blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The real thing?

I'm reading a work of fiction about Qing Dynasty China which seems more genuine than the chinoiserie I saw at the Brighton Pavilion, mentioned in my previous blogpost. This is a book or series of books that George and Sha sent me for Christmas, the Chinese classic 18th century novel, Dream of the Red Chamber ––Hóng Lóu Mèng (紅樓夢)––by Cao Xueqin, or The Story of the Stone as it's called in the translation I'm reading.

The narrative is very slow moving with an inordinate amount of detail in the descriptions. Keeping track of the hundreds of characters is not easy, but there's a helpful list! The hero is a man, or boy (at first), called Jia Baoyu. I have to take my time over this novel, and find it fascinating to imagine the characters living their strictly circumscribed, unnatural lives in the aristocratic courts of those days. The women or girls in the story are for the most part delicate, sickly creatures, often in tears. They were the privileged class, but had little freedom within their bounds. They remind me of the wistful courtiers of 18th century France, painted by Watteau.

I wonder if Frederick Crace, who designed the Chinese interiors at Brighton a few decades after this period, had ever visited China or had read any of the Hóng Lóu Mèng.

In Chapter 17 of Volumn 1 is a series of descriptions of courtly buildings:
Jia Zheng [Baoyu's father] led them inside the building. Its interior turned out to be all corridors and alcoves and galleries, so that properly speaking it could hardly have been said to have rooms at all. The partition walls which made these divisions were of wooden panelling exquisitely carved in a wide variety of motifs: bats in clouds, the 'three friends of winter'––pine, plum and bamboo, little figures in landscapes, birds and flowers, scrollwork, antique bronze shapes, 'good luck' and 'long life' characters and many others. The carvings, all of them the work of master craftsmen, were beautified with inlays of gold, mother of pearl and semi-precious stones. In addition to being panelled the partitions were pierced by numerous apertures, some round, some square, some sunflower-shaped. Shelving was concealed in the double thickness of the partition at the base of these apertures , making it possible to use them for storing books and writing materials and for the display of antique bronzes, vases of flowers, miniature tray gardens and the like.

[...]The trompe-l'oeil effect of these ingenious partitions had been further enhanced by inserting false windows and doors in them, the former covered in various pastel shades of gauze, the latter hung with richly patterned damask portières. The main walls were pierced with window-like perforations in the shape of zithers, swords, vases and other objects of virtù.
The next few paragraphs go on to describe the mirrors and gauze hangings that create further optical illusions.

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