China and Italy

Capriccio of Roman Ruins by the Sea with Preparations for a Sacrifice by attributed to Giovanni Ghisolfi (Milan 1623 ¿ Milan 1683)

Capriccio of Roman Ruins by the Sea, attributed to Giovanni Ghisolfi, about 1660-80. NT 1514001 ©National Trust Images/Marcus Leith

At the moment I am trying to finish an article on the parallels between chinoiserie and the Grand Tour in eighteenth-century Britain. I thought I might preview some of my thoughts here.

A gouache at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, one of six from the Anglo Chinese School, This one depicts a lakeside terrace with a party making music

Chinese painting on paper depicting the garden of a mansion with elegant company making music, probably early nineteenth century, at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, NT 1446600. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Both phenomena were about the allure of the distant and the exotic. Italy was admired for its beautiful landscapes and ancient ruins. China captured the imagination because of its picturesque mountains and towering pagodas.

View towards the fireplace in the Chinese Room at Erddig, Wrexham, Wales

Chinese paintings on paper used as wall decoration at Erddig, Wrexham, installed 1770s, NT 1153435. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Of course Italy was much closer to Britain than China, both geographically and culturally. Rome had always been part of Britain’s heritage, while China was a distinctly ‘other’ civilisation.

The wall and fireplace in the Print Room at Blickling Hall

The Print Room at Blickling Hall, created in the 1780s or early 1790s. The fashion for using European prints as wall decoration may have been inspired by the similar (and contemporary) use of Chinese pictures. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

People traveled to China for business and profit, while travel to Italy tended to be undertaken for pleasure and edification.

The Tower of the Winds in June on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire.

The Tower of the Winds at Shugborough, Staffordshire, completed in about 1765, a copy of the Horlogium of Andronikos Cyrrhestes in Athens. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

And yet both ancient Rome and contemporary China were seen by the British as models, as admirable civilisations that should be emulated. Indeed, part of China’s appeal was that it combined ‘ancient virtue’, comparable to that of Rome, but that it was also a source of ‘modern commerce’, resulting in a flood of porcelain, tea and silk coming to Britain’s shores.

Chinese House in June on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire.

The Chinese House at Shugborough, built in 1747, allegedly based on a sketch by a naval offier who visited Canton, but probably inspired by illustrated books such as Du Halde’s General History of China (English edition 1736). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

And part of the appeal of Italy was also materialistic, in that it provided British travelers with almost endless shopping opportunities, the results of which can still be found in country houses and museums across the land.

Delft tile at Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire.

Delft glazed earthenware plaque copying a plate from Nieuhof’s Embassy … to the … Emperor of China (Dutch edition 1665, English edition 1669), illustrating a pineapple plant and a banana plantain, late seventeenth century, at Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire, NT 452248. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

And just as the importation of Chinese goods stimulated the production of imitations in pseudo-Asian or ‘chinoiserie’ styles, so the Grand Tour was hugely influential on British artists, architects and designers.

The Lake of Avernus by Jakob Philipp Hackert (Prenzlau 1737 ¿ San Piero di Careggi 1807)

Painting depicting Lake Avernus near Naples by Jakob Philipp Hackert, 1800, at Attingham Park, Shropshire, NT 609001. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I am not saying that the Grand Tour and chinoiserie are identical in all their aspects, but I do think that some of the parallels between them are striking.

7 Responses to “China and Italy”

  1. arranqhenderson Says:

    Interesting stuff. It’s quite true as you say that they both offered an ideal (and ideal?)

  2. arranqhenderson Says:

    sorry pressed “send” too soon there by accident, anyway just wanted to say interesting piece. True as you say they both offered an idea of beauty but also the “other” especially China of course, even though it was later brutally exploited in the Opium wars. I love those Capriccio type paintings for the Grand Tourists, the very de-lux postcards of souvenirs of their day. We have some good ones here in Ireland by Belotto and also my favourite by Gian Paulo Paninni, especially in the Milltown gift which was a donation, orrginally from Rusborough House, and an archetypal grand tour collection, (and taste) now at the Nat Gal of Ireland here. Nice essay anyway, interesting angle, and topics.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much. Yes the whole ‘other’ thing in the way China was perceived in the west is fascinating, fluctuating between the ‘admirable and desirable other’ and the ‘alien and inferior other’.

    I must check out the Milltown gift in the National Gallery of Ireland, thanks for mentioning.

  4. trewinb Says:

    The major difference of course is that the Grand Tour was for the most part ‘experienced’ and items brought back were effectively souvenirs, whereas chinoiserie was generally purchased by those who had not actually travelled. As you note, once in Britain both were integrated in a similar way into architecture, decoration and gardens.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed – ‘travel’ vs ‘armchair travel’.

  6. Diane martinson Says:

    Very interesting comparison! Where will the completed article be able to be seen? Thank you.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you. It will be in a book edited by Professor John Stobart about travel and the British Country House, to be published by Manchester University Press. I think the book as a whole is in the final stages of editing now, so may come out later this year, or perhaps in 2017.

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