CHINOISERIE COPPERPLATE PRINTED COTTON
English (Bromley Hall) for the American Market, designed ca. 1765; printed after 1774
A synthesis of new technology and popular taste defined English printed textile production in the second half of the eighteenth century. Having admired the delicacy and indelibility of Indian fabrics dyed with indigo, manufacturers in England sought to replicate the results; though indigo had been imported since the seventeenth century, the procedural and chemical complexities of this dyestuff hindered its initial success. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the English were able to master the difficult art of printing indigo mordant directly onto cotton. This advance, in tandem with the revolutionary textile development of copperplate printing, produced marvelous color-fast fabrics with crisply rendered impressions.
These printed cottons were desirable commodities throughout Europe, where they were dubbed bleu d’Angleterre and Englischblau; in England, indigo copperplate-printed textiles were referred to as “china-blue,” alluding to the craze for Chinese export porcelain. As exemplified by this finely conceived design, the vogue for chinoiserie—a purely romantic European decorative idiom which interpreted the people, architecture, flora, and fauna of the East—was at its peak in the rococo age. Pattern books provided fanciful Asian-inspired ornamentation for artisans and hobbyists working in various media: British publications such as George Edwards and Mathias Darly’s New Book of Chinese Designs Calculated to Improve the Present Taste (1754), Jean-Baptiste Pillement’s A New Book of Chinese Ornaments (1755) and Robert Sayer’s The Ladies Amusement or Whole Art of Japanning Made Easy (1758–62) were extremely popular sources.
Pillement, a French painter who resided in England intermittently from 1754–1762, was arguably the most important contributor of chinoiseries. His playful style, blended from French rococo ornament and his imagination of Chinese patterns, were well-suited to British taste; in addition to his own publications, thirty-nine of Pillement’s engravings were prominently reproduced in Sayer’s book. Preserved in the Bromley Hall archive in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a paper impression of this design (E.458-1955, 196-197). Inscribed Chinese
Figures, the whimsical composition is commonly attributed to Pillement though the original source has not yet been identified. In this repeating vignette, two exotically dressed figures ascend a mossy stairway suspended in air; one figure gestures up the craggy hillside to a straw-thatched pavilion, while the other shields him with a parasol. Outsize trumpet-like flowers loom over the figures, and rocaille scrolls form the support for the terraced landscape. Coral branches and feathery fronds add an extra dimension of texture to the overall design.