Chinoiserie

By Dayna Woolbright

Recently I paid a visit to the Victoria and Albert museum (V&A) in London and was in awe of all the fantastic array objects it holds, I have visited a number of times before, but like so many of the large national museums there is always something different to see and never enough time to see it all! I wandered around the medieval and renaissance gallery, (staring at Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook for a ridiculously long time) before gazing longingly at the fantastic display of Dior clothing. Finally I ended up in a beautiful room displaying objects decorated in the Chinoiserie style and was particularly struck by the Badminton Bed designed by brothers, John and William Linnell, its form reminiscent of Chinese pagodas and decorated with dragons. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O11330/the-badminton-bed-bed-linnell-john/.
The contents of this gallery were so striking and ornate that it definitely made a lasting impression and for this reason I was particularly interested in an item which we removed from the depths of crate 5, a wooden screen decorated in the Chinoiserie style.

Chinoiserie screen unfolded.

Chinoiserie screen unfolded.

The name Chinoiserie originated from the French ‘Chinois’ meaning Chinese. It can be defined as decoration influenced by Chinese design that can be used to decorate many different types of object.

Part of a spinning wheel in the Superstore decorated with Chinese figures.

Part of a spinning wheel in the Superstore decorated with Chinese figures.

The European fascination for the Oriental culture can be traced back to the 13th century, however in England between 1630 and 1920 the fashion for Orientalism noticeably peaked four times. During each period there were clear artistic and stylistic differences. According to John Bly’s book Antiques Masterclass, the first three of the four stylistic peaks are known as Chinoiserie and the last as Japonaiserie.

The first wave of interest in the Far East was a result of trade. During the 17th century trade links between China and the western world began to flourish thanks to the East Indian Trading Company and the increasing imports of luxury goods. Chinese blue and white porcelain was avidly sort after by wealthy English collectors and highly influential to artists and designers across Europe, the now equally as famous blue and white Delft ceramics were inspired by Chinese porcelain. I can only imagine the reaction of people in 17th century Britain when seeing the array of items brought back from Asia and hearing the tales of merchant seaman of exotic faraway lands, dragons and geisha.

Between 1750 and 1765 Chinoiserie was at its height of popularity. While some English artists still drew inspiration from their English surroundings such as Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) renowned portrait and landscape painter, others embraced the Chinese style. However, for many artists imported examples of Chinese textiles, ceramics and paintings were the only contact they had with Oriental life, for this reason motifs and designs were heavily copied. As an artist working in Britain during this time the oriental designs must have been inspirational and the public too seemed to have an interest in owning a Chinoiserie item. A trend emerged for decorating typically English interiors and furniture with designs in the Chinese style. The furniture maker Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was no exception. He created what is now called Chinese Chippendale, an example of Chinese Chippendale style can be seen locally at the Elizabethan House museum in Great Yarmouth. The 18th century hound gate placed at the base of the main stairs was designed to keep dogs from accessing the first floor. The lattice work decoration is typical of Chinese Chippendale furniture at this time. Chippendale continued to produce furniture with oriental influences and later amalgamated elements of Chinese, French and English design. The Rococo style popular between 1730-1760 had close links with Chinioserie, both drawing inspiration from the natural world and organic form. The two styles were often used together to decorate rooms or combined on the same object.

The clock found in the hallway of the Elizabethan House museum also boasts oriental influences; it was made by Thomas Utting between 1730 and 1740. The case is lacquered and decorated with gold Chinoiserie detailing depicting a hunting scene.

The third period of peaked interest in Orientalism began towards the turn of the 18th to 19th century and is exemplified by the original interior of Brighton Pavilion where the Chinese designs covered walls and ceilings amalgamating fantasy and true elements of the Chinese culture. The fashion for owning something decorated in the oriental style continued throughout the Victorian period.

Finally during the 1860s an interest in Japonaserie emerged after Japan re-established trading routes with the West. As with Chinoiserie this sparked a wave of enthusiasm for all things Japanese, lacquer and ivory carvings were highly imported. The interest in the Japanese culture is exemplified by the popularity of the operetta the Mikado, which after opening in London in 1885 ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, the second longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time.

Typical Chinoiserie motifs include:

The Dragon: Representative of power, strength and good luck. Historically in the Chinese culture the dragon is a symbol of the Chinese Emperor who used it to portray imperial power and strength. However to the British designer the dragon was the embodiment of this mystical and far away land. Its image features heavily in Chinoiserie decoration.

Chinoiserie screen, detail, dragon.

Chinoiserie screen, detail, dragon.

Figures: A common feature of Chinoiserie decoration are figures wearing Chinese clothing, some British artists chose to copy figures from genuine imports but in a number cases the people they drew and the style of clothing the wore were products of the designer’s imagination .

Chinoiserie screen, detail, Samurai.

Chinoiserie screen, detail, Samurai.

Chinoiserie screen, detail, figures.

Chinoiserie screen, detail, figures.

Landscapes: The Chinese landscapes depicted on genuine imports must have added to the sense of mystery surrounding this faraway place. The interesting use of perspective in Chinese ceramics must also have been of interest to artists as distance is indicated by a blank space between images. The willow pattern is a commonly reproduced image in landscapes.
Pagodas: So different from English architecture, the pagoda was incorporated into the design of many Chinoiserie objects.
Birds and Flowers: Another reproduced image often copied or imagined in combination with fanciful landscapes. Another decorative screen held in the Superstore is decorated purely with images of exotic birds, flowers and fauna in an oriental style. This was produced in the early 19th century when the Chinoiserie craze was beginning to wane, the stylistic difference between this screen and the black Chinoiserie screen shows how the work made in response to the Chinese culture had evolved.

Screen decorated with exotic birds and flowers.

Screen decorated with exotic birds and flowers.

Detail.

Detail.

The Chinoiserie screen in the Superstore also dates from around the 19th century. It incorporates all these typical design features. The black background is created from a lacquer and the gold painted imagery suggests knowledge of authentic Chinese design as well as some artistic licence.

This is simply a whistle stop tour through some of the elements of Chinoiserie, the fashion for genuine oriental items or objects inspired by them continues and influenced far more than just furniture and interiors. If you are interested in Chinoiserie there are a number of items in the Norfolk museums and archaeology collections that you can see on display or request from the stores. Visit http://www.culturalmodes.norfolk.gov.uk/projects/nmaspub5.asp?page=search0&submitButton=Start+a+new+search to search our collections online.

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