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Chinese Export for the European Market, ca. 1708–10

European silk designs of the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries frequently combined elements of the Western vernacular with those of exotic import for graphic impact and fashionable novelty. “Bizarre” silks, in full flourish for a brief period from about 1700–10, were aptly named by modern textile historians. As a group, these designs are eccentric and imaginative amalgamations of Asian-inspired motifs and Baroque ornament. Though thoroughly Western in sensibility, Bizarre silks were sometimes woven in the East to suit the demands of the lucrative European export market. This unusual cobalt-blue silk satin—of Chinese manufacture with a distinctively Western pattern that references Oriental influences—hints at the complexities of design interchange between two geographical regions thousands of miles apart.

It is clear that a Western prototype existed for the Chinese satin, as the design relates in two significant ways to Continental and English silks made from the 1670s through 1710. Stripes decorated with foliate flourishes were a common feature of European textiles through the latter decades of the seventeenth century; in this example, the pattern is essentially two vertical stripes formed from a single, ornately-composed unit which merges seamlessly in an end-on-end repeat. This motif—a column capital and broken archway at top; a scrolled, bulbous shape resembling a vase at center; a curling ribbon and streamer-like bracket which unfurls into another column at the base, all embellished with leafy fronds and florals—also suggests a specific temporal and geographical context. Between 1706 and 1708, James Leman (1688–1745), a weaver of Hugenot descent who worked in the silk manufacturing area of Spitalfields, London, produced a group of drawings that signaled a new phase in Bizarre silk design. In departure from the truly fantastical motifs which dominated silks of 1700–05, Leman’s compositions featured recognizable architectural elements such as balustrades, fences and pergolas in combination with plants and flowers of disproportionate sizes. It may be that a drawing or silk designed by Leman served as the model for this Chinese version. There is, however, no mistaking this example for a Western creation as there are recognizably Asian touches throughout. In particular, the largest flowers at the column’s base are markedly Japanese in style; the cluster of scalloped tabs which fans out from the archway bears a striking resemblance to adornment found on Chinese costume and porcelain; and the curlicue tendrils and pendant tassels come from Chinese decorative vocabulary. A specific choice of material finally identifies China as the origin: gilded- and silvered-paper-wrapped silk threads used for discrete areas of metallic brocading. This type of thread is a Chinese invention and differs from European traditions which wrap pliable metal strips around a silk or linen core. The muted palette of soft peach, yellow, pale blue, and ivory was appropriately elegant and on-par with the most stylish European silks of the period.

A comparable emerald-green English damask of nearly identical design is in the Cora Ginsburg inventory. It is also found in the Abegg-Stiftung (Inv. #4490) and illustrated in the museum’s publication 18th Century Silks: The Industries of England and Northern Europe (2000), p. 213, fig. 119. This damask, similarly patterned but not quite as finely drawn as the Chinese example, confirms that both attempt to copy a more detailed though as of yet unidentified European prototype.

44” L x 21.75” W

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