When I was preparing a talk on chinoiserie recently I was reminded of the clash of styles evident in the decoration of lacquer cabinets in British country houses. This example at Penrhyn Castle shows the typical East Asian love of asymmetry in the design of the doors.
When these cabinets were being imported into Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, Europeans were still very much in thrall to symmetry. This Japanese cabinet at Ham House shows how branches were added to the tree on the right, and extra birds were added to the sky, to balance out the composition.
The importers seem to have gone further still, and swapped doors from different cabinets, to make up symmetrical sets. This seems to be the case with this cabinet at Petworth, where a distant landscape (on the right) now shares the same space as a pair of monster chickens (on the left).
East Asia seems to have been such a distant place in the imagination of Europeans that even the most fantastical scenarios became plausible there. English craftsmen (and, presumably, patrons) were happy to see fragments of lacquer landscapes fitted sideways and upside down around European mirrors, as in this one at Ham.
When English craftsmen began to produce imitation lacquer cabinets, they perpetuated these mythical compositions – and indeed they were at liberty to make them even more ‘European’ and symmetrical.
Giant fowl combined with liliput pavilions became something of a motif in its own right, as seen once again in this example at Mount Stewart.
Fantasy overtook reality so such an extent that when Thomas Chippendale created his chinoiserie furniture in the 1750s-1770s it was based more on European imitations than on authentic East Asian lacquer.