Cloisonné is the name used to describe the process of enamelling metalwork. The name derives from the French word ‘cloisons’ which means ‘compartments’. Cloisonné involves soldering a pattern of copper or bronze wire onto a similar metal surface, to form ‘compartments’, which are then filled with vitreous enamel. This technique first came to China in the 14th Century via trade routes from Eastern Europe, and through the years has become an exceedingly popular and iconic feature in Chinese art.
The Cloisonné technique is thought to have started in the ‘Near Eastern’ countries such as Egypt, the Byzantine and Roman empires, and even spreading to the more northern Anglo Saxon countries, where the earliest pieces of Cloisonné have been recovered. Some of the oldest traces of Cloisonné work can be found on small rings and brooches from the Byzantine and Roman eras, and are often very simple designs. In these early stages of metal enamelling, metal cloisons were rather bulky and therefore limited the technique’s potential.
Cloisonné is better known to be the main technique featured on many of the Egyptians’ ‘Pectorals’ or neck plates. Ancient Egyptian Cloisonné involves thicker metal plates than those you may see on the classic Chinese Cloisonné, and they preferred to use crushed gemstones and glass rather than enamels for their narrative neckpieces. As a result these Pectorals are vibrant and bold in colour yet, in comparison to Chinese Cloisonné, they are relatively simple designs.
A Piece of Anglo-Saxon Cloisonne Jewellery
As Cloisonné travelled further east to countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Morocco, the wire forming the ‘cloisons’ became thinner, and their pieces became smaller and more delicate. Hence, Cloisonné became a popular jewellery making technique. There are several pieces of Cloisonné Jewellery from the Roman and Byzantine eras which are very similar in technique and in subject. They feature narrative yet simplified designs depicting biblical characters and stories, and are often red in colour due to their repeated use of Garnet stones – a well-known symbol of Christ. Cloisonné is thought to have been developed during the Byzantium period, where the wire compartments became a lot more elaborate and detailed, making it harder to set gemstones and glass, and therefore use of enamels became more prominent.
Cloisonné is thought to have been introduced into China in the 14th Century, during the Ming Dynasty via a network of trade routes from as far as Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. However some say it was introduced during the previous Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, which suggests that Cloisonné came into China through the exchange of goods from Mongolia and its surrounding countries.
At this point in time, Cloisonné had developed and evolved into a delicate and skilful art, and the first pieces that were imported to China were likely to have been relatively detailed and elaborate. The Chinese then developed their own unique style of Cloisonné, which we recognise today as a popular form of Chinese art. The Chinese name for Cloisonné is ‘Jingtai Lan’. They originally chose the name ‘Jingtai’ but soon added the word ‘Lan’ – Chinese for ‘Blue’ – to the name, when they discovered a new vibrant turquoise blue enamel, which thereafter featured largely in many Chinese Cloisonné pieces.
Jongtailan Cloisonne Vase, unknown artist, Brooklyn Museum
The content of Chinese ‘Jingtailan’ pieces is what makes them so unique. Their pieces often feature imagery of dragons, ‘foo dogs’ (a mythical Chinese creature with the body of a dog but the head of a lion), plants and flowers, ‘Ho Birds’, cherry blossoms, good luck symbols, and repeated oriental pattern motifs. Their designs are distinctive, beautiful, and usually reminiscent of the Chinese countryside. Another identifier of Chinese Cloisonné or ‘Jingtailan’ is its colouring. There is no Cloisonné as vibrant and bold as Chinese Jingtailan. Their use of ivory, turquoise blues, and rich reds and yellows juxtaposed with ebony-black enamel and the shimmering linear forms of the bronze or copper wire cloisons is simply an outstanding style unique to China.
Temple of Heaven Interior, Beijing
Temple of Heaven exterior, Beijing
This mysterious new technique from the West was in high demand from the emperors and higher classes of 14th Century China due to its splendour and vivid colouring. It was used to its highest potential to decorate and furnish the interior and exteriors of their palaces and temples. The most famous example of this is Beijing’s ‘Temple of Heaven’, constructed during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, 3rd emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The exterior of the temple simply generates richness. Situated in a vast courtyard, its presence is somewhat overwhelming, and the eye is immediately drawn to the rich red, gold and turquoise blue Cloisonné tiles which cover its walls. However, the interior of the palace is really the most exquisite part. The towering internal pillars are covered in a repetitive floral pattern, in red and gold enamel, while the ceiling is an array of blue, jade, red and gold oriental and geometric patterned tiles. It is almost reminiscent of Islamic tiling, and is likely to have been influenced by pieces imported from middle -eastern countries. This historical monument is a fantastic example of not only the extent to which Cloisonné can be used, but it is also a great example of how valuable and prized this technique was, not only in 14th Century China, but in Chinese history as a whole.
In later years, Cloisonné in China was somewhat dismissed to being a ware only suitable for the likes of décor for lady’s chambers and smaller ornaments, however it was still a greatly prized technique. In this period Cloisonné was developed on smaller pieces and therefore designs became even more detailed. Hence, much of the Chinese Cloisonné that can be found today is in the form of vases or pots with elaborate designs. During this period, many new Cloisonné techniques were invented; the most significant being the Diaper technique, developed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This is the name given to a design applied to large areas of ‘background’ on a piece of Cloisonné. There are many forms of this technique including ‘scroll’, ‘wave’ and ‘cloud’. The process is similar to regular Cloisonné in the sense that wire is soldered onto the metal surface in a pattern. However, the wire does not join up to create compartments, it is purely a form of decoration within larger compartments, and the enamel is simply filled in around the pattern.
Another popular technique created by the Chinese in this period is, ironically, named ‘Base Taille’ after the French for ‘low waisted’. This process involves much more shallow wire compartments, so that the enamel is able to leak over the top of the compartments. The cloisons are still visible beneath the enamel but at a lower relief. Similar to this is a technique named ‘Champlevé’, which is French for ‘raised areas’. No wire is used to create the compartments but instead the metal is raised in a ‘repoussé technique (denting and raising metal) to create areas to fill with enamel.
Although created by the Chinese, many of these techniques have names deriving from the French language. This is where we begin to see the influence of ‘Chinoiserie’. During the 17th Century, trading had gradually increased in Europe and Asia, and a complex network of trade routes had been created, stretching from Western Europe to the Far East. The well-known term for this is ‘The Silk Road’, named after the popular Chinese silk trade. As importing and exporting goods between countries became more and more prominent, techniques such as ‘Japanning’ (laquerwork) and ‘Jingtailan’ were exchanged between the East and West. Eventually, Jingtailan reached countries such as France and Germany, where it became an extremely popular form of Chinoiserie. Although Western European countries were aware of the Cloisonné technique (popular during the Medieval period) it was the Chinese designs, techniques, symbolism and colours which were in such high demand, and artists used it to create pieces of art displaying their own fantastical vision of the Far East.
Chinoiserie-style Cloizonne Snuffbox, Claude de Villers, 17th Century, V&A Collection
This snuffbox dates back to 17th Century Paris, and was created by an artist named Claude de Villers. It is a perfect example of Chinoiserie-style Cloisonné, featuring images of ‘Chinese’ houses, people, vessels and plants. However, it is somewhat lacking in authentic Chinese Jingtailan style. Although the content of this piece looks Chinese, the technique is still reminiscent of early European Cloisonné styles such as the Roman Empire. Rather than copying the vividly coloured enamel of Chinese Jingtailan, this artist has used a mix of shell and gemstones, similar to that of Roman and Byzantine Cloisonné. Overall, the content of the piece is very similar to what you may find on a piece of authentic Chinese Cloisonné, however the style is blatantly European Chinoiserie.
Parisian Cabinet featuring 'Japonism' Laquerwork and Chinese Cloisonne
This Parisian Cabinet is of Oriental influence, and features many of the techniques taken from the East, such as laquerwork and Jingtailan, as well as oriental-style motifs and imagery reminiscent of Chinese designs. However its excessive ornamentation and decoration makes it European, and is extremely similar to the Brocade style, which was so fashionable in the 17th Century. Chinese furniture was often more simple in form but with elaborate pattern.
Authentic Chinese Cup, unknown artist, 17th Century, V&A Collection
This item was made sometime between 1736-1795, and is a great example of classic Jingtailan (Jingtai Blue). The design of this piece is elaborate and vivid in colour. Rather than the narrative imagery of Chinoiserie Cloisonné, this Chinese cup features oriental patterns and motifs. There is a classic mix of reds, yellows, blues and jades on a base of copper, which gives the piece an exquisite and authentic look. Chinese Cloisonné was more popularly used as a way to decorate vases, jugs and other ornaments, whereas Chinese-style Cloisonné in Europe was often used to decorate pieces of jewellery. For example, snuffboxes and lockets.
Although European Cloisonné is not authentically Chinese, it is a significant part of the Chinoiserie fashion era of the 17th Century, and a good example of the impact Chinese techniques had on other countries.
Japanese 'Shippo' Vase
The Japanese were also highly influenced by Chinese Jingtailan, arriving in Japan shortly after it arrived in China. There is a very small but significant difference between Chinese Cloisoné and Japanese ‘Shippo’. The main differences are the unique techniques within Shippo that were developed in Japan. These include the popular ‘Musen Jippo’, a name used to describe Cloisonné where the wire cloisons are removed shortly before firing, so the enamels blend together but still keep a faint replica of the pattern from the wire. Similar to the Chinese ‘Champlevé’ technique, the Japanese developed ‘Tsuiki’ which involves a repoussé technique rather than use of wire cloisons. However, the biggest identifiers of Japanese Shippo are features such as ‘Kiku No Mon’ – the name for a Japanese emperors crest. These are largely featured on ancient Japanese Shippo pieces as they were often created for emperors or the higher classes, and required a symbol to represent their name.
The content and design of Japanese Cloisonné is more narrative than that of Chinese Jingtailan. Their designs feature detailed paintings of animals, houses and plants, while Chinese Jingtailan is often more pattern-based, focussing on Oriental motifs and colours. However, these two styles have been shared between China and Japan, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. Nonetheless, Chinese Jingtailan has made a significant impact on Japanese Shippo.
It is clear that Cloisonné has been a significant part of Chinese art and history for several generations, and is still a popular technique today. It has had a great influence on almost every country from Western Europe to the Far East, and is by far the most popular type of Cloisonné to be found. There is a large market for ancient and modern Chinese Jingtailan pieces throughout the world and it has remained one of the most exquisite arts within Chinese culture. Having personally had several failed attempts at making my own Cloisonné, I can appreciate what a divine skill it is, and why it is so valued.