Both the practice of painting on glass and the flat glass itself were introduced to China in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. China had a long history of producing utensils and decorative objects in glass. The glass workshop in the Forbidden City was established in 1696, but no flat glass was produced and when it was attempted it was reported that the manufacturers ‘do not know how to do manufacture it with the proper materials’ (Breton de la Martinière, China, its costume, art etc, translated 1813). However, visiting dignitaries had brought mirrors as gifts for the Emperor, such as a Dutch mission which in 1686 presented the Emperor K’ang-Hsi with a pair of large European mirrors, the quality of which was a revelation to the Chinese.
The practice of painting on mirrors developed in China after 1715 when the Jesuit missionary Father Castiglione arrived in Peking. He found favour with the Emperors Yang Cheng and Ch’ien Lung and was entrusted with the decoration of the Imperial Garden in Peking. He learnt to paint in oil on glass, a technique that was already practiced in Europe but which was unknown in China in the 17th century. Chinese artists, who were already expert in painting and calligraphy, took up the practice, tracing the outlines of their designs on the back of the mirror plate and, using a special steel implement, scraping away the mirror backing to reveal the glass that could then be painted. Common designs included still lives, birds and groups of figures, usually depicted against backgrounds of rivers or pavilions.
Many mirrors were brought back to Europe by the companies who routinely plied their trade in the Far East, with some carried as ‘private trade’ by crew members (Graham Child, World Mirrors, London, 1990, pp. 361–386). The demand for such painting was fuelled by the mania in Europe for Chinese fashions, promoted by the likes of Sir William Chambers, whose Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils was issued in 1757, and which found expression in the homes of the fashionable cognoscenti, such as the Chinese Bedroom at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, fitted up for the 4th Duke of Beaufort by William Linnell in 1752-54.