This extremely impressive and rare screen is one of only three such screens known to have survived. The current screen and another formerly in the collection of the Earl of Rosebery bear very similar scenes, while a third screen in the possession of the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes is composed in a similar manner, but depicts a European-style palace. It seems probable that originally two pairs of these screens were made, but that the second one showing a European-style palace may no longer be extant. The quality of the relief carving on the screens is extraordinarily high, with great emphasis being given to the depiction of perspective. Both the exceptional quality and the choice of both major and minor decoration suggest that these screens could have come from the Imperial Western-style palaces in the Yuanming yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) built for the Emperor Qianlong (1736 - 95).
The Rosebery screen, which is the companion to the current screen and also shows a canal scene, and is illustrated by M. Beurdeley in The Chinese Collector Through the Centuries, Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1966, p. 159, pl. XVIII, from the collection of C.T. Loo, Paris, can be traced back to at least 1870. On 27 May 1870 the screen was sold at Christie's, London, lot 52, as 'the property of a gentleman'. The gentleman in question was Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, Bt., who in 1881 was to become the first Baron Tweedmouth of Edington, and whose family estate was at Guisachen, Inverness, Scotland. Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks is best known for having established the Golden Retriever breed of dog, but more germane to the current discussion, he was a director of the East India Company (established in 1600 to trade with Asia), and was therefore well placed to acquire items from China. The fact that he was selling this screen in 1870 is also significant, since the Yuanming yuan, whence it is believed to originate, was sacked by British and French troops in 1860.
With this in mind it is interesting that the third known screen of this type is in the possession of the Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes. The French East India Company had its roots in the reign of Henri IV, and had successive support from Mazarin, Richelieu and Colbert. It was the latter in 1664, who established it as the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, but this was to evolve in 1698 into the Compagnie de la Chine. Like its British counterpart its purpose was trade with Asia. It seems possible that two pairs of screens came from the Yuanming yuan in 1860, and that one pair found its way to Britain and the other to France via their respective East India Companies.
That these screens were made for the Chinese Imperial court of the Emperor Qianlong is suggested by several aspects of their construction and design. The very high quality of craftsmanship is indicative of an imperial workshop, as is the fact that several different combinations of lacquer and gilding reminiscent of Japanese lacquers have been employed. The Emperor Qianlong was interested in Japanese lacquer and ordered several Japanese-style lacquer wares from the Imperial lacquer workshops. The use of these techniques led the cataloguers of the Marjoribanks screen in 1870 mistakenly to describe the screen as a 'beautiful old Japan lacquer screen'. The canal scene depicted on the current screen and its companion also reflect Chinese court taste. From the Kangxi reign (1662 - 1722) the Chinese emperors were fascinated by European linear perspective and encouraged European missionary artists at the court to pass on its techniques to Chinese artists and craftsmen. The scene on the screen, especially the buildings on either side of the canal, provides a good study of perspective. The scene itself appears to be a composite, with certain aspects having been misunderstood by the Chinese craftsman - details of the bridge for example. The figures appear to be wearing Dutch clothing of the period 1710 - 30, and it seems likely that the scene primarily depicts the River Amstel in Amsterdam with the Skinny bridge (Magere Brug) in the foreground and the Mint Tower (Munt Tooren) in the background. However, the depiction is far from accurate and probably incorporates elements from several prints available to the craftsmen at the time - not necessarily all depicting Amsterdam - as well as considerable artistic license. Interestingly, a Chinese high, square lacquer box on long-term loan to the Kyoto National Museum in Japan bears a similar city scene with tall towers on the top of the box and on the side a depiction of a ship of East Indiaman type. See Moto Yoshimura, 'Sasaya, zaimei no makie plaque ni tsuite', Collection of Commemorative Essays on the 90th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Kansei Gakuin University, Osaka, 1980, p. 14, no. 11. These decorative panels on the box are surrounded by rococo scrollwork in a similar combination to that seen on the screens.
The Emperor Qianlong had an abiding interest in European arts, which resulted in an Occidentalism, similar to the fashion for 'chinoiserie' that swept Europe. European themes appear on a number of different types of objects made for his court. The most magnificent of his Western-style commissions were the 'European' palaces that were built at the Yuanming yuan Imperial Summer Palace complex and park just outside Beijing. These European palaces, built with the help of European missionary artists between 1747 and 1759, with additions around 1768, were magnificent stone edifices with elaborately carved decoration drawing on the style of Jean Bérain's designs and early rococo. No expense was spared in the construction of the buildings or the furnishings to go in them. The elaborately carved arabesques that decorate the lower part of the screen panels are close in style to those seen on surviving pillars and balustrades from the European palaces of the Yuanming yuan. The elegantly carved scrolls along the top of the screen are reminiscent of the scrollwork on surviving transoms from major doors and windows of the Yuanming yuan's European palaces. The transom of the door of the Belvedere is illustrated by M. Pirazzoli-t'Serstevens, 'The Emperor Qianlong's European palaces', Orientations, vol. 19, no. 11, November 1998, p. 67, fig. 13.
It seems likely, therefore, that the current screen was made for the 18th century Chinese emperor Qianlong's palace, while by the mid-20th century it graced the elegant Fifth Avenue home of Mrs. John E. Rovensky. Its companion screen was owned by at least two British aristocrats, including Lord Rosebery, who displayed it at the famous Mentmore Towers. The appeal of the outstanding craftsmanship and exceptional design of these screens is international and timeless.