A Scottish family collection
A PAIR OF IMPERIAL ZITAN CHAIRS IN WESTERN STYLE
HU DESHENG, ASSOCIATE RESEARCHER, PALACE MUSEUM, BEIJING
This pair of armchairs is made entirely of zitan wood. The waist and the curved apron are carved with elaborate Western-style scrolls which extend to the cabriole legs ending in protruding feet resting on small ball pads above the rectangular floor stretcher. The seat frame is joined by the back splat with protruding fan-shaped headrest which tilts back and curves to accommodate the natural form of the body. The S-shaped armrests are higher at the back to simulate the arms of horseshoe chairs. There are also openwork spandrels of scroll pattern under the top rail, that fit into the stiles, and in-between the seat frame and posts. The high relief carvings on the carved-out back splat and the headrest clearly display the influence of the ornamental style of Rococo design. These two armchairs are beautifully constructed in grand style and the elaborate carvings are exceptional. In its splendid construction, rare and expensive zitan wood has been used throughout, including the back splat and well-curved cabriole legs. The generous use of material and elaborate carvings of Western-influenced designs are distinctive of the Guangzhou Style.
The characteristic 'Guangzhou style' or 'Guangzuo' furniture in using substantially generous material is evident on the current lot. The back splats and the headrests are made of generously thick planks of wood. As the legs and stiles are crucial to the stability of the furniture, these are carved from solid material rather than built-up with matched veneers or piecework. This same principle is applied to other individual parts and members which provide an overall sense of heaviness and robustness to the furniture, as well as conveying their substantial size.
In order to keep consistency in their appearance, a single type of timber was selected to build each piece of 'Guangzuo' furniture. The most sought after choices of timber were zitan and hongmu, and they were used throughout without having any parts supplemented with other forms of secondary wood. In addition, the furniture was polished without lacquer so as to display the desired quality of the wood with its tight grain and dark, rich colour.
The high-relief carving employed on 'Guangzuo' furniture is elaborate, fluid and highly skilled. The well-finished and polished surfaces not only complement the design but they also reveal the lustrous tactile nature of the timber. The design and style of the present chairs are clearly influenced by the European design of Rococo art which was inspired by shell-like curves and natural patterns. The refined and deeply carved decoration was favoured by the Guangzhou workshops. By carving out the motifs against a reserved ground, the background areas have been carefully finished and polished to an even surface, leaving no trace of the tool marks; this enhances the relief carvings giving them a greater sense of three-dimensionality. It is an extraordinary achievement by the Guangzhou workshops to have produced such a complicated and elaborate design.
The design and motifs on the 'Guangzuo' furniture were examples of the innovative notion of blending Western and Chinese styles. During the 17th century, Western architecture, sculpture and painting skills were gradually accepted and adopted by the Chinese. From the Yongzheng to the Jiaqing period (1723-1820), the construction of European-style architecture flourished in China; the Western palaces in the Yuanmingyuan, or the Imperial Summer Palace were the finest examples. Many of the features of Western architecture and interior decoration such as acanthus leaves were particularly favoured to match the design of the magnificent halls and the palaces within the Yuanmingyuan. In order to match the demand, the court had to place orders with the workshops in Guangzhou for custom-made furniture. At the same time, the Imperial workshops in Beijing recruited highly-skilled carpenters from Guangzhou to serve in the palace, and these workshops also produced innovative Western-style furnishings. Furniture made with traditional Chinese joinery and decorated with European-style motifs of scrolling leaves provided an opulence that matched the splendid palaces. European Rococo floral motifs favoured by the Chinese were similar to Chinese peony scrolls and lotus bloom; such designs varied and were generally termed xifanlian, or 'Western lotus scrolls'. The characteristic design of entwined scrolling leaves was often symmetrical and stretched out to fit the different shapes. The arrangements worked well both vertically and horizontally; the same applied to three-dimensional rounded shapes.
In addition to the Western-style motifs associated with Guangzhou-style furniture, quintessential Chinese designs were also employed. The most frequently used were 'dragons amidst clouds and waves', 'terrestrial diagram', 'clouds', 'phoenix', kui dragons, bats, stone chimes, flower branches and scrolls. Some Guangzhou-style furniture displays a combination of both Chinese and Western-style decorations. In other cases, there are examples of traditional Chinese-style furniture that have a slight hint of decorative influence from the West. On the whole, between 60-70 percent of the Guangzhou-made furniture showed a Western-style influence and this feature is invaluable in the identification of furniture.
(Translated from the Chinese text)