Chinoiserie, from 'chinois' the French for Chinese, was a style inspired by art and design from China, Japan and other Asian countries. In the 18th century porcelain, silk and lacquerware imported from China and Japan were extremely fashionable. This led many British designers and craftsmen to imitate Asian designs and to create their own fanciful versions of the East. The style was at its height from 1750 to 1765.
People in Chinese clothes are a feature of the Chinoiserie style. Sometimes these figures were copied directly from Chinese objects, but more frequently they originated in the designer's imagination.
In 18th-century Britain, China seemed a mysterious, far-away place. Chinoiserie drew on this exotic image. Objects featured fantastic landscapes with fanciful pavilions and fabulous birds, sometimes inspired by those depicted on actual Chinese objects.
To British designers Chinese and Japanese dragons summed up all that was strange and wonderful about the East. These mythical beasts became common Chinoiserie motifs.
The sweeping lines of the roofs of Chinese pagodas were incorporated into a wide range of Chinoiserie objects.
Soft-paste porcelain, painted in enamels and gilded
Museum no. C.40-1974
Lund and Miller
Soft-paste porcelain, decorated in underglaze purple
Museum no. C.97-1938
Touch; The Five Senses
Derby Porcelain factory
Soft-paste porcelain and glazed
Museum no. 414:140-1885
Vase and Cover
Richard Chaffers Factory
Soft-paste porcelain, painted in underglaze blue
Museum no. C.8&A-1974
Pine and oak carcase, japanned in gold on a black ground, with gilt brass mounts
Museum no. W.61:1 to 8-1931
Vase and Cover
Bow Porcelain Factory
Soft-paste porcelain, painted in enamels and gilt
Museum no. C.333&A-1926
Sir William Chambers (1723-1796)
Sir William Chambers is best known as a classical architect, but in his garden buildings he worked in a great variety of styles including Chinoiserie. As a young man Chambers travelled in the East, visiting the great Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou). In 1757 he published Designs of Chinese Buildings which contained his observations. He designed a number of Chinoiserie buildings for Kew Gardens. The pagoda, aviary and bridge were not based on any real Chinese examples, but Chambers did aim for accurate imitations which contrast with the rather fanciful creations of his contemporaries.
Jean Pillement (1728-1808)
Jean Pillement was a French artist who settled in London in 1750. He was a major designer of Chinoiserie decoration, who published two influential collections of prints - A New Book of Chinese Ornaments, published in 1755, One Hundred and Thirty Figures, Ornaments and Some Flowers in the Chinese Style of 1767. Pillement's fanciful images of Chinese figures, pavilions, flowers and foliage were copied and adapted for all kinds of objects including ceramics, wallpaper, furniture and most especially textiles.
William (1703-1763) and John Linnell (1729-1796)
Father and son William and John Linnell were very successful 18th-century furniture manufacturers. In about 1754 they designed one of the earliest Chinoiserie interiors in Britain, the Chinese bedroom commissioned by the 4th Duke and Duchess of Beaufort for Badminton House in Gloucestershire. The most dramatic piece of furniture the Linnells made for the room was the bed. This typifies the Chinoiserie style with its pagoda-like canopy embellished with dragons, its decorative latticework and its imitation lacquer surface in red, blue and gold.
William and John Linnell
John and William Linnell
About 1754 (made)
About 1840 (japanned)
Beechwood frame, gilt and japanned, with traces of red paint below; modern upholstery
Museum no. W.33-1990
Buildings and Interiors
Kew Gardens, Surrey
The botanical gardens at Kew, on the outskirts of London, were established in 1759 by the Dowager Princess Augusta. She employed the architect William Chambers to create a number of exotic Chinese and Moorish style buildings. His famous pagoda remains the most celebrated example of Chinoiserie in Britain. The publication of Chambers' plans and views of Kew in 1762 started a fashion for Chinese-style gardens.
Chinese Room, Claydon House
The Chinese Room in Claydon House is the most elaborate Chinoiserie interior surviving in Britain. It was designed in 1769 by Luke Lightfoot. Above each door is a pagoda motif supported by Chinese figures. Oriental faces also appear among the flowers around the chimney-piece. The most remarkable part of the room is the tea alcove which is painted with a latticework design and covered in an abundance of Chinoiserie details.
Rococo 1730 - 1760
Chinoiserie was closely related to the Rococo style. Asymmetry, scrolling forms and an element of fantasy characterise both styles. Rococo and Chinoiserie styles were often used together in interior decoration or even combined in a single object.