Posts tagged Chinoiserie
This pair of mirrors, circa 1815, were carved by Thomas Fentham (1771-1801), a leading Regency carver, gilder, looking glass, and picture frame-maker, while the reverse-painted plates are almost certainly Chinese. Fentham worked in the Strand, London where he held premises at Nos. 49, 51 or 42 (1774-93) and No. 136 (1794-1820). His business was substantial; the house and shop at No. 136 in the Strand were spacious, and insured for £5,400, and his handsome frames were acquired by such notable patrons as Lady Heathcote, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, Charles Townley, and the Yorke family at Erddig Hall. One mirror bears a ripped paper label reading: THOMAS FENTHAM / No. 136 STRAND / NEAR SOMERSET-HOUSE / Manufacturer of Looking-Glasses, / CONVEX and CONCAVE MIRRORS / AND ALL SORTS OF / PICTURE and GLASS FRAMES. / GLASS for EXPORTATION.
Between 1807 and 1821, the firm traded as Thomas Fentham & Co. and was taken over upon Fentham’s death in 1801 by his son, Thomas John, and son-in-law, John Bainbridge. He died an apparently wealthy man, and among the provisions of his will he requested that a monument be erected in his memory.
Each of the present mirrors is painted with a different river scene depicting mountainous Chinese landscapes with pagodas, fishermen and various types of boats. The vogue for Chinese-inspired interiors in late-18th and early 19th century England was revived and fostered under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who executed a small number of royal interiors in the chinoiserie taste, beginning with the lavish Chinese drawing room created in 1790 at the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, and followed in 1801 by the one of the Regency’s most remarkable buildings, the Royal Pavillion, Brighton.
The convex mirror was widely popular among the high society during the Regency. An addiction to light and space led to the greatly increased use of wall mirrors, which the antiquarian John Britton (1771 – 1857) remarked ‘were adopted to extend the apparent dimensions of our rooms’. In 1803 Thomas Sheraton observed in his Cabinet dictionary: ‘the perspective of the room in which [convex mirrors] are suspended presents itself on the surface of the mirror and produces an agreeable effect’.
The frames of the mirrors epitomize Regency decoration, particularly in the eagle that surmounts each, which was a symbol of might and triumph. Each eagle sits on a pedestal flaneked by scrolled acanthus leaves, while the apron is decorated with sprigs of oak leaves and acorns, centered by a shell. The oak, adopted as the national tree of England, is symbolic of virtue, strength and endurance.
The present mirrors appear to be the only known examples to incorporate Chinese reverse glass painting onto convex mirrors. Usually “the plates of mirror glass were imported from Europe for decoration by Chinese painters and in 1764 Elie de Beaumont speaks of mirrors sent from England, painted in China and then returned.” However, Breton de la Martinière noted that a single “glasshouse” for the production of mirrors existed in Canton, “the only [one] in the Empire” and technical inspection of the present glass and mercury silvering has led to the almost certain conclusion that they were fabricated in China.
Such a new and extremely difficult undertaking would have tested Chinese glass makers to the limit, and these being the only known examples likely attest to the probability that it was a problematic and costly procedure, thus rendering the process commercially unviable.
This early-nineteenth century cabinet is an unusual example of English Regency furniture profusely set with tôle peinte panels and incorporating a stepped superstructure, which seems very likely to have been inspired by the designs of the foremost tastemaker of the period, the Anglo-Dutch Banker Thomas Hope (1769-1831). He showed a similarly stepped chimneypiece in his seminal 1807 publication Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, where it was used to support a display of what he referred to as “Egyptian, Hindoo and Chinese idols and curiosities.”1 (figure 1). This was an illustration of the practical application of his maxim that came to define the period; “antiquity was to be imitated but that it was not to be copied.”2
The side cabinet is set with panels of tôle, defined as tinplate or pewter that has been varnished, painted or japanned. The techniques originally came from technical investigations into the rust-proofing of iron in the early eighteenth century, and its heat-resistance and durability made it popular for use on everyday objects like kettles, tea sets and trays. John Baskerville from Birmingham secured the first patent in Britain in 1759 and not long afterwards a fellow local manufacturer Stephen Bedford is recorded as making japanned copper panels for coaches3, beginning the industry’s long association with that region of Britain. Aside from Birmingham, other main centers of production were the Welsh towns of Pontypool and Usk, and Bilston in Staffordshire. In Pontypool, a Thomas Allgood led a particularly successful business opening further workshops in Birmingham and London and by the late eighteenth century he was exporting large quantities of Pontypool tole to Europe and America.4
However aside from its practical uses its decorative potential was also quickly recognized; during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the material was applied to the finest of furniture; in France it was used by premier ébénistes like Adam Weisweiler (c. 1750 – c. 1810) to imitate oriental lacquer. The term ‘tôle’ itself is borrowed from French, where such objects are referred to as tôle peinte. In England George Brookshaw, a London furniture maker, painted and fired thinly rolled sheets of copper which he applied as veneers to the tops of his tables, concealing the joins with a gilt metal band. A table by Brookshaw from c. 1785 displaying this technique can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (figure 2).
It is not the practical usefulness of tôle that is being exploited on the present piece but its fine effect as a decorative surface. Here the subject matter combines a few stylistic influences that perfectly define its period. The panels on the two drawers feature classical warriors in chariots (figure 3 & 4), a popular motif of the time that reminds of the French Empire style and especially Pierre-Philippe Thomire’s magnificent chariot clocks. Possibly the figures here are intended to be the heroes of the Trojan war Achilles and Hector. In contrast, the small curved reserves in the corners of the stepped pyramid tier are filled with Chinoiserie designs including pagodas and oriental landscapes. The leader of the revival in this taste was the Prince Regent himself, who in the early decades of the nineteenth century was busy renovating his seaside residence, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, in the most remarkable and ostentatious interpretation of the style. Additionally the restricted red and gold palate of the tole is a continuation of the taste for ‘Etruscan’ decoration that was stimulated by the publication of the designs on Sir William Hamilton’s collection of vases in the late 1760s.5
Tôle would remain immensely popular in the nineteenth century, as would the related medium of papier maché; both are examples of the diversification of materials and technology that defined furniture and decoration in the English regency.
The present table is a rare example of English lacquer furniture made in the reign of Queen Anne. Whilst bureaux and mirrors rendered in lacquer at this date are not uncommon, small elegant tables are few. The beautifully drawn cabriole leg supporting a cavetto frieze is particularly pleasing and is more normally associated with prototypes in figured walnut.
Trade between Europe and Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in a cultural exchange which sparked European enthusiasm for Far Eastern decorative arts, particularly painted furniture using lacquering technique. Lacquered furniture was first imported to Europe from China and Japan (hence the English term for the technique, “japanning”) and as contact with these countries increased, the “European rage for paint on furniture, through the ancient art of lacquer” was inspired. Japanned pieces were most often decorated with a black lacquer and decorated with raised and flat work often in the form of deities, pavilions, and fantastical creatures which were then gilded and detailed.
In England, “painted furniture gained popularity during the reign of William and Mary (1689-1792).” It reached its apogee in the early 18th century and demand was so high that the trade was unable to accommodate it. Books were published instructing the English in the art of japanning so that pieces could be made at home. In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published their Treatise on Japanning and Varnishing, which provided detailed descriptions of lacquer recipes, processes, and designs. Tables, secretaries, chairs, and coffers were all made in this style, such as a tea table (circa 1710) similar to the present example in shape, which can be seen in figure 1. Furniture took contemporary British forms, but was decorated with distinctly Asian scenes of exotic animals and birds, flora, and landscapes. The English “worked hard to imitate the lustrous surface of Asian lacquerware, but the objects they created were distinctly European in character.”