The optic of chinoiserie

Detail of a chimneypiece at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, with carved wood and plaster decoration by Luke Lightfoot, 1760s. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

I attended a fascinating symposium at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London yesterday organised as part of a project called Sinopticon, which is exploring the concept of chinoiserie in relation to contemporary art.

©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

One of the issues that came up was about the point of view that chinoiserie represents. I have been grappling with this question in an earlier post.

©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Glenn Adamson, Deputy Head of Research at he V&A, posited that chinoiserie is neither a window on another world, nor a mirror showing us a view of ourselves, but is instead a ‘theatrical optic’. By this he means (if I understand him correctly) that the perspective of chinoiserie is like that of a traveller in a foreign land, or a spectator in a theatre.

Glenn pointed out that with a lot of chinoiserie the viewer is simply invited to revel in the spectacle, and that there is no requirement to really understand what is being represented.

Are they debating issues of chinoiserie? ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

I think this is an excellent analysis of how a certain type of chinoiserie works – such as the outrageous decoration at Claydon House shown here.

But I also think that our ‘optic’ of China was – and is – always changing, and that certain types of chinoiserie do reveal something about ourselves, while others show evidence of a certain degree of interest in ‘the other’. The Chinese House at Stowe is an example of some of those ‘window’ and ‘mirror’ perspectives on China, I think.

May the debate continue.

9 Responses to “The optic of chinoiserie”

  1. columnist Says:

    Good point. Certainly chinoiserie is an interpretation of what the viewer saw; clearly a view shared by others. We are blessed that it transpired into a style that was adapted to the European taste, and one that is very sought after today.

  2. style court Says:


    First, a couple of these detail images are new to me and I’m blown away. Just stunning close ups.

    It seems to me that fantasy is always the key word in any definition of chinoiserie — Western fantasies of the East. So Adamson’s references to theater and tourists make perfect sense but I also think our fantasies often tell us just a little bit about ourselves 🙂

    Loving this series.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, yes I am always amazed by the stylistic flexibility of mid-eighteenth-century England: that people would think it perfectly normal to have Palladian and Gothic and Chinese all together in the same house.

    Courtney, I agree that fantasy is on of the keys to unlocking chinoiserie; but that then leads one to the question: Where did the need for this fantasy come from? What was it reacting against? Which is where, as you say, it starts to tell us things about ourselves (or about our mid-eighteenth-century culture, to be more precise).

  4. style court Says:

    It could be the universal human desire for fantasy. But I suppose that brings us back to Adamson’s ideas about theater. I do think sheer visual pleasure is a huge factor here.

  5. The Optic of Chinoiserie « The New Female Spectator Says:

    […] More about the V&A’s Sinopticon project – including a Friday Late on the 28th of January – here. I attended a fascinating symposium at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London yesterday organised as part of a project called Sinopticon, which is exploring the concept of chinoiserie in relation to contemporar … Read More […]

  6. Beth Katleman Says:

    These images are just extraordinary! I can’t wait to visit Claydon House and see them in person. Thanks, Emile, for the inspiration!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it was part of the extravagant rebuilding of Claydon by the 2nd Earl Verney, as a focus for his political ambitions and to rival nearby Stowe. It is probably the most extreme example of chinoiserie in Britain, apart from the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

  8. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    looking foward to actually visiting this room this weekend! Also going to Stowe. I’m going to have fun comparing. 🙂

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Excellent – let me know what you think.

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