Discovering immortality at Saltram

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Chinese print showing a female figure with a hoe slung over one shoulder and an empty basket over the other, probably the immortal Lan Caihe, used as wall decoration in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Sometimes you are trying to work something out for ages, then you give up, then you come back to it and then suddenly the penny drops. As I am in the last stages of finishing the text for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles, I decided to revisit the prints of female figures at Saltram, which had puzzled me for some time.

The Study at Saltram, Devon

The Study at Saltram, decorated with Chinese prints and paintings in the mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

These prints depict female figures in elegant poses and with beautifully detailed clothes and accoutrements. I had long been wondering whether they might be ladies – because of their elegance – or peasants – because of the humble, outdoor nature of their dress – or perhaps even the Chinese equivalent of Queen Marie-Antoinette at her hameau, i.e. upper class ladies engaging in country pursuits or playing at being peasants.

But then I noticed the dainty hoe again that one of the figures carries over her shoulder. And I remembered that Christer von der Burg, the collector of and expert on Chinese prints, had once told me that one of the immortals carries a hoe. And then after some searching online the name Lan Caihe came up.

The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Two female figures, probably immortals, pasted onto a partition in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Lan Caihe is one of the eight immortals, a group of deities connected to Daoism. Their characters and exploits exemplify Daoist thought and teachings. Various folk tales developed around the different immortals, emphasising their whimsicality and untrammelled spirit.

Lan Caihe is an androgynous immortal, sometimes depicted as a young man, sometimes as a young woman. She often carries a basket of flowers, a reference to the fleeting nature of life. She travelled around making a living from singing and dancing and is often shown with castanets or a flute hanging from a hoe slung over her shoulder.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure with a fishing rod and a fish, possibly an immortal or other deity, used as wall decoration in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

So the figure at Saltram with the hoe and the basket could well be Lan Caihe. Perhaps the fact that nothing hangs from the hoe and that the basket is empty may relate to a particular story, perhaps with some kind of stern message to the effect that ‘the music is over, the flowers are gone.’

If that figure is indeed Lan Caihe, then perhaps the other similar figures at Saltram are immortals as well, or deities of some other type. Certainly the cape made of leaves that one of them wears – a nicely ‘untrammelled’ fashion statement – seems to point in that direction. But I haven’t worked out who they are yet. I will need to wait patiently for another flash of insight – or for one of you readers to tell me.

16 Responses to “Discovering immortality at Saltram”

  1. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    How interesting that these immortals seem to parallel the characters of other divinities such as Virtue (Arete) and Vice (Kakia), in the Greek Orphic traditions and the divinities known as the muses of the arts, generally, which became the inspiration for our museums. It is as if representations of these Immortals were transcribed with paint on paper as decoration, and sent from East to West, with no reference to their meaning. We have been admiring them for the last several hundred years or so, but often, I think, with a sense that there must be more to the picture than just a lovely lady in a gown. Thank you for filling in this picture!

  2. Andrew Clegg Says:

    Dear Emile

    Is there any chance of broadening the focus of Treasure Hunt to cover areas other than chinoiserie – fascinating though it is. I can see that there have been over 140 posts on chinoiserie – vastly more than any other subject. In recent months the Trust has had some fantastic ‘Treasure’ successes at Croome (historic items return), Penrhyn (watercolour secured in bold acquisition, Plas Newydd (chattels secured via AIL), Knole (Gainsborough bought at auction). It would be really interesting if these subjects were also given coverage. Many thanks.

  3. Andrew Clegg Says:

    Correction in the previous post – Powis Castle rather than Penrhyn, apologies.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Bob, indeed, when these prints were first hung there was probably very little understanding of what and who they actually depicted. It was the same with Chinese wallpaper, where the symbolism in the scenery was not understood and people thought they ‘just’ represented birds and flowers. It is only now, as Chinese iconography is becoming better understood in the west, and with help from Chinese scholars, that we can begin to decipher these images. Strange to think that these pictures have hung here ‘unread’ for hundreds of years. But on the other hand it is fun and exciting to ‘reawaken’ their significance, Snowwhite-style!

    Andrew, I understand you comment and it is nice to know you miss my previously more wide-ranging posts. When I started this blog I was virtually alone in providing news and discussion about the National Trust’s collections online, so I felt I could and should cover all sorts of things. But now my colleague Gabriella de la Rosa is producing lots of excellent stories about our collections on our main website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/art-and-collections), so I thought I should specialise more and focus on the chinoiserie angles.

  5. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    I wonder how much the consumers thought of sublimity as these were being hung? I note that the Ashmolean, the first true museum, was established in 1683 as a sort of secular temple to the arts and an improvement on cabinets of curiosities. These painted papers were curiosities as well as art works and maybe even as an object of contemplation? I think also of the importance of the gentleman virtuoso and how Virtues which had been angels in the Middle Ages were leaving the cultural landscape after the Reformation. Maybe these pretty ladies helped to their place?

  6. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    I love your Chinoiserie focus. I am coming from a different perspective. I am a decorator (of 47 years); and the first time I saw antique Chinese wallpaper I almost fainted. The beauty and detail of it just overwhelmed me. I still adore it……use it in most of my projects (fortunately, there are exquisite copies for those who cannot afford the 18th century (or before) examples.

    When I walked into Winfield House in London, (as a guest of our Ambassador, Robert Tuttle); I walked into the room with the wallpaper from the Irish castle…..and I almost had a heart attack. (I would have perished happy!!) What a treasure for the world. And it is significant that it is still very popular and used many elegant places!

  7. Thomas Brain Says:

    Hi Emile,
    Thanks for this post. I came across another deity who sometimes carries a hoe and a basket: Magu. Apparently her name can mean “Hemp Maiden” and she is sometimes shown wearing a cape made of hemp leaves around her neck rather like the figure carrying a vase in the picture above. The connection with hemp and cannibis make her a popular figure on the internet! Magu has long bird-like fingernails and is sometimes accompanied by a deer.
    Greetings from Thomas

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Penelope, I am so sorry I didn’t reply before, I’ve been terribly busy. It is great to hear that you are inspired by chinoiserie and Chinese wallpaper. One of the fascinating things about those wallpapers is that they are still so popular today. I think it has something to do with the really strong underlying ‘bones’ of those designs, the confidence of a tradition honed over centuries and kept alive by generations of highly skilled painters.

    I am publishing a book on Chinese wallpapers in the British Isles this autumn, with lots of great images, including of the Winfield House paper.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thomas, thank you very much for that suggestion – so we should keep Magu in mind as well when looking at these figures. And the reference to a hemp-leaf cape is interesting. I think (hope) we will gradually identify more of these figures.

  10. Sherry WANG Says:

    Hi Emile, I’m currently a PhD student at Tongji University, Shanghai, China. It’s so surprising and lovely to see so many chinoiserie discussions here!
    As for Magu, I think she has nothing to do with the hemp… Ma should be her family name and Gu means “a girl”, so Magu literally means “a girl whose family name is Ma”. Actually, she is the god of longevity in Chinese myths, but we know less about her now, as well as Lan Caihe. So I don’t think the female figures are all gods or fairies in China, as for the gods are usually standing above a cloud…
    Now I’m surveying a piece of wallpaper in the study room of Saltram House, the garden scene one. The perspective technic is very uncommon at that time in China, and the architectural imagery perfectly reflects some characters in South China. But I still have some questions: What is the exact year of its production? What the size of it?
    I’m just thinking whether the architectural scenery is a representation of realistic garden in Guangzhou, or is an imitation of Suzhou prints in early 18 century. If you can share with me more pictures of its details and the study room, I’ll be so appreciated!
    Last but not least, take care during this special period!
    Best wishes
    Sherry

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hi Sherry, thank you for your interesting comments. We know very little about those Chinese paintings and prints at Saltram, except that they were probably hung on the walls there between the early 1740s and the late 1750s. In addition, some of the prints, those of immortals or other female figures, also survive at a country house called Milton Hall, near Peterborough, where they were hung in the early 1750s. At Milton there are also some Chinese prints depicting almanacs or calendars with Qianlong-era dates on them, corresponding to 1745, 1748 and 1750 in the western calendar. So as far as we can tell these paintings and prints seem to date from the 1740s.

    As you say, the strong ‘western’ perspective is quite striking, but there does seem to have been a taste for that in China in the late 17th and early 18th century, particularly in prints produced in or near Suzhou. The perspective may have appeared excitingly ‘exotic’ to Chinese viewers, just as these Chinese prints appeared ‘exotic’ to European viewers – a paradoxical symmetry!

    We don’t know whether those prints and pictures depict real places or whether they are genre scenes showing generalised images of landscapes, cities and gardens – perhaps Chinese connoisseurs and scholars may be able to identify some of the scenes! That is also why it is very interesting to hear your comments on the identity of those female figures. In 18th-century Britain those pictures were admired for their beauty and charm, but their meaning or subjects were not really understood. We are only now starting to gain a little more understanding, hopefully with the help of Chinese scholars like you.

    It is remarkable how popular Chinese images were in 18th-century European interiors, both as pictures and as wallpapers (and in hybrid picture-collage-wallpapers such as at Saltram). Is your PhD subject on a subject related to Chinese prints or paintings, or in a different area?

    Best, Emile

  12. Sherry WANG Says:

    Hi Emile, so nice to hear from you! I’m still searching for the clues for the content of this picture, and follows are my new speculations:

    The first perspective painting in China was published in 1696 called “Gengzhitu” (means the painting of farming), the royal painter called Jiao Bingzhen. His student, named Leng Mei, created a series of painting illustrated the ladies’ life in the royal palace in 1735. But their perspective technic was just a slight modification from the traditional Chinese “axonometric” paintings. What really changed the format was in a piece of optical equipment called Peepboxes (“Xiyangjing” in Chinese) which always presented a focused perspective with a strong sense of depth, but it started to appear in the 1790s in public. The garden lady wallpaper appears just between Leng Mei’s lady painting series and the Peepboxes. Perhaps it exactly represents the early stage of the perspective application in Chinese folk? But I need more evidence about how the method and patterns were spread to Guangzhou painters who drew them.

    I’m at my first year of PhD candidate, major in architecture history and theory. Actually, this wallpaper is so fascinating and “unfamiliar” to me that I even want to pick it as my topic of PhD dissertation, but I still need more surveys to persuade my tutor about its value and significance. So I’m just starting to write an essay about the content and the architecture imagery reflected in this wallpaper. I sincerely hope to have more discussions with you, and maybe one day I will go to the UK to do this research (I have an opportunity of national funding fund to study abroad for one to two years).

    Best,
    Sherry

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for those further comments. We still need a better understanding of the appreciation for western pictorial elements like chiaroscuro and single-point perspective in Chinese art, how they were adpoted for certain types of art, how the taste was disseminated.

    The ironic thing is that when some of the ‘western-style’ Chinese pictures were taken to Europe (such as those that ended up at Saltram and Milton), the European ‘consumers’ would not have recognised those European stylistic elements: they only saw their exotic Chineseness.

    If you are interested in pursuing this further, there are a few English-language publications that might be useful:

    James Cahill, Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China, Berkeley, London and Los Angeles, University of Californua Press, 2010 (especially chapter 3)

    Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu and Ning Ding (eds.): Qing Encounters: Artistic Exchanges between China and the West, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2015

    Kristina Kleutghen, Imperial Illusions: Crossing Pictorial Boundaries in the Qing Palaces, Seattle and London, University of Washington Press, 2015 (about illusionistic painting at the Chinese imperial court in the 18th century)

    I also published a book about Chinese wallpapers (I wrote these blog posts here when I was finishing the research for that book), entitled, predictably, Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland (London, Philip Wilson, 2017).

    But there is still a lot to be discovered and clarified in this area, so I would be really interested to discuss your ideas and findings. You can also contact me via email at emile.debruijn@nationaltrust.org.uk

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I’m sorry, I haven’t asked you how you are doing under these unusual circumstances. Are you OK? Things are OK here, we are allowed to go out once a day for essential shopping and once a day for excercise. The number of people in hospital is still going up, but there are some signs that the social restrictions are having an effect.

  15. Sherry WANG Says:

    Hi Emile, thanks a lot for your recommendations, I will borrow them from the city library tomorrow. The situation is getting better now in China. Many people have back to works, but almost schools in Shanghai are closed till now, we use Zoom to keep the online classes. Everyone here still needs to wear a facial mask while they are in public, and we need to show our “QR Code of Health” in cell phone when getting into an indoor public like the library. I certainly wanna e-mail you to further discuss this topic, just need a little bit time for excavating more details to share with you!
    Best,
    Sherry

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Of course, no rush! Good to hear you are managing OK.

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