Chinese Export Furniture & Works of Art

Broadly speaking, Chinese export furniture can be divided into two distinct categories. Those pieces made to conform to a Westernised concept of the Chinese style and those made after Western prototypes-often only distinguishable from their European equivalents because of differences in construction and the use of peculiarly Chinese timbers.

The English fascination with the orient can be traced back at least as far as the end of the 16th century and,with the establishment of the East India Company in 1600, there was at last a way for the nobility in Britain to acquire Oriental goods for their own homes.

It is important to realise that most of the buyers of Chinese export goods in Britain had no way of knowing the difference between a Japanese piece or a Chinese-made piece. According to Gillian Walkling (Chinese Export Furniture, Antique Finder Magazine, April 1977, p.69) “Early references to Oriental furniture or “lacquer-ware” are ambiguous but it seems likely that the majority of pieces came from Japan rather than China”. References in house inventories of the period frequently refer to “India” or “Indian” furniture, confusing matters further. Indeed, Chinese export wallpaper was referred to as “India paper” throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Early pieces of Oriental furniture in England were often lacquered cabinets displayed on gilded or silvered stands. We have a fine example of a Japanese cabinet on stand in our collection.

Such pieces were the preserve of the extremely rich and, due to their value as symbols of power and status, many survive in the grandest stately home collections. Fine examples can be found in Buckingham Palace, Ham House and Petworth House amongst countless other noble collections.

From 1633, the government of Japan pursued a “closed country” policy, effectively ceasing all trade with foreign nations until the middle of the 19th century. It was at this time that trade with China was expanded and, by 1700, had reached substantial levels. Gilliam Walkling (ibid p.70) quotes at length from the East India Company letterbooks, revealing the instructions passed by the company to its captains and the type of pieces they were encouraged to procure on their voyages. An order from 1697 included almost 1500 lacquer tables as well as desks and folding card tables. It is interesting to note that, by this period, the fashion for cabinets was clearly on the wane. They still formed a part of the order but less than 120 were

Lacquered screens were perennially popular and 20 sets of 3 different sizes were requested in the aforementioned 1697 order. We recently had a mid-19th century screen in our collection. Such screens were sometimes acquired to be broken up and turned into panelling for rooms or to be converted into furniture by English cabinet makers but this example has survived intact, probably due to its outstanding decorative appeal and slightly more manageable size as it has 8 leaves rather than 12.

Perhaps the most impressive pieces of Chinese export furniture ever produced were bureau cabinets and bookcases. Fine examples are very rare but we have a particularly interesting example in our collection at the moment. The shaping of the bottom section of the cabinet is particularly unusual, but, although the exterior form is recognisably European-indeed there is something of a Dutch feel to the beautiful decoration framing the mirrors at the top of the cabinet-the interior is clearly Chinese. The fine lacquer interior doors enclose drawers and pigeon holes and are executed with typical precision. This piece would have been the height of sophistication at the time at which it was ordered and remains just as desirable today.

Another fine piece of Chinese export furniture in the Mackinnon collection is a mid 18th century kneehole desk or writing table. The quality of the lacquer work is quite outstanding but what makes the piece particularly charming is the shaping of the top. Indeed these sorts of details frequently occur on the finest Chinese export pieces and mean that they complement collections of English furniture so well.

It was not only European cabinet makers of the 18th century who reused Chinese lacquer and made charming pieces of furniture from it. Responding to clients who required “antique” coffee or low tables, the famous Bond Street antique dealers Mallett & Son mounted panels of lacquer on modern bases to create extremely pleasing, and practical, pieces. We have a piece mounted in the same fashion in our collection and it looks superb either surrounded by similar complementary antique pieces or would work
as a single accent piece in a contemporary interior.

The nature of the China trade allowed for individual ships’ captains, or supercargoes as they were known, to place their own private trade orders outside of the standard pieces ordered by the East India Company itself. One extremely popular component of these orders was the reverse glass or mirror painting. These beautiful works of art demand a post of their own but, broadly, they can also be divided into two categories. Those based on Chinese motifs such as the wonderful pieces produced for Clive of India that were once in our collection:

and this charming pair in walnut frames in our current collection:

and those made after European designs, frequently supplied to the Chinese workshops in the form of a print or drawing to be copied.

Other by-products of the China trade of interest to collectors of English furniture include the metal alloy Paktong. It is a zinc-based alloy that looks similar to silver but doesn’t tarnish and consequently was used for the finest fire grates and fenders of the late 18th century in England as well as for candlesticks and snuffer trays amongst other objects. We have a very fine pair of candlesticks for sale at the moment:

Chinese enamels, both painted and cloisonné, were also exported to Britain as part of the trade and cloisonne animals, frequently made as perfume burners, have always been sought after by collectors. We have a pair of magnificent elephants and a pair of charming ducks in our collection that would add a note of whimsical fantasy to any discerning collector’s interior scheme:

When considering Chinese export furniture and works of art, it is worth remembering the time that would have been involved in acquiring such items in the 18th and 19th centuries. Due to treacherous travelling
conditions and Chinese restrictions on foreigners in the country, it could take several years from the commissioning of an article to its delivery. For every item that was delivered, countless others would have been lost at sea or to piracy.

Then and now, these articles, complimenting English furniture and interiors so well, demonstrate a taste out of the ordinary and an incomparable charm.

Further reading:
Gillian Walkling, Chinese Export Furniture, Antique Finder Magazine, April 1977
Margaret Jourdain and Soame Jenyns, Chinese Export Art in the 18th

Carl Crossman, The Decorative Arts of the China Trade

All photographs in the above article represent pieces either in the Mackinnon Fine Furniture current collection, or from our archive collection. If you are interested in any of the pieces, please do not hesitate to get in contact with us:

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