PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF WALTER KAYE
Pelham Galleries, London/Pelham, Paris
Pelham Galleries Handbook, 2003, no. 22
In later Chinese dynastic history, civil and military officials working for the government had to adhere to strict regulations regarding their official dress code as it signified to the outside world their rank and position in a complicated hierarchical structure. Rank badges or square insignia were used to distinguish the various ranks of both civil and military officials, sewn on the back and front of semi-formal sucoats. In the present painting, the figure on the left is wearing a coat with a rank badge that features a golden pheasant, identifying him as a civil official of the second rank. Facing him, the figure sitting in an elaborate armchair on the right is shown wearing an egret badge, signifying the sixth civil official rank. Each figure also wears a surcoat over an elaborately decorated robe and a formal hat with a red jeweled cap ornament to which a one-eyed peacock feather is attached, a further sign of a rank bestowed upon an official by the emperor. The informal setting documents the physical world of late 18th century China. Attributes such as the elaborately carved chairs and the tiger-skin carpet were reserved only for high-ranking members of Qing society as they were considered symbols of power and luxury.
Described as 'back painting' by eighteenth century writers, this unusual art was practiced throughout Europe in the late 17th century and 18th centuries, the true technique having probably introduced to the West by Jesuit missionaries from China. The work produced by the usually anonymous Chinese artists was, however, far more brilliantly executed by them than their Western counterparts. According to the diaries of Elie de Beaumont written in 1764, it appears that silvered mirror glass was exported from England, decorated, and returned. Breton de la Martinière noted in China, its costumes, arts, etc., translated in 1813, that Canton had the only glass house in the Empire, declaring that `Looking glasses and glass mirrors have been manufactured there, quicksilvered in the European manner, but this undertaking has not proved successful'. The paintings were created by first drawing the design on the silvered surface, and then scraping away the areas that were to be decorated. These were then decorated in reverse with oil paint or dry pigment mixed with a gum. The paintings were produced in both Peking and Canton, although the latter is probably the original source for most of those made purely for export. Certainly, the vistas of the Pearl River seem to have provided much of the inspiration for many of the subjects. Many were re-framed in England with carved giltwood frames in the rococo taste, one of the more notable ones, formerly at Harewood House, being designed by Robert Adam in the neo-classical taste and made by Thomas Chippendale. Others at Saltram House were hung on Chinese wallpaper, and the Royal architect William Chambers describes in The plans, elevations of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew, 1763, 'four large painted looking glasses from China' in the Gallery.
The present reverse-painted mirror painting seems to be one of a series: a reverse-painted panel mounted in a Regency black- and gold-japanned dressing table at Christie's, London, November 16, 1995, lot 51, is identically painted with drapery swags, a cricket on a flowering branch within a mirrored circular reserve flanked by tasseled hangings above a bamboo shade and a scene of seated figures on terrace. A similar scene of figures on a terrace framed by swagged draperies are depicted in a reverse-painted mirror painting sold, Christie's house sale, Childwick Bury, St. Albans, Hertforshire, May 15, 1978, lot 54 and in a larger version of the same subject matter, David S. Howard, A Tale of Three Cities Canton, Shanghai & Hong Kong, Sotheby's, 1997, p. 150. fig. 192.
Margaret Jourdain and R. Soame Jenyns, Chinese Export Art in the Eighteenth Century, London, 1950, Chapter 3, pp. 32-39
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