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.

5 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?

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