Fact and fiction

Detail of a mid-nineteenth-century Japanese lacquer table. ©Rose Uniacke

In response to an earlier discussion about East Asian lacquer Guy Tobin of Rose Uniacke very kindly sent me these images of a Japanese lacquer table. It shows the amazing verisimilitude achieved by the lacquer craftsmen in reproducing various plants.

The entire tabletop (181 x 91 cm). ©Rose Uniacke

One element of fiction – I suspect – is that these plants don’t all look like this at exactly the same time. I don’t know enough about Japanese plants to be able to confirm that, but perhaps one of you can enlighten us?

Still-life by Jan Frans van Dael (1764-1840), at Blickling Hall, Norfolk. ©NTPL/John Hammond

However, even the hyper-realist Dutch still-life painters used that conceipt of collapsing all the seasons into one perfect moment.

©Rose Uniacke

Another rather theatrical touch is the scattering of the plants pell-mell against a black background. This has its origins in the Japanese Rimpa style, where realistically depicted trees and plants are often set against semi-abstract gold or silver grounds.

Detail of Chinese wallpaper in the Dressing Room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©NTPL/J. Whitaker

This Japanese realistic tradition is mirrored by the detailed and lifelike quality of Chinese wallpaper.

Early eighteenth-century English Japanned bureau and chairs set against Chinese wallpaper, in the State Bedroom at Erddig, Wrexham. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

To eighteenth-century Europeans, any East Asian artefact looked ‘fictional’, however realistically it was made. To them it was entirely logical to combine Chinese and Japanese products with European chinoiserie objects.

The trick for us now is to unlearn our more advanced awareness of East Asian cultures, and to see these mixed ensembles in all their hybrid wonder.

7 Responses to “Fact and fiction”

  1. style court Says:

    The tabletop is stunning. I really like how you are continuing to explore the concept of wonder and fantasy. Headed to Rose Uniacke right now!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks – yes the mental toggle between real and unreal in art is fascinating, isn’t it?

    The table has a provenance from the royal house of Hanover, apparently. Some similar ‘European-taste’ Japanese tables are coming up in the forthcoming Chatsworth ‘attic’ sale – must have been terribly fashionable in the mid nineteenth century.

  3. Barbara Says:

    Emile, Is artistic license an accepted Asian concept?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    In traditional East Asian art non-conformity was reserved for Zen monk-painters or drunken Chinese scholar-calligraphers. Otherwise artistic conformity ruled – the (Confucian?) idea that you can only innovate once you have mastered the tradition – or once you have become a monk, or drunk.

    Even apparent spontaneity – such as the scattered plants on the lacquer table above – was very carefully contrived, and valued as somehow more essentially natural than real nature.

    Don’t you love the paradoxes? 🙂

  5. style court Says:

    Oh Emile, thanks for that tip. Tonight I’ll flip through the catalogue. Interesting conversation about artistic license and Asian aesthetics happening here too.

  6. Guy Says:

    As ever the comments page really pulls out some interesting titbits!

    Emile – very interesting indeed. Its always good to get more than one head looking at an item.

    I sped through Chatsworth on Sunday trying to see what had been removed from the house itself – you note the other Japanese tables in the sale – and one removal is the ‘monkey’ table from the chapel anti-room which has always made me chuckle.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Guy, and thanks again for your images.

    In some ways it is a great shame that all these items are being sold from Chatsworth (and other Devonshire houses, and from Althorp recently, etc.), because those layers of objects, even (or especially) if they are modest or unfashionable, make country houses such fascinating archives of changing tastes and social habits.

    On the other hand their priorities as aristocratic family estates are inevitably slightly different from those of publicly run museums, and there is always the dilemma of what to do with things which one is unlikely to be able to ever show or use.

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