Phoenix frenzy

October 19, 2016

Chinese porcelain dish decorated with phoenixes and peonies, about 1750, one of a pair, at Melford Hall, NT 926292. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I just spotted this image of a rather nice Chinese porcelain dish at Melford Hall, Suffolk, showing a pair of phoenixes. They are perched on rocks and surrounded by peonies. In Chinese art the phoenix – called ‘the king of birds’ – is often associated with the peony – similarly called ‘the king of flowers’.


Large Chinese porcelain lidded jar decorated with a phoenix among peonies, about 1745, one of a pair, at Melford Hall, NT 926279. The vases were among the cargo of the Spanish galleon Santissima Trinidad captured by Captain Sir Hyde Parker, 5th Baronet, off Manila in 1762. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A pair of large Chinese lidded vases also at Melford is decorated with similar scenery. Apart from the odd scale of some of the elements of the design (the huge peonies on the dishes and the tiny fences on the vases, the mythical phoenixes are painted with the same level of detail as the other fauna and flora, making it seem as if you could readily encounter them in Chinese gardens.

Chinese wallpaper and silken drapes in a room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Phoenix among peonies, with a magpie and a duck, on the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory, NT 959651. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

A similar mythical phoenix in a similarly realistic setting turns up in the Chinese wallpaper at Nostell Priory.

There is a long tradition in Chinese art of combining myth and reality. This is connected to the symbolic meanings attached to all sorts of plants and animals: if everything is imbued with symbolism, then there is no fundamental difference between reality and myth.

I have just been made aware of a new book about this subject, The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Eugene Y. Wang (University of Hawai’i Press), which I am looking forward to reading.

The craze for garnitures

October 11, 2016
Garniture of three blue-and-white baluster Delft vases, Kingston Lacy, Doret.

Garniture of three blue and white baluster vases made in delft and decorated with Chinese-style figures, late 1690s, at Kingston Lacy, Dorset (NT 1250639). ©National Trust/Robert Morris

A ground-breaking exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is bringing together fifteen ‘garnitures’, meaning sets of vases meant to be displayed together – all from historic houses in the care of the National Trust.

Garniture of porcelain jars and vases from China, The Argory, County Armagh.

Garniture of Chinese porcelain jars and vases, 1770s, at The Argory, Co. Armagh (NT 563412, NT 563413 and NT 563420.1). ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

The exhibition has been curated by Patricia F. Ferguson, the National Trust’s ceramics adviser. As Patricia relates, the taste for garnitures goes back to the early seventeenth century, when Asian ceramics began to be imported into Europe.

Arranged on tables, cabinets and chimneypieces, they would glint and shimmer in the light of candles and fires. In an age when China was inaccessible and porcelain rare, they were redolent of exoticism and sophistication.

A group of Japanese Hampton Court style hexagonal jars, porcelain, c.1680 at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Garniture of Japanese Kakiemon porcelain vases, ‘Hampton Court’ type, c.1680, at Dunham Massey, Cheshire (NT 929282 and NT 929283). ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

But when war broke out in China in the 1640s and the production of porcelain faltered, both Japanese and European manufacturers came in on the act. Examples of all of these types and styles, and more, are represented in the houses of the National Trust, and in this exhibition.

The free exhibition is in room 146 of the Victoria and Albert Museum until 30 April 2017.

The language of love in Chinese export paintings

September 7, 2016


I am reading Kristina Kleutghen’s fascinating new book Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces. It analyses the surviving illusionist paintings which enjoyed a vogue at the Chinese imperial court in the eighteenth century, in particular those in the private quarters of the Qianlong emperor in the Forbidden City.

As part of that analysis Kleutghen also discusses the genre of ‘beautiful women paintings’ (meiren hua), which until recently have received scant scholarly attention. It is now becoming clear that what used to be regarded as generic and bland images of Chinese ‘gentlewomen’ are actually about desire and longing.


Chinese mirror painting depicting a lady in an interior gazing at a pair of doves and about to write something, mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall, NT 1270824. ©National Trust Collections/Sophia Farley

These ‘beautiful women’ are shown in private spaces such as gardens or the inner rooms of mansions. In a society where respectable women were kept from public view, this already made these images somewhat suggestive. In addition, the pictures contain various hints that the women are in fact waiting for or are about to welcome their lovers. They may be high-class courtesans or concubines, objects of desire surrounded by other luxury objects.

This imagery was also used in Chinese paintings made specifically for export to the west. In the mirror painting at Shugborough Hall, for instance, the lady is looking tenderly at a pair of cooing doves, who are presumably mirroring her own thoughts and feelings. The room contains two barrel-shaped ceramic seats, suggesting that she is expecting someone, or hoping that someone will visit. She stands next to a table poised to write something – perhaps a letter to her lover, or a love poem.


Chinese mirror painting depicting a lake with a couple and a single lady in the foreground, in the Hoare collection, Stourhead, but currently on display at Dyrham Park, NT 452429. ©National Trust Collections/Seamus McKenna

When seen in this light, another mirror painting, from the Hoare collection at Stourhead, also seems to be about love and longing. On the left a couple is seated on a bench, closely entwined, reading a book together – perhaps a love story? The lady on the right, by contrast, sits on her own, with only a servant girl for company, her head forlornly resting in her hand, again gazing at a pair of doves who seem to mock her loneliness.

The European buyers of these pictures probably understood very little of all that and likely regarded these scenes as just innocuous Chinese genre paintings. But now this new scholarship is allowing us to understand some of the meanings hidden almost in plain sight within these pictures.


Ladies fishing in Chinese art

September 1, 2016
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Chinese print depicting a female figure holding a fishing rod in one hand and a recently caught fish in another, in the Study at Saltram, NT 873000. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

I have recently started to notice images of ladies fishing in various kinds of eighteenth-century Chinese art. It seems to have been a well-established theme.

A close-up of a mid 18th century Chinese mirror painting of a woman in a blue silk robe with a child at Saltram, Devon

Chinese mirror painting depicting a female figure fishing seated on rockwork on the banks of a river, a girl standing next to her, mid eighteenth century, in an English rococo gilded frame, in the Mirror Room at Saltram, NT 872171.1. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

This motif is seen on a variety of objects and in different media, including prints, mirror paintings and porcelain.


Chinese porcelain punch bowl, decorated in enamels with a scene of a lady fishing, a boy next to her holding up a fish, at Erddig, NT 1145613. ©National Trust/Susanne Gronnow

I am not entirely sure whether these female figures are supposed to represent upper-class ladies doing a spot of angling in their well-watered gardens, or whether they are romanticised images of peasant women fishing in order to supplement the family diet.

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Part of the painted decoration on the Chinese House, a garden pavilion at Stowe, showing a lady fishing, English, probably 1820s (restored 1990s), based on a Chinese image, NT 91820. ©National Trust/Emile de Bruijn

Or are they a bit of both, the Chinese equivalent of Queen Marie-Antoinette creating an idealised vision of country life at her Hameau at Versailles?

If anyone has any suggestions, do leave a comment.

A Chinese wallpaper illustrating tea production

August 24, 2016
Detail from the Chinese wallpaper on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing two men watering tea plants. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Detail from the Chinese wallpaper on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing two men watering tea shrubs. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

I am writing a book about Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles – a follow-up, slightly more ambitious in scope, of the small catalogue of the Chinese wallpapers in the care of the National Trust that was published in 2014.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing labourers treading the leaves in large baskets. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing labourers treading the tea leaves in large baskets. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In the process of writing I came upon these detailed images of the Chinese wallpaper on silk at Saltram. This is a panoramic landscape wallpaper which shows the growing and treating of tea.

Detail of the wallpaper on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing what appears to be a tea quality inspector at work, with clerks in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing what appears to be a tea quality inspector at work, with clerks in the foreground. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Quite a few eighteenth-century Chinese wallpapers and paintings show scenes of agriculture or manufacturing, including the production of rice, tea, silk, and porcelain. The images tended to be based on illustrated treatises, such as the famous Yuzhi Gengzhitu, or ‘Treatise on Tilling and Weaving.’

Detail from the wallpaper on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing carpenters making tea chests. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Detail from the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, showing carpenters making tea chests. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

For the Chinese these images confirmed the productive and orderly structure of their society, in which everyone was supposed to work together and know their place. This is expressed through the different types seen in this wallpaper, including labourers and craftsmen with the tools of their trade, clerks with lists at the ready and mandarins in their official robes and hats. For westerners these wallpapers provided a picturesque glimpse of how desirable products like porcelain, silk and tea were actually produced.

A ‘100 boys’ lacquer screen at Felbrigg

July 27, 2016
Detail of the Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen, c.1700, in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

Detail of the Chinese incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, showing boys in a landscape, NT 1398429. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The ‘Coromandel’ or incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall is fairly unusual in that it does not show the more commonly seen bird-and-flower or palace scenery. Instead it depicts a landscape overrun with boys.

The Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

The lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The motif of ‘100 boys’ (baizi) has a long history in Chinese art and decoration. As Patricia Welch notes in Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, it is said to originate with the founder of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), who supposedly had 99 sons by his 24 wives and then adopted an orphaned baby boy to round the number up.

Detail of the Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen, c.1700, in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

Detail of the incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg (NT 1398429). ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Male children were particularly valued in traditional China because of the importance attached to continuing the family line and to the maintenance of filial duties and rites.

The symbolic qualities of the scenery are strengthened by the auspicious objects and animals that the children hold and play with.


Detail of the incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg (NT 1398429). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

One of the side panels of this seven-paneled screen is not Chinese, suggesting that it may originally have been half of a twelve-paneled screen – such large screens were often divided after being exported to the west.

The heyday of these incised screens was in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when they were very fashionable in Europe. This one may have been originally acquired by William Windham I (1647–89), who built the baroque west front of Felbrigg in the 1680s.

Europe & us in 99 objects

July 20, 2016
The Anglesey Leg, the world's first articulated wooden leg, in the Cavalry Museum at Plas Newydd, on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales

The 1st Marquess of Anglesey’s leg, at Plas Newydd (NT 1175888). ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In this year when political relationships have been so hotly debated, we have put together a selection of items from our collections that explore our rich and ancient cultural connections to the European continent.

Drawing inspiration from the British Museum’s ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’, this selection of objects – a digital diary of sorts – will help examine our nation’s cultural influence on the Continent, and equally, its influence on us.

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Antonio Canova (1757-1822), marble bust of Helen of Troy, 1816-7, at Mount Stewart, on loan from the Trustees of the Londonderry Estate. ©Trustees of the Londonderry Estate/Bryan Rutledge

Each weekday over a period of 99 days, my colleague Gabriella de la Rosa will be highlighting a particular object on our collections website. She’ll be looking at everything from Old Master paintings and priceless heirlooms to some of the more humble and unusual items in our collections.

The series has started with a prosthetic limb made for the 1st Marquess of Anglesey who lost his leg at the Battle of Waterloo, a marble bust by Antonio Canova that was used as a pawn in a diplomatic game and a Roman ring that may have inspired the fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

A gold ring at The Vyne, Basingstoke, Hampshire, with an inscription on the band and a lion's head marked on it

Gold ring, engraved with a head of Venus and an inscription, fourth century AD, at the Vyne (NT 719789) ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Drawn from over 200 special places, this digital attic of oddities and treasures will show that Britain’s story is one of a two-way traffic of delights, where the English Channel is not so much a fortress as a trading highway of influences and culture that has helped define who we are as a nation today.

The digital diary will be unfolding on the National Trust Collections website. Please check in regularly to uncover the remarkable stories these objects have to tell.

Cutting and pasting Chinese pictures

June 21, 2016
Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom which dates from the construction of the room c1760 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk

Picture inserted into the overmantel in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. NT 356855.

This picture, showing Chinese figures in a landscape, hangs above the chimneypiece in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. The outlines of the imagery were printed with carved woodblocks, but the colours were added by hand.


The overmantel in the Chinese bedroom at Blickling. ©National Trust/Paul Bailey

The picture is different from the surrounding fully painted Chinese wallpaper. Usually overmantel frames like this were decorated with mirrors or European oil paintings, but here the presence of Chinese wallpaper must have made it seem appropriate to use a Chinese picture instead.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom which dates from the construction of the room c1760 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk

The Chinese picture with the yellow line showing where the two separate prints have been cut and joined.

At first sight it appears to be a single picture. But when we look more closely we can see that two separate prints have been cut and joined together – indicated by the yellow line in the above image. The scale of the print on the right is actually ever so slightly larger than the one on the left.

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The Chinese Chippendale Room at Buckingham Palace in 1914, photograph by Sir Alexander Nelson Hood, RCIN 2101873. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

I was recently discussing a similar collage of Chinese prints, which is in store at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, with Dr Alexandra Loske, curator at the Pavilion, and Dr Clare Taylor of the Open University. Here it is when it was still in the so-called Chinese Chippendale Room at Buckingham Palace, set into the overmantel frame.


The chimneypiece and overmantel in the Chinese Chippendale Room at Buckingham Palace, originally from Eltham Lodge, Kent, RCIN 2580.

The overmantel and chimneypiece are very interesting too, beautifully carved in mid-eighteenth-century English rococo chinoiserie style. They were acquired for Buckingham Palace by King Edward VII in the early twentieth century and are thought to have originally come from Eltham Lodge, Kent.


Part of a Chinese wallpaper panel from Eltham Lodge, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.2087-1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2016

The name Eltham Lodge will be familiar to those who know the Chinese wallpaper collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum owns a group of important early Chinese wallpaper panels that was removed from Eltham Lodge in 1911.

That makes me wonder if the chimneypiece and overmantel at Buckingham Palace, the collage of Chinese prints at the Royal Pavilion and the Chinese wallpaper at the V&A were all originally in the same room at Eltham Lodge? I don’t know if there is any hard evidence for that, but it would seem to be a possibility, and the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling provides  a suggestive parallel.

Leftovers from a wallpaper project

June 10, 2016

Two fragments of Chinese wallpaper found at Kingston Lacy. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Kingston Lacy, Dorset, is not known for its Chinese wallpaper. It is largely the creation of the wealthy aesthete William Bankes (1786-1865), who transformed it into a showcase for his collections of antiquities and art between the 1830s and the 1850s.


Another fragment of Chinese wallpaper from Kingston Lacy, showing a camellia. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

None of the rooms at Kingston Lacy are known to have been decorated with Chinese wallpaper. And yet the fragments shown here were found by one of our libraries curators, Yvonne Lewis, tucked inside a seventeenth-century atlas in the library at Kingston Lacy. So who put them there and why is a bit of a puzzle.


Further fragments – it appears they are leftovers from larger sheets which were cut up, perhaps to obtain small motifs to cover the joins between the wallpaper drops. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Stylistically these fragments appear to date from the nineteenth century. The flowering tendril growing around a thicker branch or trunk is a motif often found in nineteenth-century Chinese wallpapers, probably derived from Indian chintzes.


Small fragment of Chinese wallpaper showing part of what appears to be a magnolia, and also illustrating the fibrous nature of the paper. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Having been kept in the dark, the colours of these fragments are very well preserved, reminding us of the almost garish appearance that these wallpapers originally had.

The white leaves represent another puzzle. Were they left white on purpose, to inject a element of monochrome chic? Or were they originally painted with ultra-fugitive pigments – perhaps light greens to illustrate fresh new growth – which have disappeared in spite of the fact that the fragments were kept inside a book?

Asian heirlooms

May 25, 2016
The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, is a creation of the early 1750s, as William Windham II was remodeling the house with the help of architect James Paine. It was then called the Bow Window Dressing Room.

Close up of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg House, Norfolk

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper hung at Felbrigg Hall in 1752, NT 1400532. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The Chinese wallpaper was supplied by Paine in 1751  – it is identical to the Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, where he was also involved – and hung by the London paper-hanger John Scrutton in the spring of 1752.


One of the mahogany armchairs in the Chinese style at Felbrigg Hall, part of a group of six, NT 1398493.1 – NT 1398493.6. ©National Trust/Sue James

Windham grumbled about the cost of hiring a London specialist, ‘at 3s.6d per diem while at Felbrigg & 6d per mile traveling charges, which I think a cursed deal.’ But looking at the careful cutting and pasting of the wallpaper, condensing or stretching it to make it fit the room, it is clear that this required a high degree of skill and design sense.

A 1771 inventory mentions six mahogany Chinese-style English armchairs in this room, with fretwork backs and armrests, and these are still in the house today. The fire-screen in the room, listed as having been decorated with ‘India paper’ – a Chinese picture or fragment of wallpaper – is now gone, but a similar example survives at Osterley Park.

The Cabinet Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

Japanese lacquer cabinet, late seventeenth century, at Felbrigg Hall, NT1398387. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The ‘very fine India cabinet, brown and gilt’ also listed in the Bow Window Dressing Room is still in the house, albeit in a different room. It is in fact a Japanese lacquer cabinet, decorated with herons in relief against a background of transparent lacquer showing the grain of the wood. It dates from the late seventeenth century and may have come to Felbrigg in the time of Windham’s grandfather, William Windham I, who built the west front of the house in the 1680s.

In rebuilding Felbrigg William II showed an antiquarian sensibility, respecting the earlier parts of the building. The same attitude is evident inside, as he combined the newly fashionable Chinese wallpaper with his family’s older Asian heirlooms.