Spotlight: Chinoiserie


Along with blue and white porcelain, many people will associate black and gold Chinoiserie with the East. Wonderfully ornate, this timeless technique can completely transform an unremarkable item of furniture or home accessory into a beautiful statement piece. But where did it originate? Vivian Tong, Junior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Sotheby’s London, tells us the story behind Chinoiserie.

So, what exactly is Chinoiserie and how did it come about?
Chinoiserie is a term derived from the French word ‘chinois’, meaning ‘in the Chinese taste’. During the 17th and 18th centuries, trade links with Asia were flourishing which led to large amounts of artifacts from China, Japan and other Asian countries flooding into the European market. These, together with sketchbooks drawn by Western travellers in the East, cultivated a fascination for the East across Europe.

Chinoiserie is a style where European craftsmen adopted these Asian designs and created their own whimsical versions and idyllic imageries of the East. Starting around the late 17th century, this style reached its apex in the mid-18th century, emerging as the vogue of its time. It covered a wide range of artistic disciplines including ceramics, furniture, textiles, painting and drawings, interior designs and architecture.

Describe to us what your typical working day is like.
We have two Chinese auctions in London per year, and our work schedule is very much centred on preparing for these two days. I meet clients on a daily basis, providing valuations and appraisals to objects which may be of interest for sale. My work also involves writing bilingual descriptions and condition reports for objects in the sale; coordinating photography and catalogue production; and dealing with any related pre- and post-sale matters.

Do you have a collection? How do you decide what pieces to buy and where do they come from?
Beautiful trinkets and interesting objects of curiosity fascinate me, but I have yet had a chance to build up a collection of my own. I take pleasure in strolling along local markets occasionally on a weekend and wandering in vintage shops. I believe in buying art for love as opposed to buying for investment. Although there are trends in the market which you can foresee, there is always an element of unpredictability. It is the love for the art which remains invariable and I think many of the best collections were formed with this passion as their foundation.

What top three attributes do you look for when buying a piece of Chinoiserie?

With a generous volume of Chinoiserie items available in the market, I believe good quality of craftsmanship, rarity and aestheticism would set better pieces apart from the rest.

When and how did Chinoiserie first become popular in the UK?
Trade links between The East India Company and Asia brought to Britain fanciful and ornate works of art from the Far East, which were not always financially affordable. This triggered British craftsmen to explore the whimsical, often somewhat misunderstood, Chinese imageries in British home-grown art and design. The nativity of these Chinoiserie designs on British art was further abetted by pattern books and artist manuals published in the 17th century, and Britain officially ventured into the craze for ‘Chinese-esque’ art which swept across Europe.

Where in the world is the best collection of Chinoiserie?
You can find good Chinoiserie pieces in many country houses around the UK, such as the Chinese Rooms at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire and Ham House, Surrey. Much of the Chinoiserie collection from George IV’s now demolished London residence, Carlton House, is now housed at Buckingham Palace and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Worldwide museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Louvre and Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris also boast a range of exceptional Chinoiserie artworks.

OKA sells black and gold Chinoiserie. What special techniques are used to create a piece by hand?
As early as the late 16th century, inlaid and gilt Japanese and Chinese lacquer caught the Western eye. Asian lacquer was made from a resin obtained from Rhus vernicifera, which was applied to a core material (e.g. wood, metal) in multiple successive layers. It was a lengthy process requiring great skill as each layer had to dry thoroughly between applications to ensure a smooth and crack-free surface. Importing these masterpieces of exquisite craftsmanship was costly, so the Europeans sought ways to imitate Asian lacquer with their own materials over the next two centuries. This is known as ‘japanning’, which employed varnish or shellac.

According to historic manuals, the varnish was prepared by dissolving a gum lacquer in alcohol (oil was used as a substrate later in the 18th century), which was to be applied on the core in several different coats to create a smooth surface reminiscent of Asian lacquer. The surfaces were often subsequently decorated with Chinoiserie scenes with gold paint or metal leaves and powders, therefore giving the name ‘black and gold’. This decorative effect is most suitable for the embellishment of small objects, as exemplified by a range of objects offered at OKA.

What is the cultural relevance of the symbols used?
Chinoiserie is a style pioneered by the European artist’s fantasised versions of the East. While in Chinese art the decoration would often depict scenes from famous writings or illustrate auspicious wishes, these depictions were often treated by European artisans as a caricature, and its original meaning was displaced. Fantastical details of ornate pavilions and pagodas, elaborately dressed figures characterized by long pigtails under coolie hats, exotic creatures such as hoho birds (derived from ‘hō-ō’ in Japanese, meaning phoenix) transformed symbols of cultural significance to playful elements on a light-hearted decorative surface. Nevertheless, at least in one instance, the expatriated Chinese link would, somehow, find its way back into the story. The famous Willow pattern which drew inspiration from Chinese landscapes is an example of this. As the design gained popularity, an ‘ancient Chinese’ tale of two lovers doomed in their romantic encounter was created as a marketing tool for this quintessentially British design.

As you mentioned, the Willow pattern is a very famous design – are there any other famous patterns?
‘Indian Tree’ is a pattern based on chintz and Asian flowers; it can be found on porcelain, embroidered hangings and textiles. Other known designs include the Jabberwocky pattern modelled on Japanese Kakiemon wares, imitations of Imari patterns, and the Chinoiserie grotesque.

What is the oldest piece of Chinoiserie we know of and what’s the most expensive piece sold to date?
It is difficult to pinpoint the oldest or the most expensive piece of Chinoiserie ever known, as Chinoiserie is a style which is found across a wide variety of media. Sotheby’s London recently offered an interesting William and Mary cream and polychrome japanned and paperwork mirror, which was eventually sold for £80,500. The mirror was dated circa 1690, an early example of English Chinoiserie. It is unusual as a cream-white ground was used for japanning. The execution of the mirror demanded great skill of the craftsman; as the application of the ground colour was particularly difficult, and there were fewer margins for error when working on a light ground. Apart from white japanning, the mirror was also decorated with paper-curl decoration, a technique which gave depth to the design.

Where can we see Chinoiserie across other mediums?
Chinoiserie is a far-reaching decorative style found across a range of media including textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, furniture and architecture. The Soho Chinoiserie tapestries (possibly designed by Robert Robinson) were made in England in the late 17th century, and the designs were individually reminiscent of japanning, loosely taken from engravings. Elements of Chinoiserie were evident in painted works by Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Baptiste Pillement. William and John Linnell’s pagoda-roofed bed, which once adorned the Chinese bedroom at Badminton House, is now in the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Several examples of famous architecture decorated in this style include William Chamber’s creation of the Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens, Luke Lightfoot’s Chinese Room in Claydon House, and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton commissioned by George IV.

Vivian Tong is a Junior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Sotheby’s London.

Topics: provenance

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