FLORAL BROCADED SILK SATIN
Chinese Export for the English Market, 1830s.
By the nineteenth century, imported Chinese silks were a familiar addition to household and clothing inventories for the English aristocracy and upper classes. Goods made for export to England could be bought from the various Customs Houses near the docks where China trade ships came to anchor. In the 1830s, the sixth Duke of Devonshire (1790–1858) bought sufficient bolts of Chinese silk from one such Custom House to furnish some of the grand salons at his Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. This impressive, upholstery-weight brocaded silk—identical in design to that purchased by the Duke for Chatsworth—draws attention to the vogue for furnishing interiors in the Chinese taste.
Curtains of this dramatic silk were hung at Chatsworth in 1839, first in the Library; soon after, the draperies were reinstalled in the Yellow Drawing Room and matching cornices were placed in the Dining Room. Extra cornices from this furnishing scheme were removed to Devonshire House in London. Writing in his 1844 handbook, the Duke described the silk as Indian: “More Indian silk, yellow, bought at the Custom House at the same time as the red” and “The curtains here as well as in the dining room are made of Indian silk.” It was not unusual for Europeans to mistake the origins of Eastern materials, especially since silks came from both China and India. Traders brought goods from several Oriental ports, and since India was typically the last country where fresh purchases were loaded it was common to attribute many imports to that country. In her book Chatsworth: The House (2002), p. 173, the current dowager Duchess of Devonshire states that a past housekeeper kept a fragment of this particular silk which had Chinese characters printed on the back.
Rare in its survival as a partial bolt, this brilliant yellow satin is woven with a design resembling Chinese floral patterns popular during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was customary to have rows of flowerheads, opposing one another in direction, laid out in offset repeats. Here, alternating rows of pink lotus and peony blossoms are separated by smaller pink and blue flowers, all growing from curling, leafy green stems. Many nineteenth-century Chinese silks were also closely modeled on those of the Qianlong period (1736–95), when the finest brocades were provided for the court by the imperial Jiangning Weaving Bureau. While it was not possible for Westerners to buy from royal manufactories, there were other weaving centers in southern China, especially at Hangzhou and Suzhou, which would supply foreign orders.