The exotic appeal - and great expense - of imported Chinese wares
inspired European craftsmen of the 17th and 18th century to use
oriental motifs and details in
creating their own hybrid style.
Fine products from China, and in particular silks, porcelain and lacquer,
have found their way into Europe from Roman times, but the journey
cross-country along the famous silk road via Samarkand to the Middle East was a
hazardous one, and it was only when Portuguese navigators discovered the sea
route around Africa to China in the 16th century that trade began to open up.
In the 16th century, Oriental trade remained primarily a Portuguese
affair, but in the 17th century the Dutch, operating through the Dutch East
India Company, were responsible for bringing Chinese wares, particularly
porcelain, round the Cape of Good Hope to sell to the aristocrats of Northern Europe.
In the 18th century, the English East India Company took over, bringing
tea and spices as well as less perishable luxury wares.
THE CHINESE TASTE
The Chinese taste was well established in Europe from the mid-17th
century on. In particular, there was a great fashion among the wealthy for
Chinese porcelain - both for display and for use - and for lacquer panels.
Inevitably, European craftsmen were inspired by the new fashions. Some
made deliberate attempts to produce Chinese-style wares using European methods.
In particular, they reproduced Chinese lacquer finishes by 'japanning'
pieces of furniture and made copies of its blue and white porcelain in
Most craftsmen, though, were content to introduce into their work motifs
and design details based on a rather romantic idea of China - 'far Cathay' -
nurtured by travellers' tales. It is this style, rather than the
straightforward reproduction of Chinese designs, that is most accurately
described as chinoiserie.
European versions of dragons, peacocks and the phoenix, strangely-dressed
Chinamen and Chinese landscapes - almost always including a pagoda or two were
painted on pottery, applied to furniture in paint, carved wood, gesso or inlay,
engraved or embossed on precious metals, painted on walls or woven in
tapestries and silks.
In the mid-18th century, the Chinese style was seen as an exotic
alternative to Gothic. Chippendale appropriated the geometric open lattice
style of carving and the rather square, right-angled outlines from traditional
Chinese pieces to design Chinese Chippendale furniture. Other cabinetmakers
created chairs with 'Chinese railings' instead of a splat, or with crest-rails
carved as a pagoda.
BLUE AND WHITE CHINOISERIE
At the same time, potters continued to put chinoiserie patterns on blue
and white earthenware and porcelain alike. This trend reached its height when
just about every pottery manufacturer in Staffordshire turned out variants on
Willow Pattern ware, a design created in England from vaguely oriental
Some of these European products made their way back to China, both
directly and from India, where many Chinese-style goods were made for export to
These, in their turn, influenced the way that Chinese craftsmen created
goods made for export, and the demarcation line between Chinese export wares and chinoiserie got a bit blurred
Chinoiserie influenced other European styles, too. The French were slower
to appreciate oriental wares than the Dutch and the English, but they did
influence the busy rococo style, which spread from France throughout Europe in
the 18th century.
In England, the fashion for the neo-classical towards the end of the 18th
century put chinoiserie into retreat, though a hard core of enthusiasts kept
the style alive until the Regency.
At that time, under the influence of the Prince Regent, later George IV,
and particularly of his seaside home, the Brighton Pavilion, it came back into
the forefront of interior design. Rooms in the Chinese style were
included in most of the important pattern books of the day.
Japanning remained the commonest decorative technique, though some
beechwood chairs were turned and painted to resemble bamboo.
The craze for chinoiserie waned somewhat in 19th-century Europe; even the
eclectic Victorians did not revive it.
When interest in oriental craftsmanship did return in the second half of
the century, it was the products of Japan, not China, which caught the popular
imagination and led to a new style of European pastiche, japonaiserie.