In defense of chinoiserie

I have now started to read the book by Yu Liu, Seeds of a Different Eden, that I mentioned in an earlier post. Liu charts the influence of China on English gardens in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is one of the best expositions I have read on the centuries-old debate about whether that influence was real or coincidental.

Chinese mirror painting in a Rococo frame hung on a wall covered with Chinese wallpaper, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Liu argues that the Chinese conception of landscape directly or indirectly affected a number of people involved in the development of the English landscape garden, including Sir William Temple, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury.

Late seventeenth-century German faience vase decorated with figures in landscapes copied from Chinese porcelain, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Rob Matheson

Liu also makes a distinction between the translation of authentic Chinese ideas into English aesthetics and philosophy and the adulteration and superficial adoption of those ideas in the form of chinoiserie.

This is where I would slightly disagree with Liu: I think the encounter with authentic Chinese concepts and their expression as chinoiserie design are like two sides of the same coin. Even if chinoiserie often represents a misunderstanding of Chinese culture, it is nevertheless a form of playful engagement with it. Moreover, even the most fanciful chinoiserie reveals something about how China was perceived.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead seen from near the spot where the Chinese Seat was situated in the mid-eighteenth century. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

At Stourhead in Wiltshire, for instance, a ‘Chinese Seat’ was constructed as an integral part of what was to become one of the classic English landscape gardens. Situated halfway up one of the surrounding hills, it allowed one to literally view an ‘English’ garden from a ‘Chinese’ viewpoint.

Hawkwell Field at Stowe, with the Gothic Temple and the Palladian Bridge. In the 1740s a pavilion called the Chinese House was situated in a small pond on the left of this view, visually connecting the Chinese with the Gothic and the classical. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

In the gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Shugborough in Staffordshire, too, Chinese-style pavilions were placed in close proximity to classical and Gothic structures, indicating that they represented shared or related symbolic values and were seen to be mutually compatible.

Chinese porcelain on a late seventeenth-century veneered cabinet set against a chinoiserie Soho tapestry, at The Vyne, Hampshire. ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

So I would advocate using chinoiserie as visual evidence, however fragmentary, of the changing European attitudes to China. And if it is sometimes just plain bonkers then that just adds to the fun of it all.

6 Responses to “In defense of chinoiserie”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    You have tapped into a vein of the psychology of revivals and aesthetic influences. We have fantasy views of other cultures, especially when we reduce them to mere decoration. In this sense the Gothic revival is the same as Chinoiserie–it has little to do with the real Gothic period, and everything t do with how Horace Walpole and others of that period saw themselves.

    Revivals also work as subtle propaganda–to portray the other culture as we would prefer to see it. In this sense, Chinoiserie shows China reduced to oddly-dressed people in a surreal landscape drinking tea–obviously no threat to European superiority.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, your point about the Gothic revival is particularly relevant to Stowe, since the Gothic Temple there is indeed just as much a fantasy as the Chinese House that stood near to it (it has recently returned there, but now stands in a different spot).

    Interestingly, chinoiserie could represent a positive ‘propaganda’ as well as a negative one. At Stowe, for instance, the Chinese House seems to have been emblematic for what was then seen as China’s stable and rational system of government. It may have been a veiled criticism by Viscount Cobham, the owner of Stowe, directed at his political enemy, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, conveying the unspoken message: “Look at how much better China is being governed than Britain!”. The Gothic Temple would have sent out a similar message about the superior ‘democracy’ of Saxon England.

  3. style court Says:

    Emile — I’ve been looking forward to your review, so many thanks for sharing your insights. Liu’s book is on my wish list. Also, I have to say, I’d very much be interested in a Chinoiserie-related tome written by you!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks, I am indeed planning one!

  5. Mireille Shih Says:

    Love to know this wonderful book that you recommend, thank you Emile! And even looking forwards your book!
    Is there any possible that the Chinoiserie inspire, or encourage the Gothic revival?

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mireille, yes it is a thought-provoking book.

    It is indeed fascinating that the Rococo gothic style floursihed more or less at the same time as the Rococo chinoiserie style. It seems to demonstrate that people were relatively tolerant and non-purist in allowing radically different styles to exist in close proximity at that time.

    It also seems to indicate that people appreciated the neo-gothic for some of the same reasons that they aprreciated chinoiserie: the attraction of temporal distance being somewhat similar to the attraction of spatial distance🙂

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