When Lord Marchmain asks for a bed downstairs, he requests ‘the Chinese drawing-room; and Wilcox the “Queen’s Bed” ‘. His final days are spent in a Chinoiserie chimera – to aid his vision of a heavenly kingdom beyond? And so Chinoiserie’s enchanted role in aristocratic lands is immortalised by Evelyn Waugh or Olivier (depending on your cultural medium).
But what was Lord Marchmain’s ‘Chinese drawing room’ really like? Chinese-Chinese? no it was Chinoiserie: a European interpretation of the fabled East creating a fantasy space – why? because Chinoiserie is a game of Chinese Whispers. A whole continent of craftsmen and fashionable patrons inspired by tales of mythical lands and wondrous, sought-after imported products. The stylish reverbrations of this inventiveness still echo today, centuries down the whispering line: CHI-nois-ERIE….
from Haute-Getty style…
to uptown lacquered chic:
a sophisticated adult retreat…
where you won’t want to leave, so go on, stay put for an chinoiserie evening drink, mixed with a dash of the exotic:
relaxed? take a seat for dinner, it’s inviting:
after dinner, ‘All rise, Charge your glass’, because chinoiserie goes all the way…
To royal residence’s and treasure trove boudoirs for all those princesses out there: from Park Avenue to HRH Highgrove and beyond, seeking space to dream:
In fact these days Chinoiserie is timeless – beyond fashion -that was last century when leading decorators liberated the phoenix, pillaged the bamboo and raised a red lantern.
Rose Cumming’s lavish entertaining space in 1930’s Manhattan…. encourages sophisticated conversation and mai-tai cocktails.
Madeleine Castaing’s inventiveness transforms the service corridor in her mid-century Parisian apartment into a chinoiserie-time-tunnel, coolie-hats ON.
Now? it never leaves our field of vision. Chinoiserie’s exoticism and heritage, it’s playful lines and sinuous motifs make a sophisticated statement in any space. The origins of Chinoiserie, its creative legacy and the underlying reality (it’s a European fantasy of exotic lands), are all complex.
So Chinoiserie – fact and spirit.
Chinoiserie ‘factually’: It has an extensive role within European decorative arts, a trickle of Chinese goods initially arrived via the Silk Route to the Roman Empire (along with tall tales of the East). It really took hold of the European imagination when trading posts were established by the Dutch and East India Trading Companies in the 17th Century.
The merchandise was so fantastically different that while they were disinterested in us we were endlessly fascinated by them, an interest fuelled by the limited trade and access allowed.
Europeans created highly fanciful, illustrated accounts of China which couldn’t really be verified. At home European craftsmen got creative developing their own versions of ‘Chinese’ goods. In many cases we lacked an understanding of the raw materials or missed the vital ingredient to produce them. Porcelain, lacquer, ivory and silk were coveted by all who saw them.
‘Blue and White’ porcelain was a 17th C symbol of wealth in Europe, creating a ‘porcelain race’ which produced delft-ware, faience, soft paste porcelain and a wealth of ‘china’ wares highly collectable today, while we searched for the recipe for a translucent porcelain strong enough for both boiling water and dinner service. Meissen achieved this ultimate ‘hard paste’ victory in 1710.
An English example of delftware (tin glazed earthenware) at the V and A (found in Lambeth).
We smuggled out the silk worm in the middle ages and this culminated in the creative legacy of Lyonnaise and Venoese silks.
embroidered satin brocade Lyon 1735
exotic coral transforming floral silk Lyon c.1765
We lacked the raw material, a tree sap: Rhus Vernificera, to produce ‘true’ lacquered pieces however that didn’t stop us: from Georgian ladies ‘home crafts’ to Gobelins factories, serious French ébenistes and English cabinet makers – we lacquered up.
John Linnel’s lacquered dressing table for Badminton House 1754, at the V and A.
detail from a commode delivered to Choisy in 1743 by Mathieu Criaerd very similiar to work delivered for the Dauphine’s cabinet in Versailles 2 years later.
supplied for the Chinese ‘breakfasting closet’, now the ‘birdcage room’ at Grimsthorpe castle c. 1755 with ‘lacquer’, gilding and pagoda cresting.
even when working in the European area of speciality marquetry, we still couldn’t resist a Chinoiserie twist: here pagoda mounts operate as the handle:
Ivory, those poor elephants. Moving on.
Chinese wallpaper: Inspired by the silk hangings popular with the Chinese elite these papers were ‘export only’. They were innovative both in design and style: creating a flowing image around a space rather than a drop pattern repeat they created an Eastern world of Chinese country life or exotic flora and fauna. British manufacturers won the ‘wallpaper’ race, printing designs which were then hand coloured. Traditionally they would be used in bedrooms, drawing rooms and dressing rooms.
An English version of Chinese wallpaper, in this example hand painted in tempura on paper for Berkeley House, c. 1740
chinoiserie wallpaper 1770 English
chinese wall paper from 1753 delivered to a château in Vosges.
The examples above illustrate how readily we assimilated Chinese motifs. Inspired by the the wondrous accounts of Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville and Johan Nieuhof presenting a land of extraordinary wealth, Confucian wisdom and mystical charm.
Niehof’s book published in 1665 with 150 illustrations was an instant best-seller swiftly re-published throughout Europe and widely circulated. It offered documentary style images of Chinese life rather than the highly fanciful and romantic vision offered by Rococo artists in the 18th Century. Above is the influential engraving of the porcelain nine-story pagoda at Nanjing, built with white porcelain bricks that shimmered in the sunlight and were lit at night by one hundred and forty lanterns, topped by a golden pineapple. Destroyed 1856.
Fret-work, pagodas, pig tails, koi fish, dragons, conical hats, parasols, bamboo, exotic birds, deers, camellias, gorgeous girls, star crossed lovers, willow trees are all in the mix. We added added ‘singerie’ (monkeys) and the ho ho bird (the phoenix) to you and me and a symbol of good fortune
Japanese lacquer to the Indian ‘tree of life’ design and Chinese porcelain – Europeans classed them as part of the same thing, a wondrous mythical ‘otherness’: in a society seeking to catalogue and chart the world, geography was in its infancy. Items, motifs and a range of countries inspire the goods we consider ‘Chinoiserie’.
The Goods? From silver ware to furniture, garden design and fairy tale follies, from fashionable fans to fabric design to all out ‘chinoiserie interiors’ we embraced the new found Orient, the East, the Exotic.
We start to see Chinoiserie in the late 17th century:
Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India in 1498 meant that ‘Eastern/Chinese’ goods were part of Baroque’s lexicon: from blue and white porcelain found in royal and aristocratic collections through to luxurious ‘curiosity cabinets’.
An engraving of Daniel Marot’s design for Queen Mary at Hampton Court Palace: the mantlepiece could display quantities of blue and white porcelain and the wall panels feature exotic scenes.
Luxurious coromandel screens and japanned/lacquered ‘cabinets’ on a stand are highly fashionable.
Cabinet on a stand time… again.
The latest fashion: reassuringly exclusive and expensive was drinking the exotic beverage: tea, this activity took place in private closets and dressing rooms which had accompanying chinoiserie pieces to enhance the experience. The culmination of which must be Claydon Hall created in the 1760’s and shown here after John Fowler’s restoration.
Back in Baroque: Louis XIV took it to another level with the ‘Trianon de Porcelaine’ 1670 (inspired by Nieuhoff’sporcelain pagoda) the building’s balustrades were loaded with Chinese vases, the roof compiled of blue and white faience tiles (porous) with blue and white interiors furnished ‘in the chinese manner’. Gone by 1690 (porous)…
Meanwhile In England Burghley, Chatsworth, Drayton and Hampton court all have lacquer rooms by 1700.
Coromandel screens inserted to create panelling…. oh! lost the credit, it must turn up…
Come the new century though, Baroque feels heavy, pompous and out of touch with a new generation.
‘The mythical East’ reaches its decorative peak in Rococo’s absorption of Chinoiserie producing ‘the look’ that we most associate with the style today: A light hearted, frivolous style offering asymmetrical, rule breaking fantasy. China hadn’t discovered perspective, therefore the surreal, flat images on porcelain and panels could be easily treated as a fairytale world, and if European ‘copies’ maintained the necessary light touch, appropriate costume, face and posture – well there was the recognisable ‘Cathay’.
British porcelain c. 1758 with the popular ‘jumping boy’ pattern
However 18th Century Rococo chinoiserie moves beyond applying the Chinese motifs to European forms, they create furniture and objects inspired by Chinese shapes. You can see the evolution from Baroque to Rococo in the two gold pieces below:
The cocoa mug from 1660 has Chinoiserie motifs flat chased onto a traditional shape.
The tea canister by Paul de Lamerie in 1747 is alive with a sculptural force.
The quintessential images of this era come from France. Watteau and Boucher’s elegant illustrations fuse Chinese motifs with French style and beauty. Watteau’s Chinoiserie decorations c. 1710 of the Cabinet du Roi in Chateau de Muette were destroyed in 1741, however the painted interiors were largely copied into engravings, primarily by Boucher and hugely inspirational. Boucher went onto a design a series of Chinoiserie tapestry designs of Gobelins which defined the Chinoiserie style of the period, particulary through the work of Jean Pillement who he inspired to create ‘ The New Book of Chinese Ornaments” in 1755 a widely used pattern book.
Salon Pillement, Château de Craôn, exemplifies Jean Pillement’s beautiful, delicate Chinoiserie style.
close up: Jean Pillement’s carved and painted chinoiserie panels for Hôtel de la Lariboisèrie, Paris
Singereie: Monkeys are given key roles in these chinoiserie decorations ‘apeing’ human behaviour. These panels were part of the decoration created by Christophe Huet in 1735 for Chateau de Chantilly directly inspired by Watteau’s ‘Idole de la Déesse Ki Mao Sao‘.
Finally, Boucher’s The Chinese Garden (1742), he makes Chinoiserie very accessible by using exotic motifs and settings, with inhabitants who resemble his chic Parisian clients.
At this time From Sweden to Potsdam, via Catherine the Great in Russia down to Piedmont and Sicily Chinoiserie was supremely chic.
Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace Oranienbaum, an enfilade through the state rooms.
When something becomes all the rage (grey walls watch out) it has to pass. Chinoiserie’s hold waned in the new century despite the Prince Regent’s last hurrah, ‘The Royal Pavilion’ in Brighton. 19th Century imperialism broke down our fantasies (boo hoo) amidst the realities of war and trade.
“The curtain which had been drawn around the the celestial country for ages has now been rent asunder; and instead of viewing an enchanted fairy-land, we find, after all, that China is just like other countries.” Robert Fortune, Wanderings in China, 1847.
While we do not know exactly what Lord Marchmain’s bedchamber looked like, it seems right to assume it was truly beautiful. A space to dream and ponder, offering a fretwork bridge between this world and the next, which I for one would like to walk… in this world.
The Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram.
Chinoiserie’s complexities are well beyond the parameters of a Decorative Affair post, but follows up will include ‘ Chinoiserie Now’, ‘The Oriental Colour Palette‘, Tea Time‘ ‘ Deco-Decadence’ and ‘The Chinoiserie Bedroom‘ …oh and whatever else takes my fancy.
books consulted and images taken from include:
Chinoiserie: Dawn Jacobson
Chinoiserie: Oliver Impey
Chinese Whispers Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930: edited by David Beevers
French Interiors of the 18th Century: John Whitehead
British Porcelain: John Sandon
The English Country House: Gervase Jackson Stops and James Pipkin
Wall paper: Charlotte Abrahams
Magazines perused and in some cases ripped asunder:
WOI and Elle Decor USA, from decorators’ Miles Redd to Celerie Kemble and beyond, any omissions in credits can be added and my apologies.