The Furniture of Eastern Countries.
Furniture: Probable source of artistic taste—Sir William Chambers
quoted—Racinet's "Le Costume Historique"—Dutch influence—The South
Kensington and the Duke of Edinburgh Collections—Processes of making
Lacquer—Screens in the Kensington Museum. Japanese
Furniture: Early History—Sir Rutherford Alcock and Lord Elgin—The
Collection of the Shogun—Famous Collections—Action of the present Government
of Japan—Special characteristics. Indian Furniture:
Early European influence—Furniture of the Moguls—Racinet's Work—Bombay
Furniture—Ivory Chairs and Table—Specimens in the India Museum.
Persian Woodwork: Collection of Objets d'Art
formed by General Murdoch Smith, R.E.—Industrial Arts of the Persians—Arab
influence—South Kensington Specimens. Saracenic
Woodwork: Oriental customs—Specimens in the South Kensington Museum
of Arab Work—M. d'Aveune's Work.
Chinese and Japanese Furniture
We have been unable to
discover when the Chinese first began to use State or domestic furniture.
Whether, like the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, there was an early
civilization which included the arts of joining, carving, and upholstering,
we do not know; most probably there was; and from the plaster casts which
one sees in our Indian Museum, of the ornamental stone gateways of Sanchi
Tope, Bhopal in Central India, it would appear that in the early part of our
Christian era, the carvings in wood of their neighbours and co-religionists,
the Hindoos, represented figures of men and animals in the woodwork of
sacred buildings or palaces; and the marvellous dexterity in manipulating
wood, ivory and stone which we recognize in the Chinese of to-day, is
inherited from their ancestors.
Sir William Chambers travelled in China in
the early part of the last century. It was he who introduced "the Chinese
style" into furniture and decoration, which was adopted by Chippendale and
other makers, as will be noticed in the chapter dealing with that period of
English furniture. He gives us the following description of the furniture he
found in "The Flowery Land."
"The moveables of the saloon consist of
chairs, stools, and tables; made sometimes of rosewood, ebony, or lacquered
work, and sometimes of bamboo only, which is cheap, and, nevertheless, very
neat. When the moveables are of wood, the seats of the stools are often of
marble or porcelain, which, though hard to sit on, are far from unpleasant
in a climate where the summer heats are so excessive. In the corners of the
rooms are stands four or live feet high, on which they set plates of
citrons, and other fragrant fruits, or branches of coral in vases of
porcelain, and glass globes containing goldfish, together with a certain
weed somewhat resembling fennel; on such tables as are intended for ornament
only they also place little landscapes, composed of rocks, shrubs, and a
kind of lily that grows among pebbles covered with water. Sometimes also,
they have artificial landscapes made of ivory, crystal, amber, pearls, and
various stones. I have seen some of these that cost over 300 guineas, but
they are at best mere baubles, and miserable imitations of nature. Besides
these landscapes they adorn their tables with several vases of porcelain,
and little vases of copper, which are held in great esteem. These are
generally of simple and pleasing forms. The Chinese say they were made two
thousand years ago, by some of their celebrated artists, and such as are
real antiques (for there are many counterfeits) they buy at an extravagant
price, giving sometimes no less than £300 sterling for one of them.
"The bedroom is divided from the saloon by a
partition of folding doors, which, when the weather is hot, are in the night
thrown open to admit the air. It is very small, and contains no other
furniture than the bed, and some varnished chests in which they keep their
apparel. The beds are very magnificent; the bedsteads are made much like
ours in Europe—of rosewood, carved, or lacquered work: the curtains are of
taffeta or gauze, sometimes flowered with gold, and commonly either blue or
purple. About the top a slip of white satin, a foot in breadth, runs all
round, on which are painted, in panels, different figures—flower pieces,
landscapes, and conversation pieces, interspersed with moral sentences and
fables written in Indian ink and vermilion."
From old paintings and engravings which date
from about the fourteenth or fifteenth century one gathers an idea of such
furniture as existed in China and Japan in earlier times. In one of these,
which is reproduced in Racinet's "Le Costume Historique," there is a Chinese
princess reclining on a sofa which has a frame of black wood visible, and
slightly ornamented; it is upholstered with rich embroidery, for which these
artistic people seem to have been famous from a very early period. A servant
stands by her side to hand her the pipe of opium with which the monotony of
the day was varied—one arm rests on a small wooden table or stand which is
placed on the sofa, and which holds a flower vase and a pipe stand.
On another old painting two figures are
seated on mats playing a game which resembles draughts, the pieces being
moved about on a little table with black and white squares like a modern
chessboard, with shaped feet to raise it a convenient height for the
players: on the floor stand cups of tea ready to hand. Such pictures are
generally ascribed to the fifteenth century, the period of the great Ming
dynasty, which appears to have been the time of an improved culture and
taste in China.
From this time and a century later (the
sixteenth) also date those beautiful cabinets of lacquered wood enriched
with ivory, mother of pearl, with silver and even with gold, which have been
brought to England occasionally; but genuine specimens of this, and of the
seventeenth century, are very scarce and extremely valuable.
The older Chinese furniture which one sees
generally in Europe dates from the eighteenth century, and was made to order
and imported by the Dutch; this explains the curious combination to be found
of Oriental and European designs; thus, there are screens with views of
Amsterdam and other cities copied from paintings sent out for the purpose,
while the frames of the panels are of carved rosewood of the fretted bamboo
pattern characteristic of the Chinese. Elaborate bedsteads, tables and
cabinets were also made, with panels of ash stained a dark color and
ornamented with hunting scenes, in which the men and horses are of ivory, or
sometimes with ivory faces and limbs, the clothes being chiefly in a brown
In a beautiful table in the South Kensington
Museum, which is said to have been made in Cochin-China, mother of pearl is
largely used and produces a rich effect.
The furniture brought back by the Duke of
Edinburgh from China and Japan is of the usual character imported, and the
remarks hereafter made on Indian or Bombay furniture apply equally to this
adaptation of Chinese detail to European designs.
The most highly prized work of China and
Japan in the way of decorative furniture is the beautiful lacquer work, and
in the notice on French furniture of the eighteenth century, in a subsequent
chapter, we shall see that the process was adopted in Holland, France and
England with more or less success.
It is worth while, however, to allude to it
here a little more fully.
The process as practised in China is thus
described by M. Jacquemart:—
"The wood when smoothly planed is covered
with a sheet of thin paper or silk gauze, over which is spread a thick
coating made of powdered red sandstone and buffalo's gall. This is allowed
to dry, after which it is polished and rubbed with wax, or else receives a
wash of gum water, holding chalk in solution. The varnish is laid on with a
flat brush, and the article is placed in a damp drying room, whence it
passes into the hands of a workman, who moistens and again polishes it with
a piece of very fine grained soft clay slate, or with the stalks of the
horse-tail or shave grass. It then receives a second coating of lacquer, and
when dry is once more polished. These operations are repeated until the
surface becomes perfectly smooth and lustrous. There are never applied less
than three coatings and seldom more than eighteen, though some old Chinese
and some Japan ware are said to have received upwards of twenty. As regards
China, this seems quite exceptional, for there is in the Louvre a piece with
the legend 'lou-tinsg,' i.e. six coatings, implying that even so many are
unusual enough to be worthy of special mention."
There is as much difference between different
kinds and qualities of lac as between different classes of marquctcrie.
The most highly prized is the LACQUER ON GOLD
GROUND, and the specimens of this which first reached Europe during the time
of Louis XV., were presentation pieces from the Japanese Princes to some of
the Dutch officials.
Gold ground lacquer is rarely found in
furniture, and only as a rule in some of those charming little boxes, in
which the luminous effect of the lac is heightened by the introduction of
silver foliage on a minute scale, or of tiny landscape work and figures
charmingly treated, partly with dull gold and partly highly burnished. Small
placques of this beautiful ware were used for some of the choicest pieces of
Gouthière's elegant furniture made for Marie Antoinette.
Aventurine lacquer closely imitates in color
the sparkling mineral from which it takes its name, and a less highly
finished preparation is used as a lining for the small drawers of cabinets.
Another lacquer has a black ground, on which landscapes delicately traced in
gold stand out in charming relief. Such pieces were used by Riesener and
mounted by Gouthière in some of the most costly furniture made for Marie
Antoinette; some specimens are in the Louvre. It is this kind of lacquer, in
varying qualities, that is usually found in cabinets, folding screens,
coffers, tables, etagéres, and other ornamental articles of furniture.
Enriched with inlay of mother of pearl, the effect of which is in some cases
heightened and rendered more effective by some transparent coloring on its
reverse side, as in the case of a bird's plumage or of those beautiful
blossoms which both Chinese and Japanese artists can represent so
A very remarkable screen in Chinese lacquer
of later date is in the South Kensington Museum; it is composed of twelve
folds each ten feet high, and measuring when fully extended twenty-one feet.
This screen is very beautifully decorated on both sides with incised and
raised ornaments painted and gilt on black ground, with a rich border
ornamented with representations of sacred symbols and various other objects.
The price paid for it was £1,000. There are also in the Museum some very
rich chairs of modern Chinese work, in brown wood, probably teak, very
elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl; they were exhibited in Paris in
Of the very early history of Japanese
industrial arts we know but little. We have no record of the kind of
furniture which Marco Polo found when he travelled in Japan in the
thirteenth century, and until the Jesuit missionaries obtained a footing in
the sixteenth century and sent home specimens of native work, there was
probably very little of Japanese manufacture which found its way to Europe.
The beautiful lacquer work of Japan, which dates from the end of the
sixteenth and the following century, leads us to suppose that a long period
of probation must have occurred before the Arts, which were probably learned
from the Chinese, could have been so thoroughly mastered.
Of furniture, with the exception of the
cabinets, chests, and boxes, large and small, of this famous lac, there
appears to have been little. Until the Japanese developed a taste for
copying European customs and manners, the habit seems to have been to sit on
mats and to use small tables raised a few inches from the ground. Even the
bedrooms contained no bedsteads, but a light mattress served for bed and
The process of lacquering has already been
described, and in the chapter on French furniture of the eighteenth century
it will be seen how specimens of this decorative material reached France by
way of Holland, and were mounted into the "meubles de luxe" of that
time. With this exception, and that of the famous collection of porcelain in
the Japan Palace at Dresden, probably but little of the art products of this
artistic people had been exported until the country was opened up by the
expedition of Lord Elgin and Commodore Perry, in 1858-9, and subsequently by
the antiquarian knowledge and research of Sir Rutherford Alcock, who has
contributed so much to our knowledge of Japanese industrial art; indeed it
is scarcely too much to say, that so far as England is concerned, he was the
first to introduce the products of the Empire of Japan.
Japanese Cabinet of Red Chased Lacquer Work.
XVII to XVIII Century.
The Revolution, and the break up of the
feudal system which had existed in that country for some eight hundred
years, ended by placing the Mikado on the throne. There was a sale in Paris,
in 1867, of the famous collection of the Shôgun, who had sent his treasures
there to raise funds for the civil war in which he was then engaged with the
Daimio. This was followed by the exportation of other fine native
productions to Paris and London; but the supply of old and really fine
specimens has, since about 1874, almost ceased, and, in default, the
European markets have become flooded with articles of cheap and inferior
workmanship, exported to meet the modern demand. The present Government of
Japan, anxious to recover many of the masterpieces which were produced in
the best time, under the patronage of the native princes of the old
régime, have established a museum at Tokio, where many examples of fine
lacquer work, which had been sent to Europe for sale, have been placed after
repurchase, to serve as examples for native artists to copy, and to assist
in the restoration of the ancient reputation of Japan.
There is in the South Kensington Museum a
very beautiful Japanese chest of lacquer work made about the beginning of
the seventeenth century, the best time for Japanese art; it formerly
belonged to Napoleon I. and was purchased at the Hamilton Palace Sale for
£722: it is some 3 ft. 3 in. long and 2 ft. 1 in. high, and was intended
originally as a receptacle for sacred Buddhist books. There are, most
delicately worked on to its surface, views of the interior of one of the
Imperial Palaces of Japan, and a hunting scene. Mother-of-pearl, gold,
silver, and aventurine, are all used in the enrichment of this beautiful
specimen of inlaid work, and the lock plate is a representative example of
the best kind of metal work as applied to this purpose.
H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh has several fine
specimens of Chinese and Japanese lacquer work in his collection, about the
arrangement of which the writer had the honour of advising his Royal
Highness, when it arrived some years ago at Clarence House. The earliest
specimen is a reading desk, presented by the Mikado, with a slope for a book
much resembling an ordinary bookrest, but charmingly decorated with lacquer
in landscape subjects on the flat surfaces, while the smaller parts are
diapered with flowers and quatrefoils in relief of lac and gold. This is of
the sixteenth century. The collections of the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine,
Sir Rutherford Alcock, K.C.B., Mr. Salting, Viscount Gough, and other
well-known amateurs, contain some excellent examples of the best periods of
Japanese Art work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The grotesque carving of the wonderful
dragons and marvellous monsters introduced into furniture made by the
Chinese and Japanese, and especially in the ornamental woodwork of the Old
Temples, is thoroughly peculiar to these masters of elaborate design and
skilful manipulation: and the low rate of remuneration, compared with our
European notions of wages, enables work to be produced that would be
impracticable under any other conditions. In comparing the decorative work
on Chinese and Japanese furniture, it may be said that more eccentricity is
effected by the latter than by the former in their designs and general
decorative work. The Japanese joiner is unsurpassed, and much of the lattice
work, admirable in design and workmanship, is so quaint and intricate that
only by close examination can it be distinguished from finely cut fret work.