Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Phoenix frenzy

October 19, 2016

Chinese porcelain dish decorated with phoenixes and peonies, about 1750, one of a pair, at Melford Hall, NT 926292. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I just spotted this image of a rather nice Chinese porcelain dish at Melford Hall, Suffolk, showing a pair of phoenixes. They are perched on rocks and surrounded by peonies. In Chinese art the phoenix – called ‘the king of birds’ – is often associated with the peony – similarly called ‘the king of flowers’.


Large Chinese porcelain lidded jar decorated with a phoenix among peonies, about 1745, one of a pair, at Melford Hall, NT 926279. The vases were among the cargo of the Spanish galleon Santissima Trinidad captured by Captain Sir Hyde Parker, 5th Baronet, off Manila in 1762. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A pair of large Chinese lidded vases also at Melford is decorated with similar scenery. Apart from the odd scale of some of the elements of the design (the huge peonies on the dishes and the tiny fences on the vases, the mythical phoenixes are painted with the same level of detail as the other fauna and flora, making it seem as if you could readily encounter them in Chinese gardens.

Chinese wallpaper and silken drapes in a room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Phoenix among peonies, with a magpie and a duck, on the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory, NT 959651. ©National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

A similar mythical phoenix in a similarly realistic setting turns up in the Chinese wallpaper at Nostell Priory.

There is a long tradition in Chinese art of combining myth and reality. This is connected to the symbolic meanings attached to all sorts of plants and animals: if everything is imbued with symbolism, then there is no fundamental difference between reality and myth.

I have just been made aware of a new book about this subject, The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, edited by Jerome Silbergeld and Eugene Y. Wang (University of Hawai’i Press), which I am looking forward to reading.

Ladies fishing in Chinese art

September 1, 2016
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Chinese print depicting a female figure holding a fishing rod in one hand and a recently caught fish in another, in the Study at Saltram, NT 873000. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

I have recently started to notice images of ladies fishing in various kinds of eighteenth-century Chinese art. It seems to have been a well-established theme.

A close-up of a mid 18th century Chinese mirror painting of a woman in a blue silk robe with a child at Saltram, Devon

Chinese mirror painting depicting a female figure fishing seated on rockwork on the banks of a river, a girl standing next to her, mid eighteenth century, in an English rococo gilded frame, in the Mirror Room at Saltram, NT 872171.1. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

This motif is seen on a variety of objects and in different media, including prints, mirror paintings and porcelain.


Chinese porcelain punch bowl, decorated in enamels with a scene of a lady fishing, a boy next to her holding up a fish, at Erddig, NT 1145613. ©National Trust/Susanne Gronnow

I am not entirely sure whether these female figures are supposed to represent upper-class ladies doing a spot of angling in their well-watered gardens, or whether they are romanticised images of peasant women fishing in order to supplement the family diet.

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Part of the painted decoration on the Chinese House, a garden pavilion at Stowe, showing a lady fishing, English, probably 1820s (restored 1990s), based on a Chinese image, NT 91820. ©National Trust/Emile de Bruijn

Or are they a bit of both, the Chinese equivalent of Queen Marie-Antoinette creating an idealised vision of country life at her Hameau at Versailles?

If anyone has any suggestions, do leave a comment.

A ‘100 boys’ lacquer screen at Felbrigg

July 27, 2016
Detail of the Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen, c.1700, in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

Detail of the Chinese incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, showing boys in a landscape, NT 1398429. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The ‘Coromandel’ or incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall is fairly unusual in that it does not show the more commonly seen bird-and-flower or palace scenery. Instead it depicts a landscape overrun with boys.

The Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

The lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

The motif of ‘100 boys’ (baizi) has a long history in Chinese art and decoration. As Patricia Welch notes in Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, it is said to originate with the founder of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), who supposedly had 99 sons by his 24 wives and then adopted an orphaned baby boy to round the number up.

Detail of the Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen, c.1700, in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

Detail of the incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg (NT 1398429). ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Male children were particularly valued in traditional China because of the importance attached to continuing the family line and to the maintenance of filial duties and rites.

The symbolic qualities of the scenery are strengthened by the auspicious objects and animals that the children hold and play with.


Detail of the incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg (NT 1398429). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

One of the side panels of this seven-paneled screen is not Chinese, suggesting that it may originally have been half of a twelve-paneled screen – such large screens were often divided after being exported to the west.

The heyday of these incised screens was in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when they were very fashionable in Europe. This one may have been originally acquired by William Windham I (1647–89), who built the baroque west front of Felbrigg in the 1680s.

Multi-national screens

April 20, 2016
Six-fold incised lacquer screen decorated with scenes of Europeans hunting, one half of what was originally a twelve-fold screen, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Six-fold incised lacquer screen decorated with scenes of Europeans hunting, seventeenth century (NT 1140102), one half of what was originally a twelve-fold screen, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I have just returned from speaking at a stimulating study day at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. As I mentioned earlier, I was talking about ‘Sino-Dutch’ interiors in late seventeenth-century England.

The other half of the twelve-fold incised lacquer screen, in a different room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

The other half of the twelve-fold incised lacquer screen (NT 1139776), in a different room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

While I was there I also visited the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. I discovered that among the rich holdings of the MFA is a Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans out hunting. This reminded me of a screen with a similar subject at Ham House (separated in two parts, documented here and here), which had previously puzzled me.


Twelve-panel Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans in a landscape, about 1700, height 244 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1975.333, Keith McLeod Fund. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This kind of depiction of westerners, with big noses, prominent moustaches and wide, pantaloon-style trousers, is known from Japanese screens, where the subject was called ‘namban’ or ‘southern barbarians’ – since the western ships arrived in japan from the south.

The Japanese were clearly fascinated by these exotic foreigners. But here this subject and style of depiction has been transposed to incised or kuan cai lacquer, which as far as we know was only made in China.


Detail from the Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans in a landscape. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1975.333, Keith McLeod Fund. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

So what was going on here? In their Arts of China handbook the MFA curators suggest that this type of screen was made in China, to be exported to Japan and to be sold there to the Dutch merchants based in Nagasaki.

That certainly sounds plausible, but I wonder whether there could also have been a market in China itself for screens decorated with quaint barbarians – a kind of chinoiserie in reverse? Either way, it is great to discover that the Ham screen is not an odd one-off but seems to have been part of a particular genre.

Chinese wallpaper: trade, technique and taste

April 11, 2016

Section of a Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper, late eighteenth century, showing a small citrus tree in an ornamental pot on a stone stand. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.2854-1913

I am just looking back on the conference on the subject of Chinese wallpaper in the west that took place between Thursday 7th and Saturday 9th April. It has been a frenetic but extremely productive and enjoyable few days.

It was the first ever conference looking at Chinese wallpapers in the round, presenting some of the groundbreaking work and research now being carried out in this area. It is becoming more and more clear that Chinese wallpaper wasn’t just a form of Chinese export art, or a just form of European chinoiserie, but that it was (and is) a global product firmly rooted in both east and west.

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Chinese prints used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, near Plymouth (NT 872998). The shading on the clothes, trees and architecture is a stylistic feature adopted from western art.

Coutts & Co generously hosted day one of the conference, at their premises at 440 Strand in London. The conference delegates were given guided tours of the Chinese wallpaper originally acquired by banker Thomas Coutts around 1800.

The focus of this day was on the taste for and trade in Chinese wallpapers. We were fortunate in having been able to secure speakers from Europe, America and China. The subjects ranged from the earliest uses of Chinese pictures as wall decoration in the west all the way to the continuing popularity of Chinese wallpaper today.


Conservation work revealing a European wallcovering underneath a Chinese landscape wallpaper at Oud Amelisweerd, near Utrecht, The Netherlands. This discovery helped to date the introduction of the Chinese wallpaper.

The second day of the conference was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where we were the guests of the Asian Department. During the morning there were talks on the technical side of Chinese wallpapers, with insights into how they were made and examples of how they have been conserved, provided by some of the foremost conservation practitioners in the field.


A section of the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper from Moor Park, Hertfordshire, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (E.533-1937), which was being treated as the conference delegates visited the conservation studio. It is closely related to Chinese wallpapers at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, and Temple Newsam, Leeds.

Then in the afternoon the colleagues at the V&A made a number of Chinese wallpapers from their extensive collection available to view. It was hugely exciting to see these beautiful and fascinating wallpapers up close and to discuss them with so many knowledgeable people. We also had the privilege of being able to witness one section of wallpaper being worked on in the paper conservation studio.


The Saloon at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, with the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper on a cream ground that hung there between 1816 and 1822. After Augustus Charles Pugin, Royal Collection, RCIN 918161. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

On the third day there was an optional excursion to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. This was a chance to see an actual example of the use of Chinese decoration in a British historic interior. Although the Pavilion is unique in its exuberance and opulence, the creative use of Chinese objects and materials is a thread that runs through the history of western design and decoration between the sixteenth century and the present.

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Unused section from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper hung in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, in the early 1830s. The unused sections have been kept in store at Penrhyn ever since and retain their original, almost shockingly bright colours. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

We are extremely grateful to everyone at Coutts, the V&A, the Royal Pavilion and the National Trust who have made this event possible. The speakers have been very generous with their time and expertise. And personally I want to pay tribute to my good-humoured, indefatigable and generally brilliant co-organisers Andrew Bush, Alexandra Loske and Anna Wu.

A few more images and conversations relating tho this conference can be found on Twitter via @ChineseWP2016.

A Chinese romance

February 16, 2016

Chinese porcelain teapot, early eighteenth century, decorated in blue and white with a scene from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Erddig, NT 1145624. ©National Trust/Susanne Gronnow

I recently supplied a little feature on the theme of ‘romance’ in our collections for the Spring 2016 issue of the National Trust Magazine. My colleague Gabriella de la Rosa has now added a version of this feature to the collections pages of the National Trust’s website.

One of the objects in this feature is a Chinese blue and white porcelain teapot at Erddig. It is decorated with a scene from a famous Chinese play, The Romance of the West Chamber, written by the Yuan-dynasty playwright Wang Shifu.

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One of a pair of Chinese porcelain baluster-shaped vases, Kangxi period (1662-1722), decorated in blue and white with scenes from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Lyme Park, NT 499329.1. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

The Romance of the West Chamber is the story of Zhang Sheng, a poor young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of the Prime Minister, who fall in love without their families’ approval. The scene on the Erddig teapot shows Yingying in a garden at night waiting to meet her lover.

The plot is a kind of Chinese Romeo and Juliet, except that it ends happily, with Zhang Sheng doing well in the civil service examinations, rising to high office, and being able to marry his sweetheart.

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Chinese porcelain bowl with everted rim, Kangxi period (1662-1722), decorated in blue and white with scenes from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Polesden Lacey, NT 1245606, ©National Trust/Andrew Fetherston

All this would have been lost to eighteenth-century British tea drinkers and porcelain collectors. It was only in the 1980s, with Craig Clunas’s article on the West Chamber as a decorative theme on Chinese porcelain (see this bibliography under 1982), that these scenes began to be properly understood in the west.

Gabriella has assembled a few more Chinese ceramics with ‘West Chamber’ imagery in our collections.

Chinese wallpaper conference

February 5, 2016
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Detail from one of the prints used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram. NT 872998 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Regular readers of this blog may remember me mentioning the possibility of a conference on Chinese wallpapers in historic houses. I am happy to announce that this conference is going ahead and will take place in London on 7 and 8 April, with an optional excursion on 9 April.

The Dressing Room with hand painted wallpaper from China at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Section including a phoenix from the painted bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory, supplied by Thomas Chippendale in 1771. NT 959651 ©National Trust Images/J. Whitaker

Day one will be hosted by Coutts & Co, who still have an eighteenth-century landscape wallpaper in their boardroom that was owned by the founder of the firm, Thomas Coutts.

Day two will be at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and will include the viewing of sections of Chinese wallpaper from their collection and a visit to their paper conservation studio.

The optional excursion on day three is a visit to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, to see the role Chinese wallpaper played in the Prince Regent’s decorative vision (and again including the viewing of some archived wallpaper).

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Figure of a labourer in the landscape wallpaper painted on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram. NT 872999 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The conference will look at Chinese wallpaper in the round, including Chinese, European, art-historical, economic, social and conservation perspectives.

We are fortunate in having been able to assemble an authoritative group of speakers from from Europe, America and China, who will be sharing some of their latest research.

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Detail of a bird of prey in the painted bird-and-flower wallpaper at Erddig, probably hung in the 1770s. NT 1153114 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

More information about the conference papers and the speakers can be found on the conference website, which includes a booking link.


Sharing a taste for Chinese prints

December 22, 2015
The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Various Chinese prints depicting female figures, cut out and combined to form a decorative scheme in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, near Plymouth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna about Chinese-style interior decoration in Europe in the eighteenth century.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure in the Study at Saltram, part of a collage of Chinese prints and paintings. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

This conference was organised by Dr Elfriede Iby, head of research at Schönbrunn, and Professor Gabriele Krist of the Universität für Angewandte Kunst Wien.

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Fragment of a Chinese print depicting a female figure found at Oud Amelisweerd, near Utrecht, almost identical to prints at Saltram. ©MOA

This conference brought together curators, conservators and academics from across Europe. For me it was a great opportunity to learn about the issues that the colleagues in central Europe are grappling with (very similar to the issues we in the National Trust are grappling with, predictably enough).

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Chinese print of a female figure, installed as an overdoor at Kasteel d’Ursel, near Antwerp, between 1761 and 1764. ©Provincie Antwerpen

And I very much enjoyed seeing more examples of Chinese-style interior decoration on the Continent.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure hung at Schloss Wörlitz, Anhalt-Dessau, in about 1772. ©Bildarchiv Foto Marburg

I presented a paper about the rapid spread of certain types of Chinese prints and wallpapers, which popped up in palaces and country houses across Europe in the mid eighteenth century.

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Chinese prints combined as a collage, probably hung by 1751 at the Badenburg pavilion, Nymphenburg Palace, Munich.

Occasionally the same or very similar Chinese prints have survived in different European countries. At the Schönbrunn  conference we heard about Chinese prints and wallpapers at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, the Wilanów Palace in Warsaw and Schloss Wörlitz in Anhalt-Dessau, some of which are clearly connected to examples in Britain.

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Locations of some of the early Chinese print and wallpaper schemes, installed c. 1725-1775.

In addition, scholars like Christer von der Burg and Anita Xiaoming Wang are also investigating aspects of these prints, as is evident from their respective blogs. There is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that the research is as international as the subject.


The lost world of Fu Bingchang

July 13, 2012

Min Chin with a camera, Northern Hot Springs, February 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.

Fu Bingchang and Sun Ke, 1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.

Woman sitting in a cane chair, 1910s-1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.

Fu Bingchang with two women, 1930s – early 1940s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.

Fu Bingchang and Wang Chonghui standing in front of a motor car on a country road, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.

Jiang Fangling with round window, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.

Fu Bingchang in the dormitory of the Legislative Yuan, Sichuan, 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.

A slideshow of images from Visualising China with audio commentary is available on the BBC website, and a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the project can be accessed through the BBC iPlayer.

Chinese visitors

June 22, 2012

Portrait thought to be of Tan Che Qua, by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1770-1. ©The Royal College of Surgeons of England, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

I have just heard that another large group of paintings from the National Trust’s collections in the West Midlands, the North West and Northern Ireland have been added to the nationwide Your Paintings database. They include works by old masters such as Canaletto, Van Dyck, Chardin and Hogarth, as well as modern artists including Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson. More paintings from other National Trust properties will be added by the end of 2012.

Your Paintings is a remarkable database that aims to provide access (eventually) to almost all publicly owned paintings in the UK. On doing a search for ‘Chinese’ I found the above portrait of Tan Che Qua by John Hamilton Mortimer, which is in the Hunterian Museum, London. Simon Chaplin originally alerted us to this picture in a comment on my first post about the contemporary portrait of Huang Ya Dong at Knole, but it is great to now have a decent image of it readily available.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Tan Che Qua arrived in London in 1769 and established himself as a portrait modeller in clay, charging ten guineas for a bust and fifteen for a whole-length statuette. He exhibited work at the Royal Academy in 1770 and he is included in Johann Zoffany’s 1771-2 group portrait of Royal Academicians (third from the left at the back). Tan is thought to have returned to China in 1772, and his accounts of England and the English inspired Huang Ya Dong to make the same journey in 1774.

Another portrayal of a Chinese person in an English eighteenth-century painting that I found on Your Paintings is the group portrait by John Hoppner of Lady Staunton with her son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese servant, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on loan from HSBC.

Portrait of Lady Staunton and her son George Thomas Staunton with a Chinese servant, by John Hoppner, 1794, ©School of Oriental and African Studies, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

As a young boy George Thomas Staunton accompanied his father on Earl Macartney’s diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1792-4. He learned Chinese on the way there and impressed the Qianlong Emperor with his grasp of the language (he can be seen in a sketch by William Alexander of Lord Macartney’s presentation to the Emperor). In view of the date of the picture (1794) it seems to have been painted shortly after the return of father and son Staunton to Britain, possibly bringing the Chinese servant with them.

Later in life Staunton had a career in the East India Company based at Guangzhou, and he was a member of another diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1816. He assembled a library of 3,000 Chinese books and a collection of Chinese works of art and artefacts. He stocked the garden of his country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, with Chinese plants interspersed with chinoiserie pavilions. Staunton may have known James Bateman, the owner of Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire (both were members of the Royal Society at about the same time), and the example of Leigh Park may have influenced the garden at Biddulph, which similarly included Chinese plants and pseudo-Chinese structures and pavilions. Staunton’s own garden has, sadly, disappeared.