Fragments of a global puzzle

July 14, 2017

One of a set of three Japanese porcelain covered jars made in Arita, Japan, 1715-35, on painted wooden Spanish colonial stands, at Shugborough, Staffordshire, NT 1270509.1-3. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

At Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, three Japanese porcelain covered jars stand proud on gold, red and black painted wooden stands. They are not just visually striking, but also provide intriguing evidence of the global trade networks of the mid eighteenth century.

As Patricia Ferguson writes in her recent book Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces, these vases were made in Arita, Japan. This type of porcelain was known by Europeans as Imari, from the Japanese port through which it was shipped abroad.

Portrait in pastels of Admiral Sir George Anson (1697-1762) by Francis Cotes (1726-70), at Shugborough Hall, NT 1270614. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

The decoration of the vases consists of classic East Asian motifs such as phoenixes, shishi Buddhist guardian lions and convulvulus. But the bold way in which those elements have been combined was the result of the Japanese producers searching for novelty in order to keep satisfying the western market. The black and red background colours of some of the panels seem to evoke Asian lacquer, which was also popular in Europe.

The Chinese House, a garden pavilion in the park at Shugborough Hall, built in about 1747. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The vases may have been part of the cargo of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, which was captured by Admiral George Anson as it was sailing from Acapulco to Manila in 1743. Admiral Anson left his property to his brother Thomas, the owner of Shugborough, and for some time the Arita vases were kept in the ‘Chinese House’ that the latter had built in the park.

The impressive painted wooden stands, imitating lacquer, also seem to point to a Spanish colonial provenance. The late-baroque style in which they have been decorated is reminiscent of the pseudo-oriental or hybrid decorative art produced in Mexico and Manila. This is a developing area of research (see for instance Teresa Canepa’s recent book Silk, Porcelain and Lacquer: China and Japan and their Trade with Western Europe and the New World, 1500-1644) and we still need to learn more about what was made where.

The Belton Bamboo Dressing Room mystery

June 23, 2017
The Chinese wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton House. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The Chinese wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton House, inv. no. NT 434774. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

Belton House in Lincolnshire has two rooms with Chinese wallpaper. The one called the Bamboo Bedroom is not usually open to the public, but we recently managed to photograph the wallpaper in more detail for my forthcoming book.

The wallpaper seems to have been hung in 1861 under the supervision of Marian, Viscountess Alford. This is one of the examples that show how the taste for Chinese wallpapers was still very much alive in the later nineteenth century. Lady Alford also influenced the decoration of the Chinese Bedroom at Castle Ashby, a seat of her brother, the third Marquess of Northampton, in about 1871.

The Bamboo Bedroom at Belton, showing the furniture with oversize bamboo detailing introduced in about 1930. ©National Trust Images/Graham Challifour

The Bamboo Bedroom at Belton, showing the furniture with oversize bamboo detailing introduced in about 1930. ©National Trust Images/Graham Challifour

The bed, wardrobe and dressing table in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton were introduced in about 1930 by Peregrine Brownlow, sixth Lord Brownlow, and his wife Katherine, Lady Brownlow. This was the era when the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, would visit Belton as a friend of the Brownlows. The fillet edging of the wallpaper was probably silvered at this time, reflecting a twenties-thirties sense of glamour.

A pair of pheasants in the wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom. The fillet was probably silvered in about 1930. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

A pair of pheasants in the wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom. The fillet was probably silvered in about 1930. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

A dressing room next door is known to have been hung with the same wallpaper, which was recorded as being in store at Belton just before the National Trust acquired the house and estate, partly as a gift from the seventh Lord Brownlow and partly with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, in 1984. The subsequent whereabouts of the wallpaper from the dressing room were thought to be unknown.

A cock and hen on a picturesque rock in the wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

A cock and hen on a picturesque rock in the wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton. © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

But the other day I spotted some images of a very similar wallpaper on the walls of the château de Wideville in Île-de-France, one of the residences of retired fashion designer Valentino Garavani. The house was decorated by Valentino in collaboration with the interior designer Henri Samuel in 1995-6. Perhaps the Chinese wallpaper from the dressing room at Belton, possibly having been sold in about 1984, was at some point acquired by Samuel and then reused at Wideville?

Fascinating fragments at Uppark

June 16, 2017
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Section of Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

In the collection at Uppark, West Sussex, are some fascinating fragments of Chinese wallpaper, which emerged from beneath a later wallpaper after a fire in 1989. Apart from being stunning examples of Chinese woodblock printing (with colours added by hand), they also contain clues about how Chinese wallpapers spread through Europe in the mid eighteenth century.

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Fragment of Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, showing how parts of various Chinese prints were added at the bottom. NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

This section of wallpaper shows a pair of pheasants on a picturesque rock surrounded by peonies and other flowering plants and trees. These ‘scholar’s rocks’ (gongshi) have long been used in Chinese gardens as sculptural ornaments. In the Chinese visual tradition, pheasants are associated with ‘beauty’ and peonies with ‘rank’.

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Ribbon-tailed bird (shoudainiao) in a print attached to the bottom of a Chinese wallpaper sheet, at Uppark, NT 138490 © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Most of these specifically Chinese references were lost on Europeans, but this did not prevent these wallpapers from being in high demand. To make this rare and expensive material fit specific walls, the paper-hangers deployed various ‘cutting and pasting’ techniques’, shrinking or expanding it as required.

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Head and shoulders of a female figure collaged onto a section of the Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Looking closely at this fragment, we can see that parts of various different prints have been added at the bottom edge. On the left is a ‘ribbon-tailed bird’ (shoudainiao) on a scholar’s rock, depicted at a smaller scale than the main scenery, and in the centre we can see the head and shoulders of a female figure. Such prints could be bought in London in the same shops and paper-hanging establishments that offered Chinese wallpapers.

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Section of the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, Kent, NT 825922. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Looking further afield, we find the same pair of pheasants at Ightham Mote, Kent. The wallpaper was clearly printed using the same woodblocks. The difference in colour is due to the diverging ‘biographies’ of the wallpapers: the one at Uppark remained covered up for much of its life, preserving its colours to a greater degree, while the one at Ightham was partly overpainted in about 1900 in an attempt to counteract the effects of ageing and damp.

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Part of the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, showing how it was arranged slightly differently to the paper at Uppark. NT 825922. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Yet another identical pair of pheasants survives at Schloss Wörlitz in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, and copies of the print with the ribbon-tailed bird (actually showing a pair of birds) are at the Château de Filières, in Seine-Maritime, France. The whole of Europe was agog at these sophisticated Chinese products. More about these wallpapers and prints and other related examples will be revealed in my forthcoming book Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland.

Paintings of Chinese palace life at Shugborough

May 24, 2017
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Chinese painting on paper depicting a dance performance on a terrace outside a pavilion with ladies and their attendants watching. One of a set of One of a set of six Chinese paintings on paper, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, NT 1271100.4. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highhnam

I have recently been able to commission some new photography for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles. The shoots included the intriguing set of six Chinese paintings on paper at Shugborough Hall, three of which are shown here.

There appears to be little documentation about these paintings, but judging by the appearance of their rococo frames they would seem to date from the mid eighteenth century. The owner of Shugborough at that time, Thomas Anson (1695–1773), was interested in China, as is evident from the ‘Chinese House’ he built in the park and the copies of books about China in his library.

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Chinese painting on paper depicting ladies and their attendants in a pavilion with a stepped gable, with two female figures and a child playing a ball game in the foreground, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, NT 1271100.3. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highhnam

Thomas Anson’s brother, Admiral George Anson (1697–1762), actually visited China on two occasions in the 1740s, but he doesn’t seem to have appreciated Chinese culture. And paintings like this, known as ‘India pictures’ (‘India’ then being a catch-all term for ‘Asia’) were also available in London in this period, so Thomas may have acquired them there.

The pictures show Chinese ladies and their servants engaged in various activities in the grounds of a large mansion or palace. The images are almost like those in present-day celebrity and interiors magazines, being idealised, aspirational glimpses of the lifestyle of ‘the five percent’.

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Chinese painting on paper depicting a lady playing a qin or seven-stringed zither in front of a pavilion, with other ladies listening and a pair of peacocks and trellis at left, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire, NT 1271100.5. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highhnam

In one painting, a female figure is performing a dance with swords on a terrace, watched by other women. Another painting seems to be about sports or games, with some ladies playing a dainty and elegant version of football and others engaged in a game of touhu, in which sticks have to be thrown into a tall vessel (I am grateful to Dr Yu-ping Luk of the the Victoria and Albert Museum for identifying these games).

In the third painting shown here, a lady is playing a qin or seven-stringed zither, with other ladies listening and a pair of peacocks nearby perhaps also captivated by the music. The trellis at the back, with flowers growing through it, is reminiscent of the border papers sometimes supplied with Chinese wallpapers, which similarly show bamboo trellis and flowers.

Discovering immortality at Saltram

January 12, 2017
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Chinese print showing a female figure with a hoe slung over one shoulder and an empty basket over the other, probably the immortal Lan Caihe, used as wall decoration in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Sometimes you are trying to work something out for ages, then you give up, then you come back to it and then suddenly the penny drops. As I am in the last stages of finishing the text for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles, I decided to revisit the prints of female figures at Saltram, which had puzzled me for some time.

The Study at Saltram, Devon

The Study at Saltram, decorated with Chinese prints and paintings in the mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

These prints depict female figures in elegant poses and with beautifully detailed clothes and accoutrements. I had long been wondering whether they might be ladies – because of their elegance – or peasants – because of the humble, outdoor nature of their dress – or perhaps even the Chinese equivalent of Queen Marie-Antoinette at her hameau, i.e. upper class ladies engaging in country pursuits or playing at being peasants.

But then I noticed the dainty hoe again that one of the figures carries over her shoulder. And I remembered that Christer von der Burg, the collector of and expert on Chinese prints, had once told me that one of the immortals carries a hoe. And then after some searching online the name Lan Caihe came up.

The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Two female figures, probably immortals, pasted onto a partition in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Lan Caihe is one of the eight immortals, a group of deities connected to Daoism. Their characters and exploits exemplify Daoist thought and teachings. Various folk tales developed around the different immortals, emphasising their whimsicality and untrammelled spirit.

Lan Caihe is an androgynous immortal, sometimes depicted as a young man, sometimes as a young woman. She often carries a basket of flowers, a reference to the fleeting nature of life. She travelled around making a living from singing and dancing and is often shown with castanets or a flute hanging from a hoe slung over her shoulder.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure with a fishing rod and a fish, possibly an immortal or other deity, used as wall decoration in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

So the figure at Saltram with the hoe and the basket could well be Lan Caihe. Perhaps the fact that nothing hangs from the hoe and that the basket is empty may relate to a particular story, perhaps with some kind of stern message to the effect that ‘the music is over, the flowers are gone.’

If that figure is indeed Lan Caihe, then perhaps the other similar figures at Saltram are immortals as well, or deities of some other type. Certainly the cape made of leaves that one of them wears – a nicely ‘untrammelled’ fashion statement – seems to point in that direction. But I haven’t worked out who they are yet. I will need to wait patiently for another flash of insight – or for one of you readers to tell me.

Cataloguing Chinese hairstyles

December 5, 2016
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Chinese porcelain saucer dish decorated with a female figure sitting on a bench with a child offering her a lotus flower, Kangxi period (1662-1722), at Polesden Lacey, NT 1245638.1. ©National Trust/Jane Mucklow

As part of my research into Chinese wallpaper I have been noticing the elegant hairstyles of many of the female figures. I have been trying to work out whether certain hairstyles can be associated with certain periods, which in turn might help with dating wallpapers that we don’t have much documentation for.

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Female and male figure in a Chinese woodblock print used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, NT 872998. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

I have facetiously dubbed one of the hairstyles ‘the triple gourd’, as the hair is piled up and tied in such a way that it forms three globular shapes, ending in a loop.

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Chinese porcelain serving dish, part of a 25-piece dinner service, depicting two female figures in a garden, c. 1695-1710, at Shugborough, NT 1270511.2.2. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Another hairstyle could be called ‘the kidney bean’, as the hair rises up from the back of the head in one slightly curved vertical shape.

Both of these styles can be seen in mid-eighteenth-century wallpapers, but on porcelain they seem to appear earlier, perhaps from the late seventeenth century onwards.

Newly conserved wallpaper in the private quarters at Saltram, Devon

Chinese painting on paper depicting female figures in a garden, used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century, NT 873000. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Some Kangxi-period (1662-1722) porcelain depicts female figures with more voluminous, globular hairstyles, which one might call ‘the persimmon’.

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Chinese porcelain plate decorated with a lady seated at a table, her head resting in her hand, c. 1690-1720, collection of Captain George Francis Warre, given to the National Trust by Mrs. George Warre, 1961, at Dudmaston, NT 813530. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

And in addition to those there appear to be other hairstyles, fabric haircoverings and a variety of hair ornaments as well as flowers or flower-shaped jewellery.

The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Chinese woodblock prints of female figures pasted onto a partition in the Chinese dressing room at Saltram, NT 872998. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Some of these styles may have been regional, while others may have been associated with particular classes or roles, but much of this remains unclear. Regardless of whether the descriptive names suggested above catch on, I think the time has come for a proper taxonomy of Chinese historical hairstyles.

Wonderful wucai

November 4, 2016
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One of a pair of covered wucai jars showing a scene from the opera Chang Sheng Dian, 1660-90, at Belton House, NT 433361.1-2. ©National Trust Images.

The National Trust’s ceramics adviser, Patricia Ferguson, has just published a book entitled Ceramics: 400 Years of British Collecting in 100 Masterpieces featuring highlights from the ceramics collections of the National Trust. It is a rich compendium of the many different types of ceramics you might encounter in a country house, describing how they were made, collected and used.

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One of a pair of covered wucai jars showing a scene from the opera Chang Sheng Dian, 1660-90, at Belton House, NT 433361.1-2. ©National Trust Images

One of the entries in the book is a pair of Chinese porcelain wucai covered jars, made between 1660 and 1690 and now at Belton House. As Patricia describes it, wucai refers to the polychrome decoration of these wares, literally meaning ‘five colours’.

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Two Chinese porcelain wucai vases, decorated with a scene of a seated lady watching a dance performance and of ladies on a garden terrace, 1650-65, at Kedleston Hall, NT 108557.1-2. ©National Trust/Andrew Patterson

The design was first sketched out in cobalt blue and the vessel was then glazed and fired, whereupon the other colours were added in overglaze enamel, including iron red, iron yellow, copper green and manganese purple.

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One of a pair of Chinese porcelain wucai covered jars, depicting women and children in a garden, at Wightwick Manor, NT 1287195.2. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley and Claire Reeves

These porcelains, with their vibrant colours, were in great demand in seventeenth-century Europe. They were grouped together on cabinets, chimneypieces and overdoors – something highlighted in the current display about garnitures at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Patricia helped to curate.

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One of a pair of Chinese porcelain wucai covered jars, depicting women and children in a garden, at Wightwick Manor, NT 1287195.1. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley and Claire Reeves

The pair of jars at Belton shows scenes from the opera Chang Sheng Dian (‘Palace of Eternal Youth’), about the tragic love story of princess Yang Guifei and emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (618-907). On one vase she is depicted seated on a terrace awaiting the emperor’s return. On the other Xuanzong is seen fleeing after having sacrificed Yang Guifei to appease his rebellious soldiers.

Other wucai jars show similar scenes, many still to be reidentified. Prints and illustrated books probably served as the sources for these designs, showing the cross-fertilisation between the different arts in seventeenth and eighteenth-century China.

Phoenix frenzy

October 19, 2016
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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’.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.