Treasure Trove

The mutual fascination between America and China, begun over two centuries ago, has left a beautiful legacy for today's collectors.

Use the phrase "China Trade" today, and most people think immediately of bilateral trade deficits, embargoes and outsourcing. But there's another China Trade, the name for an entire genre of highly collectible art and antiques, and its fascinating story stars Yankee ship captains, old-world trading skills and, yes, the ability of the Orient to intuit and then precisely imitate what Westerners want to buy.

Europe became infatuated with Chinese culture as early as the 13th century, following the travels of Marco Polo; the Far East soon was seen as exotic, mysterious and beautiful. But the fad for chinoiserie (real or replica Chinese objects) only bloomed after China lifted its ban on foreign trade in 1684. The British and Dutch East India trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries-the first publicly held companies in the world-then raked in dazzling riches, in part because the China Trade's fanciful and extravagant objects blended well with the reigning Louis XV rococo style.

Americans didn't get into the act until 1785, when the square-rigged Empress of China returned to New York harbor after a year-long voyage, laden with a cargo of silks, porcelains and tea. Even then, America's thirst for all things Oriental was frustrated-first by a series of European conflicts, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and then by the War of 1812. At the war's end in 1814, the United States resumed the China Trade with a vengeance. At the same time, the enthusiasm in Europe for chinoiserie had dimmed, and Far Eastern merchants quickly realized that the vast United States was a promising new market.

A rare opportunity to glimpse the Trade's rare objects d'art is afforded this month at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Conn., which is staging an unusual exhibit (through March 6). "The China Trade in New England" is seen through the life and acquisitions of a Connecticut ship's captain, Abraham Gould Jennings, who sailed from New York to Canton between 1816 and 1823, bringing shiploads of wares for the wealthy gentry of New England. The exhibit shows the breadth of the China Trade objects, including lacquer ware, silver, ivory, porcelains, furniture, wallpaper, textiles and paintings.

Savvy captains quickly learned that there was a demand for ginseng (which grew wild in New England), sheet copper, New England rum, tar, and spermaceti candles. Nantucket whalers made more money bartering sealskins collected in South America for China Trade goods than they did with a harpoon.

Chinese craftsmen proved adept at copying Western styles and industrial-style workshops employed armies of low-paid artisans to create the wares that were sold at trade centers called "hongs," originally along the Pearl River at Canton and later throughout Asia.

For Capt. Jennings, China provided hand-painted wallpaper for his home, porcelains and silver for his dining room, and ivory or mother-of-pearl trinkets for display or resale. The Bruce Museum exhibit includes a period room from a New England home, with porcelain, paintings and bric-a-brac ornamenting the parlor.

One of the most collectible forms of China Trade is artwork, including nautical subjects such as a ship or a portrait of a ship's captain. Also popular are landscapes, Chinese court figures or officials, domestic scenes, and flowers. Often painted on the delicate and luminous surface of pith paper and bordered in silk ribbon, the images are colorful and highly detailed.

Oil painting was introduced to the Chinese early in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) but, for hundreds of years, it never replaced the use of ink or watercolor on paper or silk. When the eager New England captains arrived with a bounty of goods to trade, however, the Chinese quickly mastered this Western art form and, in fact, many of the China Trade paintings have a distinctly non-Oriental use of perspective.

Watercolors remained popular because they were traditional, and the China Trade also included the complicated process of reverse painting on glass. In all cases, the styles are eclectic, ranging from traditional Chinese strokes to highly Westernized brushwork. Most experts date China Trade artwork from the middle of the 18th century to the second half of the 19th century when the introduction of the camera led to the art form's demise.Today the best-known artists of the China Trade are Spoilum, Lamqua, Foeiqua, Sunqua and Tinqua. But many are unknown: It seems they were considered mere craftsmen catering to foreigners and so didn't sign their works.

The Bruce Museum exhibit includes a painting of The Beaver, a square-rigger at anchor, by an unknown Cantonese artist. The Beaver had been commissioned by fur baron John Jacob Astor, and Capt. Jennings sailed it to Canton in 1823. The ship is almost childlike in rendering, the China Trade influence clear in the highly detailed rigging, the stylized water, and the misty landscape in the distance.

Showcase sewing tables were popular with American women who, while they may have had maids to do their sewing, still displayed the tables in their living rooms so guests could admire (and presumably envy) the detailed lacquer and gilt finish, the silk trim, and the hand-carved ivory sewing implements neatly stored inside.

Chinese wallpaper, first in fashion in mid-seventeenth-century Europe, arrived in America during Colonial days. Referred to as "Paper Hangings" in the cargo manifest of the Empress of China, such artwork was highly valued; even George Washington inquired about purchasing a set for his dining room. Because most Chinese wallpaper installations haven't survived in homes, it remains a prized item from the China Trade.

Silver-plated objects were also popular because they could be purchased far less expensively than from American silversmiths.The styles drew heavily on American and English forms and patterns, and captains or merchants would often invest in extensive services of flatware, hollowware and decorative pieces.

Makers of lacquered goods, such as card tables, desks, poudreuses (a vanity with folding mirror) and nesting tables used Western furniture catalogs to reverse-engineer these items, often bespoke, for clients. But though the styling may have been Western, the gleaming black and gold lacquer and finely detailed ornamentation make these pieces as desirable today as they were two centuries ago.

The China Trade was a unique period in art history that not only set the stage for the fascination of the American middle class with Chinese goods, but ultimately provided collectors centuries later with a treasure trove of luxury goods to enjoy.

Contact: Bruce Museum, (203) 869-6786.