Emile de Bruijn has been looking at East Asian influences on two European tapestries at Belton House in Lincolnshire. Here, he reflects on how it pays to think like an artist when looking at the way one culture interprets another.
The inner artist
I have something of a split personality. I'm an assistant curator at the National Trust, researching and interpreting decorative art and East Asian art. I use the tools of art history to analyse historical objects, but at the same time I am aware that they don’t always capture the whole story.
The many amazing and intriguing objects in our collections were not created by art historians; they were made by artists and artisans. So when I analyse an object I always try to consult my inner artist – admittedly a fairly shy, elusive part of my personality.
British interpretations of Asia
The two tapestries by the London weaver John Vanderbank the elder at Belton House in Lincolnshire are a great demonstration of an artist’s mindset at work. They were commissioned for Belton in 1691 and are decorated with ‘Indian’ scenery, the term used in Britain at the time for anything interpreted as Asian.
Trade between Europe and Asia was burgeoning during the 17th century. Products from China, India and Japan, such as chintz, silk, lacquer, porcelain and tea, were increasingly available in Britain. There was a fascination with the countries and societies that produced these wondrous things.
One of those responding to the interest in all things Asian was the Dutch church minister Arnold van den Berg, who – using a more scholarly-sounding Latin version of his name, Arnoldus Montanus – wrote several books on the world beyond Europe. In 1669 he published an illustrated book on Japan, which was translated into English in 1670 as Atlas Japannensis.
Montanus did not travel to Japan himself and his book – of which there is a 1680 French edition in the library at Blickling Hall, Norfolk – was based on the reports of others. The illustrations in Atlas Japannensis likewise were not based on direct observation, relying on fantasy where facts were lacking.
John Vanderbank then took Montanus’s half-fictional images and changed and rearranged them further in the process of designing his tapestries. In this way an eyewitness account became an imagined scene, which in turn became a decorative tapestry.
The influence of ‘Coromandel’ lacquer
The overall appearance of the Belton tapestries was also influenced by Chinese 'kuan cai' (or ‘engraved polychrome’) lacquer, known as ‘Coromandel’ lacquer in England, after the Indian coastal region via which it tended to be shipped to Britain. The background of the tapestries would originally have been darker, and the decorative conceit of ‘islands’ of colourful scenery against a dark ground was clearly inspired by Coromandel lacquer.
In one sense, the tapestries are a kind of travesty, a wilfully jumbled collection of images copied from a European engraver’s half-understood interpretation of someone’s memories of Japanese scenery – with some Coromandel lacquer stylistic flourishes thrown in.
But seen from an artist’s perspective, these tapestries make complete sense. They are not realistic depictions of Japan; rather, they are creative constructions evoking what Europeans found fascinating about East Asia. They are effectively works of fiction and as such they provide a glimpse of the wide-eyed wonder about the world beyond Europe in late 17th-century Britain.
" [These tapestries] are effectively works of fiction and as such they provide a glimpse of the wide-eyed wonder about the world beyond Europe in late 17th-century Britain."
By thinking like an art historian you can spot the fictions in objects like these tapestries, but by thinking like an artist you can appreciate what those fictions are trying to convey.
I'm always on the lookout for these juxtapositions of fact and fiction, some of which I will be including in my forthcoming book about the impact of China and Japan on the houses and gardens of the National Trust. I look forward to sharing more of these ‘fictional facts’ with you when the book comes out.