This superb Chinese Export mirror painting is remarkable not only for its unusually large scale but for its elaborate rococo gilt carton-pierre frame.
THE ART OF CHINESE MIRROR PAINTING
Although glass vessels had long been made in China, the production of flat glass was not accomplished until the 19th century. Even in the Imperial glass workshops, set up in Beijing in 1696 under the supervision of the Bavarian Jesuit Kilian Stumpf, window glass or mirrored glass was not successfully produced. As a result, from the middle of the 18th century onwards, when reverse glass painting was already popular in Europe, sheets of both clear and mirrored glass were sent to Canton from Europe. The practice of painting on mirrors developed in China after 1715 when the Jesuit missionary Father Castiglione arrived in Beijing. He found favor with the Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong and was entrusted with the decoration of the Imperial Garden in Beijing. He learned to paint in oil on glass, a technique that was already practiced in Europe but which was unknown in China in 1715. Chinese artists, already expert in painting and calligraphy, took up the practice, tracing the outlines of their designs on the back of the plate and, using a special steel implement, scraping away the mirror backing to reveal glass that could then be painted. Glass paintings were made almost entirely for export, fueled by the mania in Europe for all things Chinese. They most often depicted bucolic landscapes, frequently with sumptuously dressed Chinese figures at leisurely pursuits. Once in Europe the best were often placed in elaborate giltwood Chippendale or Chinoiserie frames.
Similar elegant seated figures, distinctively flowering trees and expansive riverscapes (thought to be depicting the Pearl River, or Zhujiang, which flowed through the city of Canton with many picturesque meandering tributaries), pointing to the output of a singular workshop in Canton, or possibly the use of shared print sources. Similar compositions recur in a pair of mirror paintings, formerly in the collection of Sir James Horlick (who assembled a celebrated collection of chinoiserie furniture and mirror paintings) and subsequently sold Rooms as Portraits: Michael S. Smith; Christie’s, New York, 26 September 2018, lot 52 ($175,000); a further pair sold from the collection of Kenneth Neame; Christie’s, London, 13 June 2018, lot 10 (£110,500), and a single example in the collection of Jon Gerstenfeld (illustrated in E. Lennox-Boyd ed., Masterpieces of English Furniture: The Gerstenfeld Collection, London, 1998, p. 64, fig. 48 and p. 235, cat. 86). A fascinating reflection of workshop practices in using shared image sources is a mirror painting at Saltram, Devon which features the two same ladies, one reading, leaning on the same rockwork and with a pheasant in the foreground, but without the servant serving tea or the elaborate riverscape in the background (see M. Jourdain & R. Soame Jenyns, Chinese Export Art in the Eighteenth Century, London, 1967, p. 101, fig. 55).
Carton pierre, similarly to papier mâché, was developed in the 18th century to imitate gilded wood and stone. Various compositions of paper pulp were cast in oiled box-wood moulds and lightly stove-dried (baked). Manufacturers’ recipes were jealously guarded, but analyses prove that the pulp was frequently mixed with flour, chalk, sawdust, sand and plaster and bound with wax, resin, animal glues or gum arabic.
One of the principal suppliers of carton pierre was the firm of George Jackson and Sons, who were also celebrated for their architectural work in composition plaster executed for the architect Robert Adam, Gillows of Lancaster also supplied carton pierre, mirrors from 1766, the frames themselves supplied whole or in parts by Peter Babel of St James's Street, Long Acre. Babel specialised particularly in sectioned papier mâché that could be assembled into mirror and picture frames, and also cornices and wall decorations. An order sent to Babel in June 1766 specified for '6 frames different patterns & the ornaments come loose to be made up here'.
THE STIRLINGS OF KEIR
The Stirlings of Keir, descended from the ancient Scottish families of Keir and Cadder (Cawder), were by the 18th century important landholders in the lowlands of Scotland, owning at one time a large portion of what is now Glasgow. The Keir estate was acquired by the Stirling family as far back as 1448, and the present Keir House was built on the site of a 16th century house, and was added to by Archibald Stirling, 12th of Keir (1710-1783), who had earlier made his fortune in India and Jamaica, returning to Scotland in 1748. It was aggrandized in 1831 to designs by David Hamilton and was subsequently inherited by Sir William Stirling Maxwell in 1847 who undertook further extensive remodeling of the house and was a noted art collector. In the early 20th Century this mirror was in the bedroom of Mrs. William Stirling, who in 1912 commissioned the architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson to redecorate this room with rococo plasterwork which would have provided a suitable backdrop for this charming mirror painting.
Although it is not known which member of the family acquired this remarkable mirror painting, it is worth noting the presence of other significant examples of Chinese Export art in the family’s collection, notably a spectacular porcelain service of the so-called ‘Rockefeller’ pattern sold by Lt. Colonel William Stirling of Keir at Christie’s in 1977 (more recently sold at Christie’s New York in 2017 for $1,087,500), a testament to the trading links established between Scotland and China by enterprising merchants such as William Jardine who first traveled to China in 1802.