Archive for the ‘Chinoiserie’ Category

The Chinese bridge at Croome rebuilt

August 11, 2015
The new Chinese bridge at Croome. ©National Trust

The new Chinese bridge at Croome. ©National Trust

On 28 July a long-lost feature of the garden at Croome Court, the Chinese bridge, was reopened to the public.

The Chinese bridge was originally commissioned  by George Coventry, the 6th Earl of Coventry, from the designer William Halfpenny in the 1740s. It is clearly shown in a 1758 painting by Richard Wilson, but had rotted away about a hundred years later.

Design for a Chinese bridge in William Halfpenny's pattern book 'Developments in Architecture and Carpentry', 1749.

Illustration of the Croome Chinese bridge in William Halfpenny’s book ‘Improvements in Architecture and Carpentry’, 1754.

Halfpenny illustrated the bridge in his book Improvements in Architecture and Carpentry of 1754, stating that it was ‘executed for the Right Honourable the Earl of Coventry at his Seat at Croom [sic] in Worcestershire.’ Pattern books like Improvements helped to spread the taste for Chinese-style designs in the eighteenth century.

Elevation of the new Chinese bridge. ©Green Oak Carpentry Company

Elevation of the new Chinese bridge. ©Green Oak Carpentry Company

For the new bridge, constructed by the Green Oak Carpentry Company, Halfpenny’s design and Wilson’s painting have been used as models. Although Chinese-style bridges were popular in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century (I showed some other examples here), this particular design by Halfpenny only seems to have been used at Croome.

Axonometric drawing of the new Chinese bridge. ©Green Oak Carpentry Company

Axonometric drawing of the new Chinese bridge. ©Green Oak Carpentry Company

The original footings of the bridge were identified through archaeological excavations. Dams were inserted into the river and the water pumped out to create a relatively dry working area for contractors WM Planthire. The aquatic wildlife, including mussels, perch, tench, rudd and eels, was caught and moved to other parts of the river, to the great interest of visitors who could watch the work progressing.

The completed new Chinese bridge. ©National Trust/James Dobson

The completed new Chinese bridge. ©National Trust/James Dobson

The final section of the bridge was lifted into place with large cranes. The bridge will be left unpainted for a year to allow the traditional joints to tighten, but it will ultimately be painted in the off-white colour seen in the Wilson painting.

Martin Drury opening the new Chinese bridge. ©National Trust/Tracey Blackwelll

Martin Drury opening the new Chinese bridge. ©National Trust/Tracey Blackwelll

The bridge was officially opened by Martin Drury, a trustee of the Monument 1985 Fund (set up by the late Simon Sainsbury) which provided a grant towards the cost of the reconstruction, together with Lord Flyte of Worcester who helped to raise the remaining funds. The bridge can now be seen and walked over whenever the park at Croome is open.

Cotton and paper crossovers

August 6, 2015
Indian chintz coverlet decorated with a Chinese-style garden scene, c. 1750 - c. 1775, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. BK-1980-805

Indian chintz coverlet decorated with a Chinese-style garden scene, c. 1750 – c. 1775, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. BK-1980-805

While I was on holiday in The Netherlands over the last two weeks I spotted this image of an Indian chintz coverlet in the 2015 illustrated diary published by the Rijksmuseum (I am obviously a true modern consumer, accessing culture through merchandise). The coverlet has been approximately dated to the third quarter of the eighteenth century and has a provenance from the Twickel estate in Overijssel.

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House, probably hung in about 1840. ©National Trust Images/Martin Trelawny

Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House, Lincolnshire, probably hung in about 1840. ©National Trust Images/Martin Trelawny

The pattern of bamboo entwined with flowers reminded me of certain Chinese wallpapers, such as this one at Belton House. Bamboo entwined with flowers is found on wallpapers that are generally thought to be slightly later in date, from the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century. Does that mean that Indian chintz influenced Chinese wallpaper, as has been suggested in the catalogue of the recent Interwoven Globe exhibition?

Detail of a pheasant on  an ornamental rock in the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, kent. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

Detail of a pheasant on an ornamental rock in the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

But the perforated rocks depicted in the chintz coverlet are characteristic Chinese garden ornaments, as can be seen in Chinese wallpapers with garden scenery, such as those at Ightham Mote and Felbrigg Hall. So that suggests that Indian chintz was influenced by Chinese wallpaper, or by some other kind of Chinese image.

Chinese painted silk coverlet, 1760-1800, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no. T.3-1948. © V&A Images

Chinese painted silk coverlet, 1760-1800, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no. T.3-1948. © V&A Images

And then there is the Chinese painted silk coverlet in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dated to 1760-1800 (shown here earlier). This uses the imagery of Chinese wallpapers but has the same function as the Rijksmuseum chintz, i.e. to cover a bed.

So this game of chicken and egg is still very much inconclusive – with several eggs and several chickens – but what is clear is that there was some kind of mutual influence.

The Chinese taste in British gardens

June 16, 2015
A 'peacock pheasant' perched on a camellia, plate 67 in George Edward's Natural History of Uncommon Birds, 1745.

A peacock pheasant perched on a camellia, plate 67 in George Edwards’s Natural History of Uncommon Birds, 1745.

This Friday (19 June) I will be speaking at the New Approaches in Chinese Garden History conference, organised by the Centre for East West Studies at the University of Sheffield.

The conference is in honour of Dr Alison Hardie, who has been central to burgeoning field of scholarship on Chinese gardens. I am looking forward to learning more about historical Chinese gardens from an international group of speakers including Lucie Olivová, Georges Métailié, Lei Gao, Bianca Rinaldi and Peter Blundell Jones.

Detail of pheasants in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, hung in 1752. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Detail of pheasants in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, hung in 1752. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

In preparing my own paper, which will be about the changing significance of the Chinese taste in British gardens, I came across the wonderful plate shown at the top of this post, of a peacock pheasant on a camellia, from George Edwards’s 1745 book A Natural History of Uncommon Birds.

Detail of a bird in the Chinese wallpaper at Erddig, hung in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Bushsh

Detail of a bird in the Chinese wallpaper at Erddig, hung in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Bush

Although Edwards claimed to have drawn the camellia from a real plant – and camellias were indeed beginning to be grown in Britain at that time – the picture is strongly reminiscent of a Chinese bird-and-flower painting.

Detail of a cockerel in an English printed cotton, about 1780. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

Detail of a cockerel in an English printed cotton, about 1780. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

In the decades following the publication of that book by Edwards you can see the Chinese bird-and-flower imagery ricocheting back and forth between east and west: in the Chinese wallpapers that were starting to be produced in Guangzhou for export to the west, and in the European imitations of that wallpaper, for instance in the form of printed cottons.

Did the European interest in Chinese plants stimulate the development of Chinese wallpaper? Or was it the other way around? We may never find the exact answer to that question, but it is nevertheless useful to discover these correlations between gardens and interiors.

William Chambers, Chinese design guru

January 22, 2015
Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers's book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library

Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library

This evening I will be giving a talk on the Chinese designs of the architect William Chambers, as part of the seminar series on the history of gardens and designed landscapes organised by the Institute of Historical Reseach.

Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

I cannot give a full preview of the talk here, but essentially it will be about the pervasive influence of Chambers’s 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings on the appearance of chinoiserie garden pavilions across Europe.

Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Chambers claimed to have written the book to correct European misconceptions about Chinese architecture which were being perpetuated by the authors of fanciful and frivolous ‘Chinese’ pattern books.

Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Ironically, the popularity of Chambers’s ‘correct’ book meant that his designs were quickly adapted by others and used to design yet more cheerfully fantastical pavilions, especially as part of the so-called jardins anglo-chinois which were popular in France in the 1770s and 1780s.

Plate 14 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 14 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

But in some ways Chambers had the last laugh, as his version of Chinese architecture became the ‘correct’ chinoiserie style for about the next hundred years.

A closer look at the Uppark Chinese wallpaper

January 8, 2015
Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Recently we have been able to have a closer look at the Chinese wallpaper fragments from Uppark, which have been in storage. They were revealed under later wallpaper in the Little Parlour at Uppark following a fire in 1989 and are proving to be very important.

The Little Parlour at Uppark, where the Chinese wallpaper hung between about 1750 and 1770. The chinoiserie cabinet dates from the same period. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Little Parlour at Uppark, where the Chinese wallpaper hung between about 1750 and 1770. The chinoiserie cabinet dates from the same period. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

We knew that the Chinese wallpaper at Uppark was early, of the block-printed type that appeared in about 1750. It is clearly similar in style to other surviving block-printed Chinese wallpapers from that time, such as those at Felbrigg Hall, Ightham Mote, and Woburn Abbey.

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. The motif of the two pheasants on a rock is also found in the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. The motif of the two pheasants on a rock is also found in the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

But now we have been able to confirm that parts of this wallpaper are in fact identical to some of the wallpaper drops at Ightham Mote. The related section of the Ightham wallpaper can be seen in this previous post.

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138491. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138491. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

The colours of the Uppark wallpaper are remarkably fresh. Although it obviously suffered from the effects of the fire, it had only been exposed to light for about twenty years, having been covered over with another wallpaper in about 1770. So the surviving fragments make for an interesting comparison with the Ightham paper, in which the colours have changed due to over-painting with oil paint in about 1900.

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. The rock at left has been cut out from another section and applied to extend the length of the paper. The lady at right is probably also an addition. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138490. The rock at left has been cut out from another section and applied to extend the length of the paper. The lady at right is probably also an addition. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

The fragments also provide evidence of the artful cutting and pasting regularly deployed by the paper hangers to make the scenic Chinese wallpaper fit particular rooms. In one section rocks, flowers and a bird have been added to extend the paper at the bottom. The lady appearing nearby seems to have been added as well, probably taken from a different Chinese print or wallpaper.

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, with a Chinese border paper representing mottled bamboo fretwork. On the left a different cut paper border can be seen underneath the bamboo border. Inv. no. 138497. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, with a Chinese border paper representing mottled bamboo fretwork. On the left a different cut paper border can be seen underneath the bamboo border. Inv. no. 138497. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Some of the fragments have the remains of border papers, which were commonly used to frame sections of wallpaper. One of them appears to be Chinese, a trompe l’oeil representation of mottled bamboo fretwork.

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138494. The fragment includes a section of a European cut paper border in a chinoiserie fretwork pattern. Towards the right there is evidence of the paper hanger cutting the wallpaper in a serpentine line to disguise the overlap with a different section of wallpaper. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

Part of a fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the Little Parlour at Uppark, inv. no. 138494. The fragment includes a section of a European cut paper border in a chinoiserie fretwork pattern. Towards the right there is evidence of the paper hanger cutting the wallpaper in a serpentine line to disguise the overlap with a different section of wallpaper. ©National Trust/Sarah Foster

The other appears to be European, cut in a chinoiserie fretwork pattern reminiscent of the decorations on mid-eighteenth century furniture. In one area the cut paper can be seen emerging from underneath a damaged section of the ‘bamboo’ paper – perhaps evidence of a change of mind.

 

Phoenix hunt

November 7, 2014
Phoenix (fenghuang)  in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The omens must be favourable for my colleague Andrew Bush, our paper conservation adviser, because he has recently reported a number of sightings of the elusive and auspicious Chinese phoenix, or fenghuang.

Andrew found one in the Chinese wallpaper at Nostell Priory, which was hung by Thomas Chippendale in 1771.

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Erddig. The bird was cut out and moved (to allow for a chimneypiece), which accounts for its slightly awkward position on the peony branches.©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Erddig. The bird was cut out and moved (to allow for a chimneypiece), which accounts for its slightly awkward position on the peony branches.©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Then he recognised the same bird in the Chinese wallpaper at Erddig, which is thought to have been hung during the 1770s.

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Cobham Hall. ©Mark Sandiford

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Cobham Hall. ©Mark Sandiford

And lo and behold there it was again in the Chinese wallpaper at Cobham Hall, where Bromwich, Isherwood and Bradley supplied Chinese wallpaper in 1773.

These phoenixes are more than just vaguely similar: they share the same stance, shape and disposition of feathers, suggesting they are all based on the same master design.

British printed cotton with a chinoiserie design, c. 1775-80, possibly used as a curtain, at Winterthur. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

British printed cotton with a chinoiserie design, c. 1775-80, possibly used as a curtain, at Winterthur. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

But to top all that Andrew has now spotted the same phoenix in a different medium, produced on the other side of the world: it also appears on a British printed cotton, dated to the late 1770s. This textile is now in the Winterthur collection, and is illustrated in the splendid new book Printed Textiles by Linda Eaton. In spite of the more western appearance of the design, the bird is clearly related to the fenghuang in the Chinese wallpapers at Nostell, Erddig and Cobham Hall.

It is tempting to speculate about the exact relationship between these Chinese painted wallpapers and that British printed cotton design. As yet we only have this limited visual evidence, but it is clear that there was some kind of cross-cultural, cross-medium exchange going on.

The familiar hidden in the exotic

October 29, 2014
Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram, mid eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I have been reading the late James Cahill’s book Pictures for Use and Pleasure (on the recommendation of Christer von der Burg), which deals with the so-called professional painting tradition in eighteenth-century China. Traditionally the almost monochrome, semi-abstract paintings produced by scholar amateurs have ranked most highly in the canon of Chinese art. But Cahill makes the case that the colourful, realistic and detailed pictures produced by professional painters are also worthy of note.

Chinese picture showing an aspect of silk production, mounted on the wall in the Chinese Room at Erddig in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Chinese picture showing an aspect of silk production, mounted on the wall in the Chinese Room at Erddig in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

These professional or ‘academic’ paintings were intended for specific occasions or seasons, or to decorate specific rooms. As such they are among the ancestors of the Chinese wallpaper with colourful and detailed decoration produced specifically for export to the west (and it was because Christer knows of my interest in Chinese wallpapers that he kindly alerted me to this book).

Chinese coloured print showing a female figure in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bushted crop

Chinese coloured print showing a female figure in the Study at Saltram. ©National Trust/Andrew Bushted crop

Cahill makes the point that many Chinese professional paintings employ techniques and devices originally derived from western painting. During the late Ming and early Qing periods (roughly equivalent to the seventeenth century) some western illusionistic techniques like linear perspective, chiaroscuro and the depiction of interconnected spaces were introduced to China by Jesuit painters working at the imperial court and through the circulation of western prints.

Chinese painting on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese painting on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion, probably mid eighteenth century, at Shugborough Hall. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

These techniques also appear, by now completely internalised, in Chinese wallpaper or pictures used as wallpaper, especially in the depiction of volumetric shading in costumes and perspective and spatial recession in architecture. Taking that one step further, I wonder if this might have been one of the factors that made Chinese pictures and wallpaper so attractive to Europeans: it was excitingly exotic, and yet it included elements that would, on an unconscious level, have been comfortingly familiar to the western eye.

 

Palladian or Chinese?

September 2, 2014

View of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead, with the temple of Apollo beyond, by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838), 1780-1800. ©V&A Images

View of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead, with the temple of Apollo beyond, by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838), 1780-1800. ©V&A Images

In response to the previous post about the garden at Stourhead, Andrew helpfully pointed us towards some images of the so-called Chinese bridge there, which was built around 1749 but was taken down again at the end of the eighteenth century. I thought I would feature some of the contemporary views of this piece of short-lived eighteenth-century chinoiserie.

Temporary recreation of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead set up by the structural engineering firm Mann Williams in 2005. ©Mann Williams

Temporary recreation of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead set up by the structural engineering firm Mann Williams in 2005. ©Mann Williams

Single-arch timber bridges were often called ‘Chinese’ in the eighteenth century, probably because they were reminiscent of the bridges shown on Chinese porcelain, lacquer, silk and wallpaper.

View of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead by Copleston Warre Bampfylde (1720-1791), 1770s. ©V&A Images

View of the Chinese bridge at Stourhead by Copleston Warre Bampfylde (1720-1791), 1770s. ©V&A Images

Strictly speaking, however, the use of this type of bridge in Europe goes back to a design in Palladio’s Third Book of Architecture (as noted, for instance by Professor Timothy Mowl in his 1993 book Palladian Bridges).

View of the garden at Stourhead from the Chinese umbrella, by Fredrik Magnus Piper (1746-1824), 1779. ©Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, with thanks to John Harrison's Pinterest boards.

View of the garden at Stourhead from the Chinese umbrella, by Fredrik Magnus Piper (1746-1824), 1779. ©Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm, with thanks to John Harrison’s Pinterest boards.

Palladian structures sat happily next to Chinese and Gothic ones in mid-eighteenth-century British gardens and there was a considerable degree of stylistic cross-fertilisation. Some ‘Palladian’ arched bridges acquired ‘Chinese’ fretwork balustrades, whereas others kept their ‘Palladian’ x-shaped cross-braces, but were still dubbed ‘Chinese’.

Sino-Palladian bridge in the park at Wörlitz, Saxen-Anhalt, originally built 1772. With thanks to John Harrison's Pinterest boards.

Sino-Palladian bridge in the park at Wörlitz, Saxen-Anhalt, originally built 1772. With thanks to John Harrison’s Pinterest boards.

The popularity of the English landscape garden ensured that these Sino-Palladian bridges were also exported to other parts of Europe – a nice example of the circulation and reinterpretation of a design motif.

 

 

Lady Bearsted’s Chinese taste

August 21, 2014

Lady Bearsted's bedroom at Upton House. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Lady Bearsted’s bedroom at Upton House. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The other day I had a conversation with Katy Lithgow, the National Trust’s head conservator, about the revival of the taste for Chinese decoration in European and American interiors in the 1920s and 1930s.

Japanned gramophone player in Lady Bearsted's bedroom, inv. no. 446524. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Japanned gramophone player in Lady Bearsted’s bedroom, inv. no. 446524. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

I mentioned the flamboyant interiors of Rose Cumming, the American decorator who combined Chinese wallpaper, lacquer and ceramics with up-to-the-minute shiny fabrics and jewel-like colours.

Chinese Tang dynasty terracotta horse in Lady Bearsted's bedroom, inv. no. 446360©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Chinese Tang dynasty terracotta horse in Lady Bearsted’s bedroom, inv. no. 446360©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Katy told me that some of the rooms at Upton House were furnished in a similar style, in particular the bedroom and bathroom of Dorothy, Viscountess Bearsted (1882-1949).

'Chinese Chippendale' armchair at Upton, inv. no. 446427.2. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

‘Chinese Chippendale’ armchair at Upton, inv. no. 446427.2. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

These rooms, along with the rest of the house, were remodeled for Lord and Lady Bearsted by the architect Percy Morley Horder (1870-1944) in the late 1920s.

Queen Anne period japanned cabinet at Upton, inv. no. 446499. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Queen Anne period japanned cabinet at Upton, inv. no. 446499. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Lady Bearsted’s bedroom had a neo-Georgian chinoiserie theme, with a number of pieces of lacquer, japanned and faux bamboo furniture set against wall paneling painted a kind of celadon colour.

Lady Bearsted's bathroom at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Lady Bearsted’s bathroom at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Her bathroom was even more dramatic, with aluminium-leaf walls, lacquer red pillars and – originally – a Chinese-style art deco pendant light fitting.

Chinese Dehua porcelain figure of Guanyin used as a lamp stand in Lady Bearsted's bedroom, inv. no. 446359.2. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

Chinese Dehua porcelain figure of Guanyin used as a lamp stand in Lady Bearsted’s bedroom, inv. no. 446359.2. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

All this chimes with what Rose Cumming and other interior designers were doing in America at that time and shows what an international phenomenon the interbellum chinoiserie revival was.

Seventeenth-century photo-shoots

August 12, 2014
The dolls house of Petronella Oortman, c.1686-c.1710, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-NM-1010. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

The dolls house of Petronella Oortman, c.1686-c.1710, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-NM-1010. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Last week I visited the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, which I hadn’t seen yet since its reopening in 2013. I was impressed: by the new entrance courtyards, the layout, the helpful staff, the paint colours, the restored murals, the display cases and the text labels. And last but not least by the objects, which sing out in their greatly improved environment.

'Tapestry room' in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman. The 'flamestitch' textiles seen here have not survived as wall hangings in real houses. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

‘Tapestry room’ in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman. The ‘flamestitch’ textiles seen here have not survived as wall hangings in real houses. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

One of the things I had a good look at was the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, which was created between about 1686 and 1710. Like the big dolls houses at Nostell Priory and Uppark it provides a wonderful insight into the taste of its period. Objects or practices which have been lost in actual historic houses can still be encountered here. It is almost like a seventeenth-century photo-shoot.

Kitchen in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, showing the painted silk screens set into the windows above the dresser. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Kitchen in the dolls house of Petronella Oortman, showing the painted silk screens set into the windows above the dresser. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Textiles, in particular, have often been lost from historic interiors through wear and tear and light damage, but in these dolls houses you can still see what kind of squab cushions they had and what the bed curtains looked like.

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.4. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.4. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

I was intrigued by the miniature representations of the pieces of silk stretched on wooden frameworks, called sassinetten, which were set into window embrasures of Dutch houses at that time. Presumably they were meant to increase privacy while still letting in the light. No full-size examples seem to have survived, as they would have deteriorated fairly quickly in the sunlight. But the painted decoration seen on some of the miniature screens in the Oortman dolls house is clearly in the Chinese style (and is similar to the scenes in the Chinese pictures at Shugborough Hall, for example). So did they use imported Chinese pictures on silk for these screens, I wonder?

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.5. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

Chinese picture on paper depicting a scene in a palace or mansion garden, in a European rococo frame, at Shugborough Hall, inv. no. 1271100.5. ©National Trust/Sophia Farley

And if the painted silk on some or all of these window screens was indeed Chinese, should they then be counted among the precursors of Chinese wallpaper? We tend to think that the development of panoramic Chinese wallpaper for the European market was preceded by the use of separate Chinese prints and pictures as wall decoration in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. These sassinetten may have been one expression of that taste.


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