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December 2012/January 2013: The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England

Reviewed by: Clive Edwards, University of Loughborough

David Porter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 242pp. $90 (hardback).

This book is a timely reminder that the processes of international cultural exchange in the early modern period were not based on European dominance, but rather centred on a Sinocentric power base to which England was, to some extent, marginalised.

The work considers the role of the Chinese taste in the making of English modernity. By locating his discussion of both literature and material goods around the nature and impact of Chinese taste in England in the eighteenth century, the author has been able to offer new insights into the ambivalence of English responses to imported Chinese goods and ideas. To unpick this question, Porter uses a number of very useful approaches, which can be usually applied to analyses of other cultural influences as well. Porter’s approach, which uses textual analysis and an engagement with material culture, is compelling, as it introduces and explores a set of key questions that are, in this case, specific to the Chinese taste, but can have a much broader application. First is the question of how a foreign aesthetic, often seen as negative or trifling, became so assimilated in English culture. Second, how did the cultural symbolism of ‘otherness’ transfer into English emblems of good taste? Third, how did ‘the Chinese taste’ relate to other stylistic trends, especially the Jacobean, Gothic and Renaissance, and what was the result? Fourth, what new meanings and values did Chinese objects offer English consumers? Fifth, what specific functions did these objects take in the material culture of the period?

Running through all these questions is the issue of opposition, ambivalence and ‘doubleness’. This is reflected throughout the book in the various examples that examine the English infatuation with the Chinese ‘monstrous beauty’, which is balanced by a feeling of unease in the unfamiliar nature of the style and imagery of the goods enjoyed.

Through a number of case studies Porter takes us into the mindset of eighteenth-century authors. These reveal the variety of attitudes to issues ranging from aesthetics, gender, consumerism and exoticism, to gardening, gossip, porcelain and the quintessential ‘English’ accoutrement – tea.

The example of the architect and garden designer Sir William Chambers, who had firsthand knowledge of Canton, demonstrates how encounters with ‘otherness’ and the significance of items of ‘cultural translation’ encouraged a dialogue that eventually used both Classical and Chinese imagery and ideals to create something new and exciting. This resulting eclecticism, it could be argued, was a basis for later English Romanticism. In Porter’s words, ‘The processes by which one culture finds meaning in another, rather, always entail adaptive strategies that are themselves potentially transformative’ (p. 54).

Porter’s discussion around the idea of ‘gendered utopias’ considers the particular role of Chinese ceramic designs in relation to the homosocial imagination of women. The apparent absence of men and the perceived relationships between women as depicted on ceramic works, has here been read as a form of subversion especially when ceramics are seen as both ephemeral but also integral to the decorative interior. This consideration of ceramics in the eighteenth-century home is picked up in the chapter that discusses Hogarth and his depiction of female desire, and thus the gendering of the Chinese taste. For many commentators before and since, artistic beauty was exemplified by disinterestedness. For Hogarth, the canons of good taste, which denied sensuality as an aesthetic pleasure, were artificial. Chinese wares exemplify Hogarth’s rococo-based taste which accepted exotic and sensual shapes as part of the aesthetic experience. However, Porter argues that Hogarth eventually rejected the Chinese taste as he considered that it would legitimize female aesthetic self-determination and more generally the autonomy of female desire. However, the question of how ceramics moved from being exotic novelties to paradigms of Englishness remains.

Porter answers this question by showing how porcelain has had specific cultural meanings as a link between human and material worlds. Via retail emporia, play acting, domestic space and role of women to issues of domestication and tea drinking, the changing associations between Chinese ceramics and women is explored. This was a process of gentle taming from representations of sexuality and desire, through to the image of the contented homemaker.

The analysis of cross-cultural interpretations of objects is crucial to an understanding of the impact of the Chinese taste on Englishness. The arbitrary conventions applied to objects to give meaning are often valid locally but may not be directly transferable. Porter moves beyond the obvious and superficial adoption of motifs by English designers and makers to discuss the potential of new ‘ways of seeing’. He makes links between ‘gossip’, particularly that occurring around the tea table, and the visual effects of the spaces in which the beverage was consumed, with Chinese aesthetics. Both gossip and Chinese aesthetics are more interested in the hidden than the superficial, with the flowing rather than the static. Gossip offers variety, intensity and impropriety, all of which may also be reflected in a Chinese aesthetic, and thus, it is argued, legitimized imported elements of Chinese culture into English (female) society.

The theme of ambivalence is again examined in the chapter on Horace Walpole and his eventual repudiation of chinoiserie. Although Walpole had a flirtation with the Chinese taste, in the end his nationalist inclinations won over in the embracement of the Gothic taste. This links to the final case study which examines the role of Thomas Percy in the development of English romanticism through both his sinological interests and his collections of ‘ancient poetry’, which again raises the question of ambivalence and ambiguity. Romanticism became so bound up with Englishness that the influence of China in the creation of this particular English taste has, until recently, been forgotten.

Historians of eighteenth-century English material culture and its influences have been well served by this erudite and fascinating take on a topic we thought we knew well.



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