © National Trust Collections

Friend, francophile and and fellow blogger Susan Walter suggested that I post something about the leather screens often to be found in historic houses (she recently did a post about the leather panelling at Cheverny).

Leather screen decorated with scenes derived from Coromandel lacquer, at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. © National Trust Collections

There do indeed appear to be a number of such screens in various National Trust houses. They seem to be something of a Cinderella category, sitting in a corner of the dining room or lurking in a corridor like wallflowers at a party.

Detail of the Blickling leather screen. © National Trust Collections

Their relative obscurity is compounded by the fact that little is known about who made them, and they are difficult to date exactly. What is clear, however, is that they are often decorated to look like east Asian lacquer, and they appeared in the slipstream of the popularity of lacquer screens in European interiors.

Leather screen decorated with chinoiserie motifs at Tintinhull, Somerset. © National Trust Collections

The excellent book by Hans Huth, Lacquer of the West (University of Chicago Press, 1971) does mention a few useful facts about imitation-lacquer leather screens.

Fragment of leather decorated in imitation of Coromandel lacquer set into a firescreen at Lyme Park, Cheshire. © National Trust Collections

Huth writes that the craft of making leather hangings was probably introduced to Britain in the Restoration period. in 1666 a certain Hugh Robinson applied for a permit to settle in London stating that he had learned his leatherworking skills in Amsterdam and could produce leather ‘brighter than gold’.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of black and gold Chinese lacquer, at Dunham Massey, Chesire. © National Trust Collections

In 1716 the London Gazette carried an advertisement from leather gilder Joseph Fletcher proclaiming that he could provide ‘leather hangings in the latest fashion of the Chinese style to cover walls, settees and screene.’ The area around St Paul’s Churchyard seems to have been a centre for the leatherworking trade.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of Chinese wallpaper or Indian chintz, at Batemans, East Sussex. © National Trust Collections

According to Huth most leather screens can be dated to the first half of the eighteenth century. After about 1740 lacquer and leather screens were increasingly being replaced by screens covered with decorative paper or wallpaper.

Leather screen decorated in imitation of Chinese wallpaper or Indian chintz, at Clandon Park, Surrey. © National Trust Collections © National Trust Collections

Leather screens were made from calf- or goat-skin. The leather was smoothed and covered in silver leaf which was then burnished and coated with transparent yellow japanning. The design was painted on top in oil paints and the backgound might be tooled, whereupon the whole panel was varnished.

Shugborough’s heterogeneous landscape

July 26, 2012

Copy of the Arch of Hadrian at Athens, 1761-1764, at Shugborough, based on an illustration in James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s ‘The Antiquities of Athens (1762). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

These recent images of Shugborough illustrate the surprising diversity in a mid-eighteenth-century British landscape garden. The Chinese style coexisted with the Greek and finished buildings were juxtaposed with deliberately contrived ruins.

The Chinese House at Shugborough, 1747. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Cattle roamed among the monuments to balance culture and learning with some refreshing rusticity.

The Tower of the Winds at Shugborough, completed about 1765, a copy of the Horlogium of Andronikos Cyrrhestes illustrated in Stuart’s ‘Antiquities of Athens’. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Thomas Anson developed the garden and park at Shugborough between the 1740s and the early 1770s.

The Ruins at Shugborough, with the remains of a statue of a Druid. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

He based many of the garden structures on designs by Thomas Wright and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The Chinese House, Chinese boathouse and the Pagoda (the last two no longer extant) may have been influenced by his brother Admiral Lord Anson’s visits to China in 1742 and 1743.

The Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, partly after a design by Thomas Wright and with a relief based on an engraving after Nicolas Poussin’s painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Shugborough represents the ‘rococo’ moment in the English landscape garden, when cows roamed among Classical allusions and a Pagoda could tower over a Druidic ruin.

Cattle on the Shugborough estate. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The historian Dr Stephen McDowall is currently doing research into the development and meaning of the Chinese elements in the house and the garden at Shugborough, which will eventually be published as part of the East India Company at Home project.

The preconditioned eye

July 19, 2012

Eminent individual, c. 1890, from the Bowrac collection featured by Visualising China

Last week I showed a few early twentieth-century photographs from the exciting Visualising China site which were taken or collected by the Chinese Nationalist politician Fu Bingchang. Here, by contrast are a few images taken by or for foreign visitors to China in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Nodding mandarin figure, c.1820, in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

It is remarkable how much continuity they show with the earlier, ‘chinoiserie’ view of China. One gets the sense that westerners went to China expecting to see certain things, or only noticed things that they had been preconditioned to see.

Manchu woman in fine traditional dress, c. 1905, from the Ruxton collection featured by Visualising China

The images include ‘documentary’ shots of Chinese in traditional upper class garb.

Chinese mirror painting showing a lady leaning against a balustrade in a garden setting, mid eighteenth century, at Saltram, Devon. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

They appear to be accurate records of dress and accoutrements, but they are also uncannily reminiscent of the statuettes and pictures of ‘mandarins’ and ‘long Elizas’ which had adorned European interiors for centuries.

Porcelain shop, Xiangtan, 1900-1920, from the Banister collection featured by Visualising China

Westerners also collected photographs of shops, including those selling that iconic Chinese product, porcelain.

Lage Chinese blue and white porcelain lidded vase, Kangxi period (1662-1723), at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

It is interesting that Fu Bingchang’s photograph collection did not include images of such humble commercial sites, which would have been well below his radar as a cultivated man of state.

Huxinting, the Willow Pattern tea house, Shanghai, 1890-1900, from the Book Illustrations collection featured by Visualising China

Fu had himself photographed surrounded by his classical landscape paintings, a traditional signifier of good taste. Western visitors and officials, by contrast, were interested in more quirky and ‘exotic’ scenery.

Glazed earthenware plate decorated with the Willow Pattern, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1800-1820, in the Victoria & Albert Museum. © V&A Images

It is telling that they associated a landmark tea house in Shanghai with the ‘Willow Pattern’, the Staffordshire pseudo-Chinese decorative pattern – fiction was clearly more poweful than reality.

It is one of the beneficial side-effects of Visualising China that we can now make these comparisons, between different photographic collections, between photographs and other images of China, and between different levels of fiction and reality.


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