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China Syndrome

Chinoiserie began as a European emulation of Far Eastern design but rapidly moved into the realm of inspired fantasy.

A George III Coromandel lacquer, gilt-brass-mounted serpentine commode, attributed to Pierre Langlois

A George III Coromandel lacquer, gilt-brass-mounted serpentine commode,
attributed to Pierre Langlois, the mounts possibly supplied by Dominique Jean, circa

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When the West met the East, nothing was ever the same again, nor could it be. The luxurious goods of faraway China sparked the passions of Westerners, and the fire has never gone out. The first stirrings of capitalism, driven by 16th-century merchant ships that braved the seas to fill their hulls with silks, porcelain, spices, and other unimaginable prizes, accelerated the fascination. And the first stirrings of chinoiserie—a decorative style born in the West that depicts visions of the East, albeit an East that most Easterners might not recognize—occurred soon after. Chinoiserie touched almost every form of the decorative arts, from wallpaper to architectural follies, but it reached remarkable heights in the realms of porcelain and furniture.

Fanciful as it is, chinoiserie gained traction due to hard-nosed economic concerns. When upheaval in the Ming Dynasty disrupted the flow of Chinese porcelain to Holland in the 17th century, Dutch potters stepped up to supply homemade imitations of the lucrative goods. The enchantment with China is baked into the clay from which the ceramics were made; then and now, it was and is called “china.” It is only natural that the artisans would grace their china with painted scenes of the mysterious country from which the originals came. Another form of chinoiserie follows the same general template. Western attempts to copy the lacquer work of Japanese artists gave rise to japanning, a time-consuming art that once ranked alongside knitting and needlework as a respectable hobby for women. Japanning appears on wooden objects that range from delicate little boxes to beds.

By 1680, the Dutch were figuring out the chemistry and the firing temperatures needed to make polychrome, or multi-colored, porcelain. An exceedingly rare charger—a large decorative plate placed under the plate from which the food is actually eaten—that Aronson Antiquairs of Amsterdam recently sold to the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., is among the few of its vintage to feature a chinoiserie scene. It shows the emperor of China receiving two high-born visitors, with the rim of the plate ringed with depictions of gifts brought by the pair. At this early stage of the chinoiserie style, Western artisans were looking to authentic, or at least reality-based, designs and copying them fairly faithfully; Robert Aronson, director of Aronson Antiquairs, says the source image for this charger’s central scene may have been located in a 17th-century book by a Dutch East India company trader.

Come the mid-18th century, widely considered the zenith of chinoiserie, things had shifted somewhat. Aronson currently has a five-piece garniture, or set of vases intended for display in an interior niche, dating to the 1760s and priced at €36,000 ($46,000). It unites shapes that are very Dutch with imagery that is very Eastern—the same reclining male figure appears on all, as do native Chinese flowers and small blue-painted Fu dogs, resembling the guardian lions that recur in Chinese art and architecture. A chinoiserie plaque made between 1740 and 1760 (and available from Aronson for €24,000, or $31,000) sports a mash-up of Asian imagery. Though it was intended to show a Chinese scene, the hairstyles of the hostess and her guests look Japanese.

“There were a lot of cases where they were using many sources, and taking elements from each source to use for new decorations,” says Aronson. It’s possible, however, that the blended motif was chosen to show off a technical feat. Aronson notes that the most difficult colors for Dutch porcelain-makers to achieve then were yellow and black, and this piece showcases both. A large dish, created in Delft and priced at €14,500 ($18,500), departs from Chinese reality even more blatantly, and not just because of the pagoda—a type of tower that dotted the landscapes of many Asian countries—that looks architecturally dubious. “It’s a complete stretch from what was probably the original,” Aronson says. “I don’t think you’d see a Chinese lady holding a goat or a sheep.” Given the plate’s circa-1740 dating, the Chinese noblewoman’s curious accessory could owe its presence to the pastoral motifs that energized the canvases of French rococo painter François Boucher (though Marie Antoinette wouldn’t indulge her shepherdess fantasies on the grounds of the Petit Trianon for another 40 years or so).

The famously porcelain-smitten Augustus the Strong of Saxony (later Germany) slaked his appetite by sponsoring a factory at Meissen. Like the Dutch, Meissen’s artisans sometimes nodded to china’s origins by painting it with scenes of chinoiserie. The logic of decorating tea services this way is unassailable, and such images are often found on cups, saucers, and pots. Unlike the Dutch porcelain artists, who apparently had more leeway with their decorative schemes, Meissen painters were limited to choosing their motifs from a house pattern book assembled by Johann Gregor Höroldt, who in 1720 was hired by Meissen from the Du Paquier porcelain factory in Vienna. As New York dealer Michele Beiny Harkins explains, “they may take one figure from one folio, and one from another.” An enchanting Meissen teapot with cover, produced circa 1725 (priced at $18,000), features typically pleasant, serene scenes of what might be a father at play with his sons or a scholar pausing in thought.

Beiny Harkins’ private collection includes a magnificent Meissen coffee pot, circa 1724–25, that features well-composed scenes of the seated Chinese emperor surrounded by servants and of men gathered on a bridge. But other pieces have motifs that are harder to parse. Beiny Harkins also has a Meissen covered bowl from around 1735 ($75,000) with a scarce sea-green ground that features a man walking two splendid-looking birds on a leash. Elsewhere on the bowl is a scene of two men carrying a third on a litter, with the third man holding aloft a tray with two blue objects on it. The fact that the covered bowl relied on a difficult technique—the green ground was applied first and then scraped away to leave silhouettes where figures would be painted in—didn’t prevent the artisans from choosing odd or obscure imagery for it. “I can’t give you a logical explanation for any of this,” Beiny Harkins says, laughing. “They’re frivolous ideas of exoticism.”

Around the same general time, Meissen produced a few pieces with radically different decorative schemes. Beiny Harkins has a pair of so-called Earl of Jersey-type plates from around 1740 ($22,500 each) that may have been painted with chinoiserie scenes by Adam Friedrich von Löwenfinck. Regardless of the authorship, they do not reflect Höroldt’s pattern book, and unlike the other Meissen painters, who labored in anonymity, von Löwenfinck was permitted to sign his work (though he didn’t sign these two plates, assuming that they are his). He places his Chinese figures in a vaguely tropical landscape that would call Hawaii to mind, if Captain Cook had discovered the island by then. “Von Löwenfinck had a much different style,” says Beiny Harkins. “He uses the plate as a canvas.”

Chinoiserie furnishings can be as innovative in their decoration as von Löwenfinck’s porcelain for Meissen. A notable example is a circa 1760 George III Coromandel lacquer gilt-brass mounted serpentine commode on offer through Frank Partridge of London for £450,000 ($733,000). To produce it, the cabinetmaker would had to have cut up an imported Chinese lacquer screen for use as a veneer—a tricky task indeed, given that the dismembered screen would have had to be heated and bent into the curving shape of the commode. Partridge affirms that the screen probably wasn’t recycled, but acquired for the purpose. More typical is a japanned red lacquer cabinet on a giltwood stand, circa 1720, attributed to cabinetmaker James Moore and priced at £125,000 ($204,000). “It’s in the most amazing condition and has a wonderful color that makes it stand out,” says Partridge of the cabinet-on-stand, noting that the wealthy of a pre-electric age craved anything that could brighten their dark interiors. A blaze-red cabinet festooned with gilt and resting on a gilded stand definitely would have fit the bill.

Guy Apter of Apter-Fredericks was rightly excited this past June to handle a pair of display cabinets created at the height of the chinoiserie style. Dating to 1755 to 1765, they are attributed to Vile & Cobb, a cabinetmaking firm that served British royalty, and found eager new owners through the Apter-Fredericks stand at Masterpiece London. Both feature tops that resemble pagodas, and each has blind chinoiserie fretwork around their doors and open (see-through) chinoiserie fretwork above and below their display areas. But regarding them as being subtler than the red and gold Moore cabinet-on-stand would be a mistake. The pair is made from two luxurious woods, padouk and manchineel. The original colors have faded over time, but when new, the manchineel looked yellow and the padouk purple. Breathtaking, yes; subtle, no. “[The pair is] an incredibly rare and important thing,” Apter says. “There would have been very few people who could afford the cabinets at the time.” To his chagrin, he was unable to narrow the list of likely suspects to a specific original owner before the Masterpiece fair, but the cabinets will enjoy pride of place on the Apter-Fredericks web site’s “Memorable Pieces” section ever after.

No single form of furniture was commonly targeted for chinoiserie decorations, but the style itself was viewed as better suited to certain areas of a grand house. Outside of the showpiece rooms that were done in the style, which was retroactively named chinoiserie after World War II (prior to then, it was usually called “Chinese”), it most often appeared in bedrooms and in areas designated for women. This is not to imply that chinoiserie was exclusive to women, just that it was seen at the time as having feminine overtones. But both sexes enjoyed and even reveled in chinoiserie in their private quarters. Another item that rates a place on Apter-Fredericks’ “Memorable Pieces” page is a circa 1705 English furnishing referred to as a bachelor’s chest. Its reds and golds are as radiant as those of Partridge’s cabinet-on-stand. The term “bachelor’s chest” apparently acknowledges that the furniture design is well-suited for writing letters and also for laying out brushes and other morning toilette items, and as such, would have been in or near its owner’s sleeping quarters.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London owns a peerless example of chinoiserie at its finest, The Badminton Bed, and keeps it on long-term display. Built around 1754 and named after the English country house for which it was commissioned by the fourth Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, the bed directly entered the museum’s collection in 1921, when the then-incumbent duke decided to empty the home of its chinoiserie furnishings. The bed’s Chinese fretwork back, colorful japanning, and pagoda-style tester, or canopy, decorated with gilded dragons, elevate it to a masterpiece of furniture design. (And elevating this bed any further is a neat trick, considering that it stands almost 13 feet tall as it is.) Persistent and patient research revealed its maker to be none other than the storied father-and-son cabinetmaking team of William and John Linnell. “The bed is very much a European fantasy,” says Kate Hay, a curator in the V&A’s department of furniture, textiles, and fashion. “The pagoda-style tester and the large dragons on all four corners give it incredible exotic appeal.”

“Chinoiserie is a style that has never really gone away. It’s always there,” says Hay. “It never goes away because there’s always fascination with the Far East.”

Author: Sheila Gibson Stoodley | Publish Date: October 2014

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