Chinese Whispers - Chinoiserie Comes Home To Brighton

By Marian Cleary | 23 May 2008
Illustration of three figures in traditional Chinese robes

Detail from inside door of japanned cabinet-on-stand, English, c.1700. On loan from the Holburne Museum of Art.

Review: Marian Cleary visits a sumptuous visual feast inspired by the east in Brighton.

Chinese Whispers is an exhibition of, in the curator’s words, some of the most 'mind bogglingly expensive' pieces to have ever graced the galleries of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

Some of the most rare and opulent examples of Chinoiserie design, gathered from private, public and royal collections for display in both the Museum and the Royal Pavilion, means 24-hour security. And, luckily for Brighton Museum, the closure of the Gilbert Collection of silver and gold at Somerset House in London allowed it to take delivery of its superior display cases.

Two years in the planning, but longer in the dreaming, the exhibition certainly achieves its aim to bring a historical and social context to British links with China; or at least our fantasies, misconceptions and appropriation of Oriental symbols and images. This is, in essence, what Chinoiserie is.

It demonstrates how British fantasies of China developed into a style that has reverberated through decoration for over 300 years, while also looking at the style's connections to women's role in society. Beginning with the inside of a lacquered box, the exhibition moves on to the lighter and more feminised Chinoiserie of the 18th century and finishes by looking at the Victorians' interpretation of the style, and its endurance through to the 1930s.

Porcelain plate decorated with a blue dragon

Bow porcelain dish decorated with a dragon, c.1755. Brighton & Hove Museums

The awe-inspiring decorative arts on show lead from interiors initially embellished by a skill deemed a 'suitable accomplishment for young ladies' to a decorative style linked to women’s transgressions. Exemplified by the display based on the bedroom of character Fleur Forsyte in John Galsworthy’s 1924 novel, The White Monkey (part of the Forsyte Saga), the gendered nature of Chinoiserie in Britain is a recurring theme.

Two fanciful buildings are at the heart of the exhibition; the lost Porcelain Pagoda of Nanking, and the place where Chinoiserie fantasy becomes reality, Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. George IV made a whole palace out of his passion for Chinoiserie, with an Indian inspired exterior that hides a whole building decorated in a style usually reserved for one room in the 18th century.

Joint tickets are available for the exhibition and entry to the opulent Pavilion, where the whole Chinoiserie thing suddenly makes sense. As the curator, David Beevers says, despite his more than 20 years working in Brighton’s museums and galleries, “Until I did this exhibition, I didn’t really realise what the Pavilion was about.”

Chinoiserie metal clock featuring a man holding the timepiece like a gong

The Chinese Drummer Boy Clock, c1787-90. The Royal Collection. © 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen has loaned back to Brighton many items originally intended for the Pavilion. One of these items is a massive porcelain pagoda, on show in the Pavilion's Music Room. The room would have held six of these, originally. With Chinoiserie, a table or a vase was not enough. Rooms were not there to set off amazing specimen pieces; they were intended to absorb the theme in their fabric.

Back in the final room of the museum exhibition, this makes the painting of Queen Mary’s homely take on a Chinoiserie interior seem very innocent and rather English – it depicts a comfy armchair surrounded by porcelain pagodas.

So we have wealth, women and a Royal Palace. Chinoiserie begins however with trade.

Two pieces of red pottery decorated with simple Chinese style reliefs of flowers

Mug and beaker, red stoneware. London or Staffordshire, in the style of the Elers brothers, c.1700. On loan from Temple Newsam House

The East India Company’s trading with Asia was the major phenomenon that brought Chinese influences to bear on British-made items and design (as well as providing us with our national drink, tea!)

Aided and abetted by pattern books and the 17th century 'Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing' (copies of which are on show), pseudo-Chinese pieces appear from the 1650s. The secret of making porcelain was not exported then, though, and it is odd to see more rustic stoneware, instead, decorated with Chinese-inspired images.

Despite the name, Chinoiserie was a mongrel of exotic styles. The people depicted in the 17th century tapestry in the first room (made in Soho), could be Chinese, or Persian or Indian. The makers probably never saw a Chinese person, and the 17th century mind had little idea of discrete Eastern nationalities, let alone more than naïve images of their characteristics. Thus the homegrown version of the Chinese lacquering technique, in being dubbed Japanning, epitomises our confusion about the East.

Intricate silver teapot

Teapot. c.1750, adapted from a Chinese hexagonal jar of c.1680, handle and spout added c.1750. On loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum

It's also the case with the names given to types of items exported from China. Bantam ware is named after a port in Java; Coromandel ware after Coromandel in India. They are not only one and the same, but originated in China, taking their names from the ports the East India Company used to export the stuff.

Chinese wares were also given new identities once they arrived in Britain. Now rare and valuable pieces of 17th and 18th century Chinese porcelain were embellished with what wealthy Europeans loved – a bit of bling in the form of solid silver and gold ‘additions’.

Elsewhere, a clock is set in a base that started out as a porcelain vase, and the gothic comes to rest in flame-breathing dragons with wings. Some of the willow pattern porcelain comes from that Chinese province known as Stoke-on-Trent. The title, Chinese Whispers, hints at how China is lost in translation.

A heavy set walnut cabinet with gold Chinese style decorations

Cabinet on stand, Ernest Gimson, c.1902. On loan from the Victoria & Albert Musuem

And this gives us some clue as to how the art of a nation becomes the art of a gender, going from a modish style to symbolising wayward women.

Beginning with the cabinets in the first room, these would have been decorated by women for women’s personal spaces. In the second room, a Chippendale daybed in the form of a pagoda, lent from Stanway House in Gloucestershire, would have been the scene of female reception and company.

Finally, Fleur Forsyte’s bedroom, with its Chinoiserie pyjamas and lacquered gramophone cabinet, reflect something less refined. The ostentatious items are eventually replaced with Louis XIV, representing for Galsworthy her transformation from 'lost woman' to respectable lady.

In 'Shortly After the Marriage' (1743) from Hogarth's Marriage-a-la-mode series, on loan from the National Gallery, the artist demonstrates the aversion of a certain class to the frippery of Chinoiserie. ‘No wonder she is so lewd! Just look what she has on her mantelpiece – Chinoiserie statuary!’ he infers. Cleverly, the freakish objects the wife in the picture collects are replicated with the real thing in the exhibition in a mock-up of the painting’s fireplace.

Photo of a long hallway with ornate chandelier and busy Chinoiserie decoration

The Long Gallery, Royal Pavilion.

Classicism sat well with masculine standards and ideals, and intellectuals disdained Chinoiserie, but there are plenty of masculine objects in show.

While a solid looking geometric chair is a standard manly piece of furniture, finding a Chinoiserie gun, a Chinoiserie punch bowl and, in the case of learning about Richard Bateman, a whole Chinoiserie lifestyle (the Prince Regent was not alone!) you are forced to think about issues of gender and sexuality a little more widely in the context of Chinoiserie.

Bateman was known in his own time as the ‘Queen of Old Windsor’; Chinoiserie was always considered to have overtones of another type of masculinity.

Whether inspired by male or female patronage, this is all elite stuff, with a focus on rarity, craft (often unattributed) and opulence. It is also testament to David Beever’s incredible passion in realising a dream of bringing Chinoiserie home to Brighton, where at the Pavilion it achieved a height as elevated as the pinnacle on the Nanking Pagoda.

Have you been to see the show? Why not let us know what you think?

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