Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fishermen in a gorge

Chinoiserie's motifs include chrysanthemums, dragons, pearls, pagodas, Chinese warriors, pigtailed boys and mustachioed monks. Looking round the exhibition 'Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930' today, it was clear that in general, landscapes tend to feature as the settings for figures - drinking tea, fishing or walking under parasols. Nevertheless, Stella Beddoe notes in the catalogue that by 1800 the more picturesque figurative subjects illustrating Old Cathay had almost disappeared from mass-produced china in favour of more simple views of gardens, land and waterscapes. The most famous design of all, dating from 1790, features two lovers fleeing a stern father through a landscape that includes a weeping willow and pagoda. It is still ubiquitous - only last week I was eating cake from a willow pattern plate at my mother-in-law's. My grandparents had rows of them all around their dining room.

The catalogue to the exhibition is described here as 'useless', which is harsh, but I would like it to have had a bit more detail in places. For example, it would be good to learn more of William Alexander's drawings, made in China in 1793 whilst he was part of the unsuccessful mission to China (the emperor said to the British ambassador "we have never valued ingenious articles, neither do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures.") The British Library has Alexander's images in their on-line gallery here. And it would also be nice to have had more information on some early (c. 1696) chinoiserie attributed to the engraver, publisher and scenery designer Robert Robinson (?1651-1706): works probably inspired by Chinese export paintings and the illustrations in Johan Niehof's Embassy (trans. 1669). The panel in the exhibition shows a misty and mysterious looking gorge with a fishing boat and figures picking their way along the rocks. There are more of these panels in the V&A.

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