Cultural Reflections: Chinese Export Art & Decoration

A pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection
A pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Today we are looking at the history of Chinese export art and decoration that arrived in Europe, beginning in the 17th century and increasing significantly in the 18th century. From the late 1700s an increasing number of British, American, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Scandinavian sailing vessels brought back many exotic objects which found an enthusiastic market in Europe.  

Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century often include highlight examples of Chinese porcelain because of its rarity and value. The interest of the West for all things Asian resulted in an enormous range of exquisite objects created specifically for the European market, and many authentic goods made their way to the West throughout the 19th century. Among the items that filled the ships were porcelain, furniture, and mirror pictures, a pair of which we are highlighting today.

One of a pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection
One of a pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

The principal centre for this practice was the city of Guangzou (or Canton as it would be known in the West after the 1839-1842 Opium War) situated on the Pearl River delta near the South China Sea. Canton was culturally and economically the most important city in south China, and a hub of trade in all manner of artefacts, including ivory. Furthermore, Canton was and is today one of the three significant centres for ivory carving in China, the others being Beijing and Shanghai.

Detail of a pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Chinese ivory carving found a market in England almost as soon as trading-links had been established. The demand was such in fact that the various European countries involved established trading posts or ‘factories’ on Chinese soil, where goods would be procured and even produced specifically for export to the West.

One material that was particularly popular was paktong, a rare Chinese alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, that was imported into Europe in the 18th century and used to make objects that simulated silver but had the advantage of being resistant to tarnish. It took a long time for the West to fathom the methods deployed in producing this special metal.

One of a pair of Chinese export mirror pictures. Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection.
One of a pair of Chinese export mirror pictures, Mackinnon Fine Furniture Collection

Another highly collectable genre was reverse glass mirror pictures. These magnificent designs were painted on the reverse of mirror plates in brilliant polychrome colours depicting landscapes, figures, and other decoration. We are delighted to share one of our latest acquisitions – this magnificent pair of Chinese export reverse glass mirror pictures each depicting courtly figures with children beneath a tree within an extensive landscape. See the pictures in closer detail on our website here.

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