Friday, 24 April 2015

Conference abstract: "The changing significance of the Chinese taste in British gardens"

Picture: The Chinese garden in Biddulph Grange, 2012. Credit: L.Gu, All rights reserved.

New approaches in Chinese garden history, conference abstract

19th June 2015, at the University of Sheffield


 Emile de Bruijn, National Trust, UK

"The changing significance of the Chinese taste in British gardens"

In the seventeenth century, China was held in high regard by Europeans as a nation with an ancient history, a sophisticated system of government and the ability to produce high quality goods. Europeans became familiar with Chinese imagery through the decoration of porcelain, lacquer and silk imported by the East India Companies. William Temple explicitly praised Chinese gardens for their subtle asymmetry and artful naturalism, in an essay published in 1685.

However, when British gardens did become more ‘natural’ in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, there was no obvious evidence of Chinese influence. Even so, the English landscape style was soon associated with China, as evident in the French term jardin anglo-chinois. The Chinese element was initially mainly expressed through fanciful garden pavilions. The conceit of the Chinese garden was brought indoors as well, with the use of Chinese wallpaper and chinoiserie furniture with pagoda and fretwork motifs. Only towards the end of the eighteenth century were actual Chinese plants introduced into British gardens.

In spite of the increasing material evidence of the real China, nineteenth century examples of Chinese taste in British gardens were if anything even more fantastical than their eighteenth-century forebears. The Chinese section in the garden at Biddulph Grange, for instance, is reminiscent of the Willow Pattern, a popular type of ceramics decoration created by British manufacturers.

Recent studies have emphasised the rhetorical nature of the chinoiserie style: how ‘China’ was used to express local and contemporary concerns and how the meaning of ‘China’ changed in response to European stylistic, social and intellectual developments. This paper will demonstrate how that rhetoric operated in British gardens between the middle of the seventeenth and the middle of the nineteenth century.

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