Key Periods in the Development of Chinoiserie Style in the West – How Taste Travelled. Part I

The First Wave – Europe

In the first decades of the 17th century, English and Italian and, later, other craftsmen began to draw freely from forms found on cabinets, porcelain vessels, and embroideries imported from China. Small quantities of Chinese artefacts had entered Europe by the Silk Route through central Asia since Antiquity, but it was not until after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to the west coast of India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 that maritime contact between Europe and Asia was established.

Henceforth, Chinese products, notably silk and porcelain, found their way to Europe in some quantity. The first four voyages of the English East India Company between 1601 and 1607 were to Bantam in Java where quantities of porcelain were acquired as ‘private trade’ by the ship’s crew. Chinese porcelain was so unlike anything produced in Europe that it was regarded as almost magical. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598) mounted his Chinese porcelain in silver as did Lettice, Countess of Leicester, whose possessions in 1634 included a ‘pursland boule’ (porcelain bowl) with ‘guilt foote and guilt cover’. Silver settings and ormolu mounts adapted exotic objects to European taste whilst also masking cracks and blemishes and drawing attention to the importance and rarity of the object.

 Jan Fine Art - C17th blue & white silver-mounted Chinese porcelain bottle

Jan Fine Art – C17th blue & white silver-mounted Chinese porcelain bottle

Early ceramic wares at Meissen and other porcelain centres naturally imitated Chinese shapes for dishes, vases and tea wares. The fashion peaked with the wave of rococo Chinoiserie from 1740-1770. Initially images of China were also conveyed to designers and craftsmen by means of works such as the Dutch traveller, Johan Nieuhof’s 1665 illlustrated study of China. Holland and England were active with the East India Companies in the early C17th and it was in these two nations that the earliest hints of Chinoiserie are first to be seen. Tin glazed pottery from Delft and other Dutch towns adopted genuine blue-and-white Ming decoration from the early C17th.

With the easing of Chinese restrictions on foreign trade in 1684, porcelain and silk began to flood the West and the Chinese influence became all pervasive.

The fashion spread rapidly to all areas of design and no court residence, especially in Germany, was complete without its Chinese room, which was often reserved for the prince’s mistress (e.g., Lackkabinett, Schloss Ludwigsburg, Württemberg, 1714–22).

Chinoiserie on the continent , in conjunction with Baroque and Rococo styles featured extensive gilding and lacquering; much use of blue-and-white (e.g., Delftware); asymmetrical forms; disruptions of orthodox perspective; and Oriental figures and motifs. The style’s lightness, asymmetry and the vivacity of many of its motifs was popular in the fine arts too as in the work of Antoine Watteau and Francois Boucher.

C17th Dutch Delftware blue and white tile

C17th Dutch Delftware blue and white tile, Guest & Gray

C17th Dutch Delftware blue and white tile