Chinoiserie

Chinese wallpaper at Nostell PrioryChinese porcelain and silk flooded to the West after China eased its restrictions on foreign trade in 1684. Soon Europeans began to imitate them. This emulatory enthusiasm spread to furniture and interior design. Such Western imitations of Chinese art are known as Chinoiserie.

Already in 1670 Louis XIV had the rooms of his Trianon de Porcelaine decorated inside with blue and white ceramic tiles in imitation of the porcelain-faced pagoda at Nanjing (destroyed in the 19th century). In the 18th century no European palace was complete without its Chinese room. The fashion spread to English country houses.

Saltram in Devon has four Chinese papers which are probably the earliest still to be seen in the British Isles, dating from the reign of K'ang Hsi (1662-1722). Hand-painted Chinese wallpapers became popular from the 1740s and influenced English manufacturers, who produced both printed and hand-painted imitations. The National Trust not only owns Saltram, but several other country houses notable for their Chinoiserie, including the extraordinary Chinese Room created at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire in 1760, with its extravaganza of woodcarvings by Luke Lightfoot and bamboo furniture. Nostell Priory has Chinese paper in the state bedroom with a typical design of birds and flowers (detail shown left). The background has darkened though from the original white. Better preserved paper at Erddig, near Wrexham, North Wales, gives a clearer idea of the charm of such designs in their pristine state. Belton House, Lincolnshire, has wallpapersdepicting Chinese figures in the landscape beneath birds flitting about trees.

The Georgian exterior being clamped in the constraints of Classicism, full-bodied experiments with other styles were mainly forced out into the garden. There a fantasy landscape dotted with follies from a Greek temple to a Gothic ruin might happily accommodate a Chinese bridge, pagoda or summer house. These were not careful reproductions of Chinese originals, but a homage to features most striking to Western eyes. Broad, upcurving eaves piled one above the other were startlingly different from any Western architecture.

Chinese architecture by Sir William ChambersWilliam Halfpenny produced designs in the Chinese taste without ever seeing a genuine Chinese building, but Sir William Chambers had the advantage of visiting Canton in his youth. His drawings of Cantonese buildings served him well when he became an architect. The Pagoda that Chambers designed for Kew Gardens was in its own day the most accurate imitation of a Chinese building in Europe.

The fashion for Chinese interiors carried on into the Regency period, encouraged by the Prince Regent himself. His Royal Pavilion at Brighton was an exotic mixture of Indian domes and arches on the outside and Chinoiserie within. The Prince's passion for all things Chinese created interiors of oriental splendour, lavish with real or simulated bamboo furniture and carved Chinese figures, set against Chinese-style wall paintings, and lit by Chinese lanterns.

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