Week 3: Chinoiserie

The origin of Chinoiserie

Chinoiserie derives from the French word for China. Although in its earliest usages it applied to artefacts and styles from the whole or east Asia (India and Japan, for example), it has come to describe a particular vision of Chinese style. This vision is sometimes accurate and authentic (and derives from China itself) but is often entirely imagined.

The Mysterious East

The Mysterious East

In the Middle Ages, we knew China as “Cathay”, a mysterious land far away. We only really knew it via the goods that came to Europe via the Silk Road, a trade route that consisted of a chain of trading posts between Europe and Africa in the west, and India and China in the east.

Silk, porcelain, tea and spices were the main imports – things we valued both for their rarity and their beauty, but also because the secrets of their origin were, well, secret. Try as we might, we couldn’t make porcelain, grow tea or keep silk worms.

This sense of awe at the magnificence and rarity of goods from China was compounded by its great distance, the fact that few westerners had ever been there, and its “closed” status.

There’s nothing people like more than a good mystery.

What Did We Know of China?

What Did We Know of China?

What most people in the middle ages knew of China came from the writings of Marco Polo (actually a book he dictated to a fellow prisoner). There is some doubt as to whether or not Polo actually went to China and lived there for seventeen years in the late 13th century. His Description of the World captivated Europeans for hundreds of years with its depiction of life in the court of Kublai Kahn but there is no mention of him in contemporary Chinese accounts, and no record of the strange creatures he claimed to have seen there.

A (definitely) fictional account, Travels of Sir John Mandeville combined myths and legends from ancient Greece with real stories of travels to Africa and Asia, but served to reinforce the idea that Cathay was a land of wonder.

Sea Routes

In 1498 a sea route was opened up between Europe and Asia which immediately increased the speed and quantity of trade, with silk and porcelain becoming much more readily available (though still too precious to be owned by anyone other than the wealthy).

England relied at first on piracy to plunder Spanish ships but Elizabeth I allowed the establishment of the East India Company which over the centuries grew into a major influence (and not always a positive one) on world trade. As well as the official trade, sailors on these voyages (there were four between 1601 and 1607) brought home their own goods for private sale.

Precious Porcelain

Precious Porcelain

Porcelain was believed to be somewhat magical and had the supreme contradiction of being both new and exciting, and ancient at the same time.

Early pieces were often customised to suit European tastes with the addition of silverwork.
(Image source: http://elogedelart.canalblog.com/tag/Louis%20XV)


This type of addition to original Chinese work would continue as pieces were customised to suit not just local tastes and uses, but changing fashions. The cabinet above with silver stand and cresting dates from circa 1695-1700.
(Image source: http://www.asianartnewspaper.com/article/chinese-whispers:-chinoiserie-in-britain-1650–1930

China men in Theatre

The “China man” became a character in operas and theatre. The English playwright Ben Jonson included them in a 1609 masque, The Key Keeper and a later play Epinocene, or the Silent Woman. Here China and the Chinese are simultaneously linked to the illicit (sex), the fantastic, and to ancient wisdom. These themes occur throughout history (with the later addition of drugs, crime and cunning).

Early Chinoiserie

Early Chinoiserie

Chinoiserie, then, is the imitation of Chinese style, or its interpretation. The 1619 ballot box above is an attempt at imitating the lacquered boxes coming from China (more details here). It affected arts and crafts of all types: jewellery, textiles and interior design particularly, but also art, theatre, music and literature.

The real growth in Chinoiserie came in the late 17th century as imports increased, which had the effect of raising awareness, but not necessarily lowering the price. The end result, as usual, was imitation: chinoiserie.



Lacquerware was known variously as “bantam ware”, “burnt Japan” or “India work”. Lacquer is the product of a special kind of tree not found in Europe and it possesses some unique properties (see Week 4). It was used largely to create screens and panels in walls and cabinets.

(Image source http://stylecourt.blogspot.com/2008/01/asian-lacquer.html)


Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing

Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing

Japanning” is the emulation of Chinese lacquer work (called Japan because of a confusion over the technique’s source). The publication of a book by Stalker and Parker in 1688 introduced over 100 patterns for tables, frames, boxes and cabinets.

Japanning was viewed as a feminine craft, and well suited to Chinoiserie’s natural home, the bedroom.


The patterns and effect were realised using layers of gesso and varnish and seen as a way of decorating but also protecting furniture.


The patterns in the book were adapted to suit English tastes and we see the start of a western view of life in China.

(Picture source http://www.chipstone.org/SpecialProjects/Dragon/03dragon.html)

Why Was Chinoiserie Fashionable?

Why Was Chinoiserie Fashionable?

As well as representing the exotic, and being associated with adventure and empire, the trend was, as are most trends, a reaction against past tastes. In this case, around the turn of the 18th century, it was a clear break with classicism and its strict formality.

Chinoiserie had theatrical, emotional undertones and was perceived as being far more effeminate and sensual than the rigid masculinity of Greek and Roman style. For almost a century Chinoiserie was both a popular taste and a critic’s nightmare.



A 1763 English coffee pot with Chinese pagodas (sold for � in 2007)


Silver-gilt bowl by James Aldridge (1812), V&A Collection

The Height of Chinoiserie

The Height of Chinoiserie

Chinoiserie reached its peak in the 1750s but still the critics disliked it.
The Chinese tase was “mere whims and chimera, without rules or order, it requires no fertility of genius to put in to execution. The principles are a good choice of chains and bells and different colours of paints. As the the serpents, dragons, monkeys, &c. they, like the rest of the beauties, may be cut in paper and pasted anywhere.” (Robert Morris c. 1702-1754)

Chinoiserie coincided with the French rococco style and in turn was influenced by it, with many of the Chinese motifs being filtered through French sources such as engravings after François Boucher or as in the 1759 example above by Jean-Baptiste Pillament (image source: http://www.asiaarts.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=20755)



Sharawadgi is a term coined by Sir William Temple in 1685 who observed that Chinese gardens lacked symmetry and a preference for irregularity and natural disorder. This principle (the term “sharawadgi” derives from a Japanese word for assymetry), or “beauty without order” became a principle in decorative arts, interior and exterior architecture, and in gardening.

When sharawadgi was applied to gothic style, Chinoiserie took a new turn.



Thomas Chippendale began to design furniture – beds, cabinets, chairs – in Chinese and gothic styles.


(image source: http://1001rulesforcollectingantiques.tumblr.com/post/1121472045)

The proliferation of books of patterns and engravings ensured that Chinoiserie spread and its adoption by those in high positions ensured that the demand for imations of the imitations grew.

All the Tea in China

All the Tea in China

In 1784 the British government replaced a heavy tax on tea with a much lower rate, ensuring that the already popular drink among the wealthy gained widespread appeal. In 1713 the East India Company imported 214,000 pounds of the stuff. One hundred years later the total was 32 million pounds.

Tea drinking at this time was highly ritualised, and polite society revolved around not just the ceremony but the setting – and this too led to a demand for Chinoiserie as the tea pots, cups, even the furniture and the room itself, needed to reflect the origin of the drink (the image above showsThe Chinese Room at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, the image below is Temple Newsam House in Yorkshire).

Tea drinking was associated with women, and with gossip:

Now let me survey
Our madam o’er her evening tea (…)
All mad to speak and none to hearken
They set the very lapdog barking
Their chattering makes a louder din
Than fishwives o’er a cup of gin
(Jonathan Swift, Journal of a Modern Lady, 1728)


Brighton Pavilion

Brighton Pavilion

Perhaps the best example of Chinoiserie in Britain is the Pavilion in Brighton. Built by John Nash at the request of the Prince Regent, Prince of Wales (later George IV), from the outside it is clearly modelled on Islamic architecture (and the Taj Mahal in particular).
But inside it is a feast of often bizarre and over the top Chinoiserie.


As you enter you come in to the Long Gallery which reminds you of a Chinese restaurant – cast iron bamboo frames the doors and stairs.


The rail half way up mimics the tiles on Chinese roofs, and there are little Chinese men parading along the walls.


The banquetting room is ornately decorated with Chinese (or rather Chinoiserie) motifs. The curtain rails are dragons and the light in the centre of the ceiling is a quartet of dragons, each holding a lantern.


They are all suspended from a massive silver dragon hiding in the leafs of a palm tree. Note that this is not a Chinese dragon but a western one – Chinese dragons do not look like this, and certainly don’t have wings. This is a Chinoiserie dragon.

When George died he was succeeded by Victoria who was not a huge fan of either Brighton or Chinoiserie, the palace was closed and the furniture dispersed. It was only later that the Pavilion was restored and much of the present collection reunited. Some items are in the V&A or other museums, and a famous Chinoiserie clock is still at Buckingham Palace, although a faithful replica is in the original home.

Later Chinoiserie

Later Chinoiserie

The Smoking Room on the Empress of Britain (c. 1930)


Stead and Simpson court shoes, 1925 (V&A Collection)

Image source: http://www.dailylit.com/books/shoes-bags-and-tiaras/19)


Wartski brooch, c. 1930

Modern Chinoiserie

Modern Chinoiserie

Chinoiserie is still alive and well, and perhaps a little more tasteful than it once was. The website Chinoiserie Chic is worth a visit – the site owner curates an interesting collection of China-inspired design such as fridge magnets (above) and table cloths (below)


Even Barbie has her own Chinoiserie outfit


The jewellery designer Ward Kelvin has created an interesting collection called American Chinoise.

Further Reading

Further Reading

Chinoiserie is design that is inspired by (even if often remote from) Chinese style and is sometimes beautiful, sometimes kitsch, sometimes funny, sometimes bizarre.

This has only been a quick rush through a huge topic and I’ve focused on furniture and silverware at the expense of other areas such as interiors, textiles, ceramics and illustration (via engraving and art). However the intention is to start you off on your own discoveries. There are examples of Chinoiserie everywhere – maybe even in your own home (start with your pyjamas!) and a lot of potential for developing your own Chinoiserie style.

If you want to investigate further, here are several books on the topic. Two I recommend are Chinoiserie by Dawn Jacobson and Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930 edited by David Beevers. The latter is the catalogue for an exhibition held in Brighton and so is difficult to track down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s