We have been unable to discover when the Chinese first began to use state or domestic furniture. Whether, like the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, there was an early civilization which included the arts of joining, carving, and upholstering, we do not know; most probably there was; and from the plaster casts which one sees in our Indian Museum, of the ornamental stone gateways of Sanchi Tope, in Bhopal, Central India, it would appear that, in the early part of our Christian era, the carvings in wood of their neighbours and co-religionists, the Hindoos, represented figures of men and animals in the woodwork of sacred buildings or palaces. The marvellous dexterity in manipulating wood, ivory and stone which we recognize in the Chinese of to-day, is probably inherited from their early ancestors.
Sir William Chambers travelled in China in the early part of the last century. It was he who introduced "the Chinese style" into furniture and decoration, which was adopted by Chippendale and other makers, as will be noticed in the chapter dealing with that period of English furniture. He gives us the following description of the furniture he found in "The Flowery Land."
"The movables of the saloon consist of chairs, stools, and tables; made sometimes of rosewood, ebony, or lacquered work, and sometimes of bamboo only, which is cheap, and, nevertheless, very neat. When the movables are of wood, the seats of the stools are often of marble or porcelain, which, though hard to sit on, are far from unpleasant in a climate where the summer heats are so excessive. In the corners of the rooms are stands four or five feet high, on which they set plates of citrons, and other fragrant fruits, or branches of coral in vases of porcelain, and glass globes containing goldfish, together with a certain weed somewhat resembling fennel; on such tables as are intended for ornament only they also place the little landscapes, composed of rocks, shrubs, and a kind of lily that grows among pebbles covered with water. Sometimes, also, they have artificial landscapes made of ivory, crystal, amber, pearls, and various stones. I have seen some of these that cost over 300 guineas, but they are at least mere baubles, and miserable imitations of Nature. Besides these landscapes they adorn their tables with several vases of porcelain, and little vases of copper, which are held in great esteem. These are generally of simple and pleasing forms. The Chinese say they were made two thousand years ago, by some of their celebrated artists, and such as are real antiques (for there are many counterfeits) they buy at an extravagant price, giving sometimes no less than £300 sterling for one of them.
"The bedroom is divided from the saloon by a partition of folding doors, which, when the weather is hot, are in the night thrown open to admit the air. It is very small, and contains no other furniture than the bed, and some varnished chests in which they keep their apparel. The beds are very magnificent; the bedsteads are made much like ours in Europe - of rosewood, carved, or lacquered work: the curtains are of taffeta or gauze, sometimes flowered with gold, and commonly either blue or purple. About the top a slip of white satin, a foot in breadth, runs all round, on which are painted, in panels, different figures - flower pieces, landscapes, and conversation pieces, interspersed with moral sentences and fables written in Indian ink and vermilion."
From old paintings and engravings which date from about the fourteenth or fifteenth century, one gathers an idea of such furniture as existed in China and Japan in earlier times. In one of these, which is reproduced in Racinet's "Le Costume Historique," there is a Chinese princess reclining on a sofa which has a frame of black wood, visible, and slightly ornamented; it is upholstered with rich embroidery, for which these artistic people seem to have been famous from a very early period. A servant stands by her side to hand her the pipe of opium with which the monotony of the day was varied - one arm rests on a small wooden table or stand which is placed on the sofa, and which holds a flower vase and a pipe stand. On another old painting two figures are seated on mats playing a game which resembles draughts, the pieces being moved about on a little table with black and white squares like a modern chessboard, with shaped feet to raise it a convenient height for the players; on the floor, cups of tea stand ready at hand. Such pictures are generally ascribed to the fifteenth century, the period of the great Ming dynasty, which appears to have been the time of an improved culture and taste in China.
From this time and a century later (the sixteenth) also date those beautiful cabinets of lacquered wood enriched with ivory, mother-of-pearl, with silver and even with gold, which have been brought to England occasionally; but genuine specimens of this, and of the seventeenth century, are very scarce and extremely valuable.
The older Chinese furniture which one sees generally in Europe dates from the eighteenth century, and was made to order and imported by the Dutch; this explains the curious combination to be found of Oriental and European designs; thus there are screens with views of Amsterdam and other cities copied from paintings sent out for the purpose, while the frames of the panels are of carved rosewood of the fretted bamboo pattern, characteristic of the Chinese. Elaborate bedsteads, tables, and cabinets were also made, with panels of ash stained a dark color, and ornamented with hunting scenes, in which the representations of men and horses are of ivory, or sometimes with ivory faces and limbs, and the clothes chiefly of a brown colored wood.
In a beautiful table in the South Kensington Museum, which is said to have been made in Cochin-China, mother-of-pearl is largely used and produces a rich effect.
The furniture brought back by the Duke of Edinburgh from China and Japan is of the usual character imported, and the remarks hereafter made on Indian or Bombay furniture apply equally to this adaptation of Chinese detail to European designs.
The most highly prized work of China and Japan in the way of decorative furniture is the beautiful lacquer work, and in the notice on French furniture of the eighteenth century, in a subsequent chapter, we shall see that the process was adopted in Holland, France, and England with more or less success.
It is worth while, however, to allude to it here a little more fully.
The process as practised in China is thus described by M. Jacquemart: -
"The wood when smoothly planed is covered with a sheet of thin paper or silk gauze, over which is spread a thick coating made of powdered red sandstone and buffalo's gall. This is allowed to dry, after which it is polished and rubbed with wax, or else receives a wash of gum water, holding chalk in solution. The varnish is laid on with a flat brush, and the article is placed in a damp drying room, whence it passes into the hands of a workman, who moistens and again polishes it with a piece of very fine grained soft clay slate, or with the stalks of the horse-tail or shave grass. It then receives a second coating of lacquer, and when dry is once more polished. These operations are repeated until the surface becomes perfectly smooth and lustrous. There are never applied less than three coatings and seldom more than eighteen, though some old Chinese and some Japan ware are said to have received upwards of twenty. As regards China, this seems quite exceptional, for there is in the Louvre a piece with the legend 'lou-tinsg,' i.e., six coatings, implying that even so many are unusual enough to be worthy of special mention."
There is as much difference between different kinds and qualities of lac as between different classes of marqueterie. The most highly prized is the lacquer on gold ground, and the first specimens of this work which reached Europe during the time of Louis XV. were presentation pieces from the Japanese Princes to some of the Dutch officials. This lacquer on gold ground is rarely found in furniture, and only as a rule in some of those charming little boxes, in which the luminous effect of the lac is heightened by the introduction of silver foliage on a minute scale, or of tiny landscape work and figures charmingly treated, partly with dull gold, and partly with gold highly burnished. Small placques of this beautiful ware were used for some of the choicest pieces of furniture made for Marie Antoinette, and mounted by Gouthiere.
Avanturine lacquer closely imitates in color the sparkling mineral from which it takes its name, and a less highly finished preparation of it is used as a lining for the small drawers of cabinets. Another lacquer has a black ground, on which landscapes delicately traced in gold stand out in charming relief. Such pieces also were used by Riesener and mounted by Gouthiere in some of the most costly furniture made for Marie Antoinette; specimens of such furniture are in the Louvre. It is this kind of lacquer, in varying qualities, that is usually found in cabinets, folding screens, coffers, tables, etageres, and other ornamental articles. Enriched with inlay of mother-of-pearl, the effect of which is in some cases heightened and rendered more effective by transparent coloring on its reverse side, as in the case of a bird's plumage or of those beautiful blossoms which both Chinese and Japanese artists can represent so faithfully.
A very remarkable screen in Chinese lacquer of later date is in the South Kensington Museum; it is composed of twelve folds, each ten feet high, and measuring when fully extended twenty-one feet. This screen is very beautifully decorated on both sides with incised and raised ornaments painted and gilt on black ground, with a rich border ornamented with representations of sacred symbols and various other objects. The price paid for it was £1,000. There are also in the Museum some very rich chairs of modern Chinese work, in brown wood, probably teak, very elaborately inlaid with mother-of-pearl; they were exhibited in Paris in 1867.