European Influence on the Qing Imperial Workshops

EUROPEAN INFLUENCE ON THE CH'ING IMPERIAL WORKSHOPS HUGH M. MOSS Edi tors' Note: The following article appeared in The Connoisseur, January 1975. "It is seldom appreciated that Europe was able to influence Chinese glass making, both in the sources of decoration and the techniques of manufacture." The influence of Chinese decora– tive art on European taste from the end of the seventeenth cen– tury has long been recognized. Ever since Stalker and Parker commended the art of "Japan– ning" as a genteel accomplish– ment, English houses have paid more than lip service to what they regarded as an exotic inspiration to enliven the sobri– ety of their four-square architec– ture. What is not often realized is the enormous debt which many of the decorative arts in Ch'ing dynasty China (that is, from the second half of the seventeenth century to the twentieth) owe to Europe both in the sources of decoration and the techniques of manufacture. I should like to discuss in this article a group of wares, deco– rated with painted enamels on glass during the reign of the Ch'ien-lung emperor (1736-1795), which bear European subjects. Other enamelled wares, both on a porcelain and a metal base, can be seen to be products of the same ateliers, and are all of ex– ceptionally high quality. The palette of enamels used predominantly from the 1720s on metal, glass and porcelain was introduced from Europe, and the arts of enamelling metal and glass were both brought to China in the early years of the eighteenth century by European missionaries. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the glass factories set up at Peking shortly before 1680 were the first in the Empire to begin fully to under– stand glass technology and pro– duction. Before these factories there was no continuing tradition of glass manufacture in China. Much of the European skill and influence was channeled through the imperial workshops set up within the palace at Peking by the K'ang-hsi emperor (1662-1722). These workshops were the result of the emperor's love of the arts, and were to have immeasurable influence on artistic development under his own patronage and that of his two successors. The wares introduced at, and developed by, these palace workshops under the direct patronage of the emperor, not unnaturally influenced artistic centers elsewhere in the empire; their influence can be seen in the wares and decorative motifs of the applied arts to this day. The great imperial interest in the palace workshops may be seen from the Jesuit letters re– corded by George Loehr in his paper in Volume 34 of the "Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society".1 These show how successive emperors and other important men at court took great pains to secure skilled missionaries to help solve the problems of a developing art form. Further testimony to this imperial interest is found in the writings of John Bell of Anter– mony.' Bell travelled to Peking in the train of the Russian Am– bassador Ismailov and in De– cember 1719 wrote: !!Mter these diversions, we were conducted to the Emperor's glass house, which his Imperial Majesty often visits with plea- 25 sure. It was erected by himself, and is the first manufactory of the kind that ever was in China. The person employed to superin– tend and carry on this design was Kilian Stumpff' a German father, lately deceased; a man in great f;l.Vor with the Emperor, and well known in China for his ingenuity and literature. His Majesty is so fond of his glasswork, that he sent several of the most curious of its produc– tions in a present to his Czarish Majesty." Although Bell might not be a reliable witness as to whether it was indeed the first glassworks of its kind in China, there can be little doubt about the more cur– rent matter of the emperor's interest. We know that several such workshops existed within the palace grounds in Peking' and it is more than probable that there was considerable cross– fertilization of ideas and techniques between them. The period was one of intense artistic and technical activity, and with such concentration on various arts within a relatively small area, cross-fertilization would have been inevitable. Glass from the imperial glass workshops was undoubtedly sent to the enamelling atelier for deco– ration, in the same way that the painters on enamels and the workers in cloisonne were both supplied with metal bodies by the same craftsman. It is hardly sur– prising, therefore, to find evi– dence that the same skilled ar– tists were responsible for designs in all three media. Neither is it surprising to find strong Euro– pean influence, considering the origin of many of the skills and techniques involved.