Mirror world

The Chinese Bedroom at Saltram, Devon, with several mid-eighteenth-century Chinese mirror paintings in Rococo frames. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

In a comment on my previous post about famille rose porcelain, Courtney Barnes reminded me of the role of the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) in the cultural exchange between east and west.

Courtney has also mentioned him in one of her previous posts about ‘Europeanoiserie’, or the interest in Europe in eighteenth-century China.

©NTPL/Rob Matheson

Mirror painting is another technique now associated with China which actually originated in Europe. Like famille rose, it became a sought-after export product that influenced the west’s image of China.

Castiglione is thought to have introduced mirror painting to the Chinese while working in the imperial palace workshops. Because of the Jesuits’ willingness to learn Chinese and to adapt to Chinese customs, they were able to infiltrate the Chinese elite, who valued their technical and scientific knowledge.

©NTPL/Rob Matheson

According to Graham Child in his book World Mirrors 1650-1900, painting on the ‘back’ side of glass panels was known in Italy in the fourteenth century. In this technique the paint is applied in reverse order, the details having to be put on first and the ground last.

The earliest mention of an English painted mirror is a report of one that was stolen from a dining room in Holborn, London, in 1660, and which had a landscape painted along the bottom. With mirror paintings the area to be painted had to be scraped free of the mirror amalgam first before the paint could be applied.

©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

By the mid-eighteenth-century the Chinese had adopted this technique and made it their own. Once again, the exotic was actually something familiar in disguise.

I am increasingly thinking that Chinoiserie and Chinese export art do not provide us with a window onto a distant world; that instead they show us a mirror, in which we see ourselves reflected.

6 Responses to “Mirror world”

  1. columnist Says:

    I’ve seen a number of reverse Chinese paintings, but these in their Rococo frames are truly stunning. The effect is slightly lost on top of the wallpaper, but very “over the top”, which is what is trying to be, and successfully is achieved. Nice summary too!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much. Yes the gilded frames go quite well with the faded and discoloured wallpaper I think.

  3. style court Says:


    Again you end with a most thought provoking line.

    I have to echo Columnist; these Saltram examples blow away everything I’ve seen in the past. Personally, I’m drawn to the juxtaposition of the wallpaper with the amazing frames and paintings. So pleased you shared this! Truly fascinating history.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Courtney – and all because of your comment 🙂

  5. Down East Dilettante Says:

    Absolute agreement about your last observation—export goods were usually a ‘take’ on our Western styles, filtered through an Eastern lense.

    BTW, if ever in the states, do visit the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, with its dazzling displays of export goods brought back by early sea captains…

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks – yes I must.

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