It’s a well-established historical fact that people who lived in the eighteenth century were nuts. A rosy reflection of the past may suggest that life at that time was one great well-manned episode of Masterpiece Theatre, replete with cravats, needlepoint, witty conversation and polished napkin rings. Although Mr. & Miss Seventeen-Hundreds knew their way around a whist table, they are also the people who first systematically excavated Pompeii–in the very same decade that they stoked up the early blast furnaces; they overthrew kings and invented new countries; they peered deep into microscopes and sailed across oceans to unknown lands. Their widely ranging activities lead to the brief, fizzy movement known as Chinoiserie, the first significant blending of Occidental and Oriental taste. (And without taste, what does archaeology, industry, governance, science and commerce really matter?)
During this period, China was accessible primarily to merchants (who were very interested in the commercial possibilities of learning about Chinese manners and taste in order to exploit them for home markets) and missionaries (who were only interested in those lessons insofar as they might change/correct them). Among the former, William Chambers, a merchant for the Swedish East India Company, saw even more potential in the ceramics and pagodas of Canton than did his professional brethren. In the midst bargaining for spices and tea, Chambers was so inspired by his surroundings that he gave up his lucrative career and turned to architecture. He built a reputation by serving up fabulous buildings in the Western tradition, but never lost his love for the East. In London, significant royal work fell to him, from the massively civic and awesomely Neo-Classical Somerset House to the expansively recreational and fabulously Picturesque Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
To ornament the gardens, Chambers cooked up an architectural banquet, including a domed “Temple of Aeolus” (ancient Greek ruler of the winds, associated with seafarers–interesting choice for the former merchant), as well as a “mosque” and something named after the Alhambra (both of these latter, sadly, long gone). Rising above them all, a slender Chinese lookout tower still stands. Called the Pagoda, this 163-foot tall structure bears striking resemblance to the tapering pagodas that Chambers had seen in China. It cuts a rather dour figure these days, but two and a half centuries ago it was the stuff: originally the metal roof panels were painted in bright colors and provided perches for a swarm of eighty gilded dragons. Eighty! It’s another historical fact that the world needs more dragon ornaments on its buildings.
The Pagoda at Kew became one of the signature monuments Chinoiserie, the French term for “like Chinese, but just sort of” preferred among the international crowd that used it, for its more more elegant and sensual resonance than the English Chinesesqueish, the Italian Cinesetto, and definitely the German Chinesischesorientierenbegeistertlecken. Chinoiserie blended motifs that were lightly lifted from Chinese traditions with a certain Rococo sensibility (which is sort of an oxymoron), and availed itself to further influences from mysterious parts of the globe. As a frothy mix of exotic cultures, formed around a Western view of what the “non-West” looked like, it created a new style that ended up speaking not so much of the cultures from which it drew, but instead revealed the delight in the fantastic within the culture that built it up. It has been said that Chinoiserie allowed Europeans to stay home and surround themselves in the artistry of a place to which it was unlikely they would or could ever travel; it is perhaps more true that they ornamented their lives with fanciful settings that could only be the result of their imaginations’ flights of fancy.
Through its local fame and its publication in lush folios, the Pagoda at Kew became the most famous of a number of similar structures that sprang up across European gardens and villas in such countries as Belgium and Germany; even Italy got in on the act. Fancy people built swanky pavilions in an extravagant style that was accepted as “Chinese” through the inclusion of tent-like roof forms or populating the joint with figures of people in hats shaped like woks. Usually these buildings were not of great functional consequence, but instead served as grandiose picnic shelters or places to convalesce after a grueling match of croquet. Such is the case with the little structure here, on the estate at Sanssouci (from the French for “without care”). The porch is ornamented with gilded andostensibly “Oriental” people seated beneath palm trees; dragons perch on the heads of windows; its interior features a brilliant 360-degree painting that includes more exotics, parrots and buddhas than you can shake a riding crop at. The Chinese House sets a new standard for effervescent architecture. If you shake this building, it will explode, covering you in a bubbly, sticky liquid that smells like candied ginger.
For those who liked to keep their exotic interest more, ahem, private, Chinoiserie was adaptable to a variety of intimate interior spaces. In Buckinghamshire, the stern façade of Claydon (whose blind arch over the central Palladian motif makes the whole facade look like it is frowning) screens a “Chinese bedroom” from prying eyes. Surely the glory of carver Luke Lightfoot (truly, that’s his name), the elaborate frosting of woodwork around the door, chimney and bed proscenium (excusez-moi?) is truly a wonder in its fantastic display of faces, figures, flora and fauna, all of it like some dreamy memory of China, but not China itself.
Because it was usually seen in the realm of the ephemeral and private, and because it was so tied to the fickle tastes of a certain kind of consumer culture, lasting architectural examples of Chinoiserie are rare. However, its legacy in the decorative arts is rich. Fabrics festooned with phoenixes and wallpapers bearing fantastical mountain landscapes abounded in private homes. Certain furniture, and other objects used by Europeans that had no complement in China, posed a certain challenge to designers. Oftentimes, curvaceous and otherwise Rococo chairs and settees would be tricked out in painting, marquetry or upholstery with Chinese motifs. For more sober applications, say, an American university or an English library ladder (left), panels of fretwork provided a knowing, cool nod to la vogue pour Chinois among those reserved folk who liked to be in with the in crowd, but maybe not all in.
The adoption of Chinese motifs into European lifestyles lead to some interesting cultural clashes. It might be one thing to store one’s potpourri in porcelain ware featuring a happy Buddha in a floral gown, since fragrances cheered Buddha: sandalwood incense burned at the temple is pretty much the same thing as lavender that scents a lady’s boudoir. Less direct is the link between ice cream and China that would explain a Chinoiserie French ice cream cooler (left). No doubt the Sèvres porcelain factory also produced Chinese-styled chocolate pots that also provided the European’s breakfast table appropriately exotic vessels to serve drinking chocolate, a new luxury from another part of the world.
In the fine arts, Chinoiserie was rarely a stand-alone approach to painting and sculpture, but it was adopted into a variety of arts produced for domestic display. Table-top sculptures of mandarins and little temples fused Chinese themes into Rococo styling. In one significant application of Chinoiseie in canvas painting, Francois Boucher, who never met a flirty scene he didn’t love, assimilated Chinese decor into his sweet Rococo visions of peasant sweethearts for fashionable French parlors. The fact that “Asian Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (left) didn’t look much different from “European Rustics” frolicking in a picturesque landscape (here), beyond the costumes and the setting, did not bother anyone much.
Perhaps the apotheosis of Chinoiserie was achieved at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, where architect John Nash revealed that if inspiration from one exotic culture is good, inspiration from a half-dozen is better. He freely adopted Indian, Arab, medieval, Chinese and other traditions in the conception of a particularly exuberant style. How exuberant, you ask? How about so many dragons, that the twenty-first century keepers of the Pavilion challenge kids to try and find all the dragons in the place (you can play along with the Dragon Quest by following this link). Few other projects so encapsulate the West’s fascination with Eastern exoticism, as well as their unbridled joy at mixing varieties of motifs that had neither historical, geographic nor cultural relationship. This is seen in the very names given to the prevailing architectural style of the Royal Pavilion, which is as stylish as it gets. Dazzled critics alternately called it Neo-Mughal, Indo-Saracenic and Hindu-Gothic.
And who could blame them for their confusion? The Royal Pavilion reached a lofty height of conjoining disparate and vaguely recognizable vignettes into a wholly unprecedented concoction. It is an architectural version of waking from a dream which makes no sense when the narrative is retold, but seemed so real in the dreaming. Such is Chinoiserie, even when its products do not look Chinese at all: the stunning Dunmore Pineapple (below) is often grouped under the umbrella of Chinoiserie, even though there is nothing specifically Chinese (or generally Asian for that matter) about a giant pineapple-shaped dome rising over a Palladian motif at the center of an otherwise simple limestone hothouse. But more important than it not being Chinese, is the fact that it isn’t anything else identifiable, either. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Chinoiserie!
The Royal Pavilion represents the last gasp of eighteenth-century fervor for exoticism that encompassed and fueled the West’s interest in Chinese design. Such stratospheric flights of fancy were brought crashing down to earth by the weighty demands of aesthetic theory for shrewdly judged precedents that could contribute to cultural morality. Architects like Nash and Chambers had become too rowdy, requiring the discipline of theory’s equivalent of a big wet blanket to set things straight again. Cue Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who rattled on to the scene to hurl three mighty tomes through the diaphanous gauze of Chinoiserie taste. He gave clearest voice to this change in attitude, sort of the first frost after a long warm summer, in a publication of 1843, in which he blamed architecture’s “Bable of confusion” on private judgment of architects who had strayed too far from home, both imaginatively and physically. Depending on their itinerary, globe-trotting architects returned to their homelands thusly: “One breathes nothing but the Alhambra, another the Parthenon, a third is full of lotus cups and pyramids from the banks of the Nile, a fourth, from Rome, is all dome and basilica.” (If you like that, it’s just a taste. Few writers do indignant like Pugin. Get more here.)
Ol’ Man Pugin shut down the party, threw everyone out of the house and chased all the kids off his lawn. As his ideals spread, no self-respecting architect could possibly parlay an upward-turned roof or dragon ornament into anything suitable to modern European or American culture, for the nineteenth-century’s understanding of China at the time portrayed the country as possessing none of the virtues valued by modern Western society.
The eighteenth-century’s thrill in the extraordinary could not withstand the directives for architects to bow beneath the burden imposed by weighty historical theory. Chinoiserie was pushed aside, making way for the nineteenth century’s Greek state capitols, Italianate society clubs, and Gothic churches. Chinese design appeared rarely as a significant influence, resuscitated only in the early twentieth century in movie palaces, and more recently in a kind of revival that is pretty in a chilly way, and lacks the freewheeling verve of the original.
Although Chinoiserie enjoyed just a brief season, it offers a balmy alternative when one wearies of the chill that can arises around cold Modernism and stern Classicism. Caught between the pull of technological advance and the weight of historical awareness, it may be well to follow the lead of those clever eighteenth-century people who refused to accept that there were only two choices, and instead went skipping into a sunny, hazy, weightless world of delight and fantasy inspired by the other side of the world.