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Chinese Whispers Chinoiserie In Britain 1650-1930
by administrator,
Monday, April 9, 2012 - 15:09


THE FASCINATION BETWEEN China and the West has been well documented. This exhibition traces the history of chinoiserie in Britain and its changing style over the centuries. Chinese Whispers is the first major exhibition in Britain for more than 70 years to highlight the impact of chinoiserie on style, fashion, décor and social behaviour. The exhibition, the culmination of many years of research, includes examples of the earliest Chinese and China Trade objects exported to Britain, as well as the best examples of chinoiserie furniture, ceramics, silver, textiles, as well as rarely seen prints and drawings.


Chinoiserie is exotic, stylish, often outlandish and, above all, fun. It piques the imagination. In a chinoiserie interior in 18th- and 19th-century Britain surfaces were adorned with fantastic mountainous landscapes, pagodas, fabulous birds, mandarins, dragons and phoenixes. This exhibition provides a context for Brighton’s magnificent pleasure palace, the Royal Pavilion - the creation of the Prince Regent (from 1810-20) and the future George IV (r. 1820-30). Completed in 1822, its extravagant interiors and imaginative furnishings represent the pre-eminent example of a late flowering of the chinoiserie style.


In the mid-18th century, chinoiserie was seen as a reaction to classicism - and, in the opinion of some critics, a descent into hedonism. The style was particularly suited to light, feminine spaces: wealthy women’s bedrooms, dressing rooms and drawing rooms in stately homes were frequently hung with expensive, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper from Canton and furnished with ‘oriental’ and chinoiserie porcelain. Chippendale suggested that his delicate Chinese, fret-back chairs would be ‘very proper for a lady’s Dressing Room’. Lacquered surfaces complemented the mysterious translucence of porcelain and provided textures that were considered to be particularly appealing to women. As Chinese lacquer was extremely expensive, ‘do-it-yourself’ manuals were published and ‘japanning’ became a popular female accomplishment.

Taking tea (perhaps the major commodity brought back from China) was becoming a fundamental part of polite society and also stimulated the growth of our ceramics industry. Potters endeavoured to discover the secret ingredients for making Chinese porcelain and developed their own forms for teapots, bowls and cups, decorated with imaginative chinoiserie motifs, whilst silversmiths created exquisite pieces such as caddies, pots and epergnes, also decorated in the Chinese style.


Playful ‘Chinese’ structures, such as pavilions (with upswept roofs, bells and dragon finials), as well as seats and bridges, first appeared as features in the fashionable gardens of private and royal estates. Before long, the ‘Chinese style’ reached a wider audience in the supper-boxes and walkways of the London pleasure-gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The outstanding chinoiserie garden building of this period was the dramatic pagoda in Kew Gardens (reopened to the public last year), designed by William Chambers, which became well-known in Europe through the dissemination of engravings.


The 1740s was a particularly vigorous period of trade between China and Britain and resulted in an increase in goods imported. In 1747, 14 ships sailed to Canton from London, a number not equalled until 1764. ‘China mania’ reached its height in the 1750s. Even playwrights such as Ben Jonson and William Wycherley took up the theme, and David Garrick staged A Chinese Festival. By 1790, the vogue for Chinese style and decoration was in decline. A revival of interest was largely due to the flamboyant character and sophisticated taste of George, Prince of Wales. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton is a ‘complete’ oriental fantasy inside and out. It represented a major departure in the history of chinoiserie: whereas previous houses had a ‘Chinese’ room or a ‘Chinese’ pavilion in the grounds, China is the defining theme of the interiors of this unique building. The opulence and drama of the Music Room and Banqueting Room, in particular, evoke an imagined  ‘China’ of imperial extravagance – something quite different from the whimsical chinoiserie of the mid-Georgian period. As the curator of the exhibition, David Beevers, Keeper of Fine Art at the Royal Pavilion, Libraries and Museums, comments in his essay in the accompanying catalogue: ‘Chinoiserie as a term used to describe a European fantasy vision of China and, more broadly, the East, is an expression of relatively recent invention. It first appeared in dictionaries in 1883 when it meant Chinese conduct or, oddly, a ‘notion’ of China. The Oxford English Dictionary (1971 edition) repeats this but includes Chinese art in the definition. Chinoiserie in the sense art historians use it today may have made an early appearance in France in 1911 in J. Guérin’s La Chinoiserie en Europe au XVIIIe Siècle, but it was not commonly used until after 1945. What is certain is that the word was not used in the 17th or 18th centuries. Chinois, however, the French for Chinese, appeared as early as 1625 in Samuel Purchas’s Purchas his Pilgrimes; it then occurs quite frequently to mean ‘the Chinese’.


The term used at this period for European interpretations and imitations of Chinese and East Asian artefacts was ‘Japan work’, ‘India work’, or ‘China work’. In an inventory of 1614 drawn up for the Earl of Northampton there are references both to an imported ‘China guilt (sic) cabinet’ and English articles, for instance a ‘China worke table and frame’ and a ‘field bedstead of China worke’. These clearly refer to European interpretations of Chinese and Japanese lacquer. In 1615, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, asked his wife to buy a quilt for ‘ye bedde of Jappan’. This must have been European and is an early instance of the geographical vagueness associated with everything connected with ‘the Indies’, a term that encompassed much of Asia and the Americas.’


Literary evocations of China naturally stimulated an interest in the products of the country. Small quantities of Chinese artefacts had entered Europe by the Silk Route through central Asia since Antiquity, but it was not until after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to the west coast of India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 that maritime contact between Europe and Asia was established. Henceforth, Chinese products, notably silk and porcelain, found their way to Europe in some quantity. By the early seventeenth century, the Dutch and English East India Companies were supplying the market for luxury goods from Asia. The first four voyages of the English East India Company between 1601 and 1607 were to Bantam in Java where quantities of porcelain were acquired as ‘private trade’ by the ship’s crew.

Because Chinese porcelain was so unlike anything produced in Europe, it was regarded as a rare substance imbued with magical qualities. It could represent both newness and an ancient civilization. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598) mounted his Chinese porcelain in silver as did Lettice, Countess of Leicester, whose possessions in 1634 included a ‘pursland boule’ (porcelain bowl) with ‘guilt foote and guilt cover’. Silver settings adapted exotic objects to European taste whilst also masking cracks and blemishes and drawing attention to the importance and rarity of the object. These early porcelains were often displayed in cabinets of curiosity or ‘Wunderkammern’.


Imported Chinese commodities led to European imitations and interpretations. An early surviving attempt to emulate oriental lacquer is the ballot box, dated 1619, used by the East India Company and now owned by the Saddler’s Company. A consignment of oriental lacquer had arrived in London in 1614. Both Japanese and Chinese lacquer were expensive and thus remained an élite taste. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, incised and polychrome Chinese lacquer was known as ‘Bantam ware’ in England after the Dutch port on the west coast of Java from which much of it was shipped. The English East India Company established their first factory (a combination of a fort and a warehouse) at Bantam in the early 17th century. In the following century this distinctive lacquer was imported via India’s southeast Coromandel coast and thus became known as coromandel ware. In England it was sometimes called ‘cutt-work’, ‘burnt Japan’ or ‘India work’ and was used to panel rooms or was cut up to form cabinets. Imitation and genuine lacquer was known as ‘japan’ because of the confusion of countries of the East and because much lacquer did come from Japan via the Dutch East India Company.


A century later in the 1920s and 30s, there was a resurgence of interest in chinoiserie decoration that filtered through society: from bespoke ‘Chinese’ rooms for the wealthy, to cinemas for the masses. Modernist designers embraced Chinese styles, creating interiors dominated by dramatic black and scarlet lacquers, mirrors, lavish use of gold and large Chinese patterns. Fashionable ladies wore wide-sleeved Chinese coats and boasted Chinese hairstyles.


The exhibition runs from 3 May to 2 November at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton.  Catalogue available, edited by David Beeves, ISBN: 978-0948723-71-1 , £20.


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