Life in the Chinese country house

Chinese gouache showing elegant company making music on a lakeside terrace. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

With apologies to Mark Girouard (who published the well-known social history of the country house, Life in the English Country House, in 1979) I thought it might be interesting to show this small set of Chinese paintings of interiors and gardens.

These pictures in body colour on paper depict elegant company engaged in various leisure activities in a series of interiors and gardens.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in a garden with a board game being played. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

We can see people playing musical instruments, playing a board game, arranging flowers and serving drinks (possibly tea).

Miniature trees can be seen growing in pots placed on balustrades and stands. Some people are sitting on chairs, others on seating platforms with bolsters, little tables and objets d’art close at hand.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in an interior with a view to a lake, one of the women holding a vase with flowers. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

One of the pictures appears to show a courtyard of a high official’s mansion or a palace. The symmetricality of this view seems reminiscent of western pictorial taste. Indeed, the style of these pictures generally is rather ‘western’, with the use of single-point perspective and shading.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company on a terrace with a view to a mansion or palace courtyard. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

Paintings such as these were made for export to the west. This particular set is thought to date to about 1800. It would be interesting to learn more about how realistic these images were – whether the painters produced fantasy views of a semi-mythical ‘Cathay’ for foreign consumption, or whether these pictures, in spite of being destined for ignorant foreigners, were nevertheless based on indigenous traditions of realistically depicting upper class life. Do please comment if you know more about this subject.

Chinese gouache showing elegant company in an interior with a woman serving drinks and a view to a circular garden doorway. Claydon House, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Hollow

These paintings were bequeathed to Claydon House in 1995, where they form an interesting counterpoint to the outrageously fantastical chinoiserie decoration by Luke Lightfoot of the 1760s.

5 Responses to “Life in the Chinese country house”

  1. Katharine Hope Says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  2. style court Says:

    Emile, I couldn’t help but be struck by something about image three: The way our view of the pavilion (?) and red columns is a bit cropped, and the way the artist captured the “indoor/outdoor lifestyle,” the painting calls to mind a mid-century shelter mag photo of a Quincy Jones-designed house in California. I know that sounds like a wild stretch, but I made a connection.

    Also, your post is perfectly timed. I found out last night The Met is debuting an exhibition about Chinese garden arts and the Chinese preference for hosting outdoor gatherings.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, apologies for the delay in replying. Yes I think your hunch is right and there probably is some kind of link with mid-twentieth-century American architecture and Chinese architecture, the former being a development of modernist architecture which in turn was influenced by Japanese architecture, which again in turn came from the same cultural sphere and tradition as Chinese architecture.

    How interesting to hear about the Met exhibition. On a rare visit to New York years ago I saw and greatly enjoyed the Chinese garden built there called the Astor Court – a wonderful way to experience Chinese aesthetics.

  4. Zoé Says:

    Hello, while looking for chinese painting in internet I found your article. It’s really interesting thank you, for the second picture it seems realistic to me : the board game is the game of Go or Weichi in Chinese, a milenar traditional game, in old time in china the board game was on a table like this, and it was played by people of the court as comoners, part of the 4 art (calligraphy, landscape painting,music and Go) .
    Thank you again for this interesting article, I was looking for painting from China and it was really refreshing to loog at old western painting about China.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you for commenting that the game seems to be weiqi. It is interesting that some of the other ‘arts’ mentioned in conjunction with weiqi are also shown here, i.e. music, painting and calligraphy.

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