Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930, Brighton Museum, Brighton
Friday 06 June 2008
With gallery walls painted to imitate 18th-century wallpaper and display cabinets topped with pagoda roofs, Brighton Museum provides a charming setting for this playfully exotic style that enchanted Britain. English decorators saw chinoiserie as a pretext for fantasy and whimsy, so much so that it was considered in some quarters to be decadent. (It's no accident that Mr Horner, in The Country Wife, lures the ladies with his china collection, kept in a bedroom.)
Classicists grumbled that chinoiserie was a ridiculous hodgepodge of serpents, dragons, and monkeys, but their objections had no effect on a class that relished eccentricity and extravagance. The Duke of Sussex, in 1770, took delivery of a solid-silver epergne on which six openwork baskets dangled beneath a canopy topped with a pineapple and fringed with bells; bells of gilded wood border the temple roof above a Chippendale bed made about the same time for the Earl of Wemyss, who when reclining could look up at embroidery dense with cranes and water lilies. The most popular Chinese export, tea, created a fashion for Chinese-style objects to store and serve it, though the mandarins and phoenixes on porcelain pots may have been painted no further east than Bow.
With the increased prosperity and democracy of the Victorian age, chinoiserie found a wider audience, but lost its 18th-century delicacy and grace. A mid-19th-century chair with bulbous serpents writhing down its back and legs and floral needlepoint on its seat is a characteristic example of the period's overstatement and insensitivity, the kind of garishness that led to the style's being used for fun fairs and cinemas.
The lightness that was the spirit of the style was not recaptured until the Twenties, when China once again meant decadence, this time for exemplifying languor in an age of speed. It was a time when fast women took their ease in embroidered silk pajamas and played "Limehouse Blues" on gramophones painted with willows and pagodas. Whether illustrating our voluptuous surrender to the pleasures of the East, or our domestication of them, this is a collection of sumptuous stuff.
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