This article is brought to you by Altfield Gallery.
Europe has been fascinated by China for centuries, lured by tales of distant lands peppered by astonishing flora and fauna alongside exquisite design and architecture. This was especially the case from the 17th century onwards, when trade routes opened up that would help spark a fervour for Chinese decorative arts, and reproductions of the enigmatic imagery associated with Chinese artists and craftsmen.
Diplomats and traders were among the lucky few able to travel to China to see its complex reality, but for the general public, it was a picture of an idyllic China that took hold, influenced by the luxurious silks, lacquers, porcelains and teas that came in from the country. These objects often evoked utopian images of a fantasy world populated by eternally blooming peonies, big and beautiful butterflies floating in pairs and pigtailed children playing in gardens with charming pavilions.
With demand for Chinese craftsmanship skyrocketing, European manufacturers started to emulate Chinese designs while adding their own flourishes, producing works along an art form that would come to be known as chinoiserie.
“It was and still is an exaggeratedly light-hearted and pretty art form, and that is the appeal,” says Amanda Lack Clark, the creative director of Hong Kong’s Altfield Gallery, which devotes a section of its showroom to chinoiserie. ”I love the way the very best of Chinese arts and motifs are exaggerated and were made more rococo in it. It’s the charm and whimsy that captivate me.”
Clark is the fourth generation of her family to live in Hong Kong, and as such feels a particularly strong attachment to the history of the city as a melting pot for Chinese and European arts and culture. “From the very beginning of my business as I set it up in Hong Kong, I wanted to create a mix of East and West in the way we displayed and presented the antiques we worked with,” she says.
Clark says the lighthearted world of sunshine and smiles evoked by chinoiserie continues to attract antique connoisseurs, with a growing collector base from mainland China growing. This is despite the fact that initially, the art form was devised to appeal to European tastes and corroborate Western attitudes about China.
For Clark, the growing appeal to Chinese customers is because the scenes the chinoiserie evoke have universal appeal. “Who doesn’t want to stroll in an endless summer garden among birds and flowers and happy children and colour and sunshine,” she says. “It is capturing a moment of joy and beauty and delight which decorates a home wonderfully.”
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