Chinoiserie by Dawn Jacobson: A Review

Posted by Brittany Gogel on

 In my thirst for learning all things chinoiserie in interior decorating I came across Chinoiserie, by Dawn Jacobson. This work really is a true history book for chinoiserie and in merely eight chapters it entails its origins to its rise to prominence and how it spread all across Europe and even jumped the English channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Jacobson masterfully gives detail to the elements that chinoiserie overtook throughout Europe such as furniture, porcelain, wallpaper, textiles, gardening and architecture. She charts its impact on trade, consumerism, and the economy finishing with explaining how the diffusion of Orientalism impacts our present world in pop culture in ways we never even pause to realize. This book belongs on every shelf of every chinoiserie aficionado. 

Chinoiserie by Dawn Jacobson

For centuries, Cathay, the ancient name for China, was shrouded in mystery to the West. While trade was already limited, by the end of the third century the Silk Road was made even more insecure due to the rise of barbarian incursions and growth of Islam. By 878 China cut itself off completely from all foreigners. The curtain became open for a short time when the Venetian brothers, Niccolo and Maffeo Polo learned Tartar and ventured to meet Kublai Khan with whom Niccolo left his 17-year-old son, Marco, to become the Khan's trusted servant for 20 years. Yet again by 1368 with a new Ming Dynasty, all trade routes were once again closed. For hundreds of years the myths and fantasy of the east was left to percolate in the western imagination. 

Marco Polo, 1254-1323 

With the Age of Exploration came the English East India Company in 1600 and trade with Asia once again grew. Around 1669 John Nieuhof, steward to the ambassador of the Dutch Embassy, took to drawing what he saw and it soon was publish in Europe (you can see a digital copy of the book he wrote here). Trade with China brought items such as textiles, dress fabrics, wallpapers, ceramics, lacquer ware, silver, gold, ivory and fans. Due to the high cost of importing these items, it prompted several craftsmen to start imitations of them to bolster their own capital. Naturally, when an imitator doesn't have the original to work from, one learns to improvise and is forced to draw upon what they already know which ushers in an intermingling of inspiration, creating something completely new: chinoiserie. 

In the seventeenth century chinoiserie was adapted into the current Baroque style with all its ornate detail and grandeur that combated Protestant simplicity and still maintained classical symmetry. Baroque style was emulated by the Palace of Versailles and reinforced Catholicism and the divine right of kings.

delftware flower vase, 1695-1705 (Met Museum)

Examples of Baroque chinoiserie are seen through the work of Dutch delft potters, French faience (tin-glazed earthenware), and "all seventeenth-century English pottery is firmly baroque in shape, much of it blue and white." (p.49) Silver returned to popularity during the Restoration period (1660-1688) in England and included chinoiserie engravings. English textiles and embroidery were dominated with the Indian Tree of Life pattern and typical chinoiserie flowers. This therefore included both silks for dresses and tapestries for the home. Japanned furniture with oriental scenes was also becoming increasingly popular with more and more furniture makers imitating the style of lacquer. It seems that the designs continually got further and further away from the original intention, but the Chinese seemed to hardly mind when they themselves started altering their own productions for export to suite western taste.

Chinoiserie cabinet made in England 1690-1700 (V&A Museum)

While chinoiserie had been accepted in many places across Europe and England during the 17th century, it wasn't until the 18th century when France, the preeminent European power, made it a vital component of their new Rococo period that it dominated the market. The Rococo does away with all restraint and symmetry that lingered in the Baroque period from the classical influence of the Renaissance. Rococo additionally was not lead by the King, as in the Baroque, but came from Paris and the growing bourgeoisie. 

Embroidered panel with chinoiserie scenes, wool & silk, 18th C. (Met Museum)
Chinoiserie from Nouvelle Suite de Cahiers Arabesques Chinois, 1790. Designed by Jean Pillement.

By 1721 chinoiserie was firmly planted as the center of fashion. Its development was led by several key artists: Antoine Watteau, Christophe Huet, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Baptiste Pillement. Chinoiserie in the 18th century exaggerated the fantasy of Cathay. Fabrics such as satins and embroideries grew in use for those who could afford them and wallpaper was developed in France in the 1770s to make the style more accessible (even though Ireland and England had perfected the process 20 years previous). And when it came to japanned furniture, the French began to experiment with colouration incorporating rococo colours inspired by China. 

18th C commode delivered by the marchand-mercier Thomas-Joachim Hébert for the Cabinet de Retraite of Queen Marie Leczinska at Fontainebleau; under the reign of Louis XVI.

German rulers looked to France for inspiration and therefore Rococo chinoiserie spread to Prussia, Bavaria, and even St. Petersburg (where German Czarinas were on the throne). However, in Germany, Augustus the Strong's obsession with oriental porcelain had become "the bleeding-bowl of Saxony" because he would pay any price for a piece he really wanted. His finance minister believed their only salvation would be to discover how to create their own porcelain. So they employed an alchemist to discover the formula and in 1710 the Royal Saxon Porcelain Manufactory at Meissen was founded and they held onto their monopoly until 1747. Meissen was no only set apart as the first in Europe to discover porcelain production, but they also gained lasting fame because they produced a world of tiny porcelain statues. The French later founded their own porcelain factory at Sevres, which was protected and financed by the crown. 



Meissen, hard-paste porcelain, 1725 (the Met Museum)

 Certainly how chinoiserie was adopted in England was different than abroad because of the persistent domination of the Palladian style which demanded clarity, order, and symmetry and when it grew in popularity it did so at the same time as a Gothic resurgence and there was therefore an intermingling of the two. However, when chinoiserie came to prominence in England, it was led by the compilers of pattern-books and carvers, not the elites or the king. Of course the best known pattern-book of the period was Thomas Chippendale's Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker's Directory, 1754.

William Halfpenny's engraving. 1750, England.

Other prolific English designers were William Halfpenny, Mathias Lock, Henry Copland, Mathias Darly, and George Edwards.

Mirror, designed by Thomas Johnson, 1750 – 60, London, England (V&A)


It isn't difficult to understand that as the French Revolution began, all economic endeavours turn towards the war effort rather than design and construction. Additionally, as the Age of Imperialism took over Europe and Britain it ensured that the veil between the known and unknown was pierced forever and the fantasy of Cathay dwindled. Bad relations between the Chinese and British hurt trade as the Chinese placed restrictions on the British, particularly on extremely lucrative opium. The British responded with capturing parts of China which ended with Peking, the Imperial City, being sacked in 1860. Unfortunately, "China was widely seen throughout Europe as a country of liars and fools, whose defenses were pitifully weak and whose emperor's claims to universal sway were absurd and meaningless." (p. 183) It is therefore not surprising that this view impacted the west's view of Chinese decorative arts. The Treaty of Naking was a "watershed" moment in the West's view of chinoiserie and even during the Great Exhibition of 1851 there was only a single illustration of Chinese art. 

However, during the 19th century chinoiserie continued on in the public arena, private gardens, and somewhat ironically through the Prince of Wales, George IV's Royal Pavilion at Brighton. While the ancien régime was dying a terrible death in Europe, the Prince was being irresponsible and self-indulgent with the palace funds lavishing the Brighton Pavilion with his love of exoticism and chinoiserie. As chinoiserie  fell out of favour in England due to poor international relations and the Prince's frivolity, the hole left was then filled by japonisme which kept still England under the influence of the Orient. 

Brighton Pavilion, Regency era Britain

Jacobson caps off the general history of chinoiserie by giving a brief overview of how chinoiserie was adopted in America through japanning and furniture design in particular. The most interesting fact shared here was that P.T. Barnum was so inspired by the Brighton Pavilion that he built his own homage to chinoiserie in 1846 called Iranistan, which after only 12 years burned down in 1858. I find myself wondering why, when Canada has both a clear British and French history, chinoiserie never made the impact in in the north as it did with it's southern neighbours. Jacobson does not explore this notion, and truthfully I wouldn't expect her to since most historians spend their time analyzing what did happen, and not what didn't happen. 

Iranistan, Connecticut 

Overall this really was a wonderful read. As a history nerd myself, I appreciate the attention to dates, names, illustrations and books of the time period that were influential in bringing this trade to the forefront. Jacobson is adept at analyzing the origins and influences of each artist or champion upon furthering the style. As this book really is a history of architecture and design, I certainly appreciate the use of over 200 images to help convey the meaning and illustrate an example. However, there are moments when I was stunned that certain photos weren't included. For example, Jacobson painstakingly describes an inordinate amount of detail regarding the carving work of Luke Lightfoot in the China Room at Claydon House and yet no image appears of the amazing work. 

China Room at Claydon House, circa 1769

My only other criticism is that the last chapter seems to fall very short of the mark of describing how the art of chinoiserie has impacted the 20th century. Of course this remains yet another big task, but to leave out the impact that Mario Buatta left on the 20th century and how he employed chinoiserie elements in his design is disappointing. Instead we get left with references to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and while the point is well taken, it feels a bit too obvious and I would have liked more to dig into. 

This book is a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone interested in history, design, architecture and the early stages of globalism. In final summary, it seems that while there really are many complicated factors involved in the evolution of chinoiserie you can boil down its rise to originating with the west being enamored with a fantasy of Cathay because it was shrouded in mystery, and it's demise came when that mystery was revealed to be something disappointing, however compounded by the colonialism of the time.  


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