Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 2, 2015
Stacey Sloboda Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain Studies in Design.. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014. 272 pp.; 72 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth £70.00 (9780719089459)

The publication of Stacey Sloboda’s Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain demonstrates the extent to which histories of Britain’s commercial past have broadened over the last fifteen years. In this period consumption, and more specifically ideas of luxury and novelty, have become key to the debate (see Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford, eds., Consumers and Luxury: Consumer Culture in Europe 1650–1850, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999; and Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, eds., Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). In 2005, Berg’s Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) placed consumption and production within the same analytical framework to argue that luxury acted as an important lens through which eighteenth-century Britain negotiated its newly emergent commercial identity. Within political economy, eighteenth-century figures such as Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith ensured that luxury and desire came to be understood as significant forces (for both good and bad) in economic development. Manufacturers imitated foreign wares to create an ever-increasing range of innovative consumer goods. At the same time, retailers sought to increase demand for their products by stressing their novelty. It is within this world of luxury, consumption, and commerce that Sloboda seeks to explore “eighteenth-century Britain’s complex attitudes towards commerce through the contemporary uses and responses to chinoiserie, taking seriously the capacity of the style not only to reflect—but also to shape—taste, identity, and political opinion” (3).

Chinoiserie can be understood as a recognizable aesthetic style. Manufactured in Europe, chinoiserie goods often imitated Chinese materials and combined Chinese and European iconography and decorative effects. The style was popular in Britain throughout the long eighteenth century, but reached its peak in the 1750s. Situated on the cusp between Chinese and European cultures, chinoiserie objects have been studied by a variety of scholars, including historians, art historians, and literary scholars. Most recently David Porter’s The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) shifted the debate by arguing that chinoiserie performed important cultural work in the establishment of English identities. Porter asserts that chinoiserie offered the English population a space in which to discuss and construct an understanding of itself. Sloboda’s book builds on the shift instigated by Porter’s intervention and needs to be understood as contributing to the field of British art history and British history, rather than as a study of Sino-British relations. It engages with the Chinese style in Britain anew and contributes to its study in three key ways. First, Chinoiserie uses British responses to Chinese-style goods as a means of uncovering attitudes toward Britain’s new commercial identity. Second, Sloboda insists on the need to situate chinoiserie within a much more specific historical context. Chinoiserie reached the height of its popularity during the Seven Years’ War. Sloboda argues, therefore, that in examining the style it is necessary to give greater attention to the challenges faced by Britain as a result of its involvement in this conflict. Finally, Sloboda moves away from literary sources and takes a more self-consciously material and visual approach to the objects that made up the chinoiserie style. In doing so, she situates “chinoiserie as a critical visual and material language rather than a mute ornamental style” (6).

In chapter 1, Sloboda argues that chinoiserie needs to be understood within the broader culture of imitation that existed in eighteenth-century Britain. Rather than associated with pejorative connotations of plagiarism and cheap reproduction, in the Georgian period Britons esteemed imitation as “a mark of artistic excellence” (41). European attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain are just one of the many examples of imitative practices that were crucial to the growth of British commercial culture (Maxine Berg, “From Imitation to Invention: Creating Commodities in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Economic History Review 55, no.1 (2002): 1–30). In producing chinoiserie objects, British manufacturers tried to imitate Chinese and Japanese goods in material and decorative terms. Significantly, Sloboda reads this form of imitation as emerging not from a linear process of original and copy, but rather from a circular process in which multiple sources were in motion, shaping how and why manufacturers produced consumer goods. Of particular importance in the development of chinoiserie styles in the 1740s to 1760s was the increased circulation of images and design sources through Eurasian trade routes due to the popularity of commissions. Sloboda asserts that as a result chinoiserie came to be “defined by a hybrid mix of materials and decoration that evoked multiple geographic, artistic, and technological influences” (44).

At the same time, Sloboda argues that through its engagement with novelty, imitation, and innovation chinoiserie made manifest economic principles central to Britain’s increasingly commercial society. In chapter 2, she extends her reading of chinoiserie as an attitude to commerce by examining the perceived links between the style and “more abstract ideas about the market and its characteristics, particularly those of circulation, excess, and precariousness” (61). In eighteenth-century Britain, chinoiserie objects were frequently looked upon as seductive luxuries that emasculated the country by making it vulnerable to the changing fortunes of global trade. Sloboda complicates this well-worn view by highlighting an earlier history where merchants keen to represent a masculine, mercantile sensibility purchased chinoiserie goods. For example, at the turn of the eighteenth century the Cary family (who were tobacco merchants and subscribers to the new East India Company) commissioned a set of thirty-three panels painted with chinoiserie elements for their London house. Chinoiserie offered these individuals an iconography that was both foreign and civilized, allowing them to make claims to modern cosmopolitanism (78). In other contexts chinoiserie was read in similarly positive terms. When taking tea, for instance, chinoiserie could exist as the epitome of politeness. Nevertheless in all these contexts chinoiserie was also liable to be read as excessive—the boundary between refinement and debasement remained worryingly blurry. Even in its material form excessive curves defined chinoiserie objects, which meant that they “embodied [a] sense of motion” central to commercial culture (91). For Sloboda, then, chinoiserie more than reflected ideas about commerce, it materialized them.

Porter has argued that in the mid-eighteenth century the Chinese style and its excessive nature provided a countercultural taste that could empower peripheral groups in their subversion of, and resistance to, classical traditions (David Porter, “Monstrous Beauty: Eighteenth-Century Fashion and the Aesthetics of the Chinese Taste,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 35, no. 3 (2002): 397). In chapter 3, Sloboda utilizes a material and visual approach to extend Porter’s argument by demonstrating the diverse ways in which chinoiserie empowered individuals. Particularly compelling is the case that she makes for craftsmen. Once released from the rules of classicism, chinoiserie offered cabinetmakers the chance to be creative in constructing new forms and shapes. Similarly, while chinoiserie (and Chinese goods) were regularly conflated with femininity, sexuality, and desire, women could play on these connotations. (For more on this, see Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, 53; Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England, 139.) Elizabeth Montagu used the overtly “feminine” space of her Chinese room (situated in her dressing room and designed by William and John Linnell) to host meetings of her bluestocking circle. Chinoiserie mediated bluestocking performances of social authority and intellectual ambition, recasting them as more acceptably feminine acts.

Context and space are central concerns within Sloboda’s book. In the final chapter she argues that individuals also used chinoiserie in “exterior” spaces, such as gardens, and that it was within these sites that the context of the Seven Years’ War was particularly significant. Individuals used Chinese garden motifs and Chinese-style garden architecture within “British” gardens to represent and contain the new globally interlinked commercial world. References to commercial journeys and Chinese goods were included in garden landscapes. For example the Chinese House at Stowe was placed next to a lake and was accessed by crossing a bridge, a location that Sloboda reads as referencing the mercantile journey to China. The house itself was filled with Chinese commodities, such as porcelain. These projects were about trying to include “visions of otherness within the nationalist landscape” to create a British national identity that “was at once cosmopolitan and imperial” (185). As such, Sloboda argues that these garden designs existed as part of a broader cultural impulse that saw Britons using “Chinese costumes, objects, and imagery as a symbol of martial victory” and as a means of performing Britain’s own imperial power in the context of their involvement in the Seven Years’ War (179). Sloboda notes that such projects were highly contested, however, and by the 1770s became entirely unsustainable.

Sloboda’s focus on commerce, context, and materiality needs to be applauded for shifting the parameters in which the development of British chinoiserie is understood. She is rightly critical of the consumer/producer binary that has emerged as a result of a recent eighteenth-century-studies focus on consumption, and she tries to overcome it by considering “chinoiserie itself as a type of network constituted by its cross-cultural makers, users, consumers, and critics” (11). Understanding chinoiserie objects as existing at the intersection between many different cross-cultural contributions is important and could perhaps be developed further to show how specific groups (such as consumers, designers, retailers, and artisans) responded to and used chinoiserie to communicate their understandings of Britain as a global, commercial entity. Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain productively begins the important work of understanding aesthetic styles as forms of “critical visual and material language” that shaped the cultural life of past societies (6). Through confronting forms of visual and material language, an understanding of eighteenth-century Britain’s complex attitudes toward commerce is broadened and deepened.

Kate Smith
Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History, Department of History, University of Birmingham