As we continue our journey through the ABCs of decorative arts, today we stop to focus on chinoiserie, one of the predominant decorative trends in England in the eighteenth century. Chinoiserie includes both decorative pieces from China made for the English market as well as pieces made in England emulating Chinese taste and design.
Chinese Export Wares
By the early seventeenth century, the market for exotic objects brought back from China and Japan began to grow rapidly in Europe. Both The East India Company, founded in 1599, and the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, were largely responsible for the trade of Chinese and Japanese objects in England. By the end of the seventeenth century, the London Gazette frequently featured notices advertising the sale of ‘Jappan Cabinets’ and screens that would then be cut and applied to furniture.
A profusion of lacquer-ware, ivory, and silk, were all being brought back to the West, where they were highly prized for their exotic nature and exceptional decorative quality. With the development of the trade, Chinese artists and artisans began adapting their designs to appeal to Western taste, including copies of English furniture models and portraits.
Japanning and Chinoiserie in England
At the same time, English craftsmen began copying and adapting Chinese art and design to meet the demand for this decorative style at home. Additionally, because Oriental lacquer was so expensive to import, English craftsmen sought to emulate this technique in a process known as japanning. Although they were not able to master the techniques exactly, high quality japanning soon became exceedingly popular and in high demand by the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries in Europe. Nevertheless, it was still extremely expensive and japanned products could only be afforded by the very wealthy.
John Stalker and George Parker published in 1688 their seminal work, Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, which provided detailed instructions on the japanned technique along with a huge number of Chinese motifs and pattern illustrations for craftsmen to copy. Interestingly, often these motifs were a figment of the European imagination of the East, and in fact seldom appear on Oriental works themselves.
Below we have featured a selection of pieces from our collection that highlight the taste for chinoiserie in England in the eighteenth century. To learn more about the histories of these pieces, click on the photographs to read more.