“I’ve loved Chinese screens since I was eighteen years old. I nearly fainted with joy when entering a Chinese shop, I saw a Coromandel for the first time. Screens were the first thing I bought”. Coco Chanel (1883-1971).
Certainly one of the most elegant objects in collection today is located aptly enough in the Oriental Bedroom on the third floor of the Castle. The piece is a lavishly decorated Chinese screen in the corner of the bedroom.
The name given to these screens traditionally was a Coromandel Screen (although originally in England they were “Bantam Work” were imported from Indonesia). The Coromandel Coast of south-east India was were the Dutch East Indies Company and the British had bases from at least the early 18th Century. The Coromandel Screen was among many Chinese decorative pieces introduced into European markets at this time. The screen itself in a large folding screen with as many as twelve leaves or panels, the screen in the Kilkenny Castle collection is an eight-fold screen. (Each leaf/panel is 224 cms (88 inches) in length and 42 cms (16.5 inches) in width). The panels are coated in black lacquer with large decorative pictures using the Kuan Cai technique (Incised Colours) which dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). The wood base is initially treated with several heavy layers of black lacquer, although other colours are also used, which is given a high polish. The pictorial elements are the cut/incised out of the lacquer. The technique of Kuan Cai is unique to China, it involved cutting the design into a base made of brick dust, pig’s blood and lacquer and then filling in the incised areas with the coloured lacquer. A different technique involved the use of mother of pearl, which had been in use since the Song Dynasty and received a revival in the 16th Century. The mother of pearl was often engraved, stained, and used with a combination of ivory, tortoiseshell and gold. These screens were much more expensive and were reserved for wealthy clientele within the Chinese court. Up to thirty layers of lacquer were used on each screen. Each layer could have patterns and pictorial scenes incised, painted and inlaid, and this created a design standing out against a dark background. The screens made in China began to appear in Europe in the 17th Century and remained popular into the 18th Century.
The main designs used on the screens fall into two categories; firstly courtly “figures in pavilions” often showing scenes from “spring in the Han Court” and secondly landscape designs, with an emphasis on animals and birds especially. The screen in the Kilkenny Castle collection falls into the first category with beautifully decorated pavilion scenes including mythological beasts. Some of these illustrative scenes are from works of classical Chinese literature or history. Above and below the central pictorial images are smaller borders with panels. The screen in Kilkenny seems to show the “hundred antiques” design of isolated “scholar’s objects” antique Chinese objet d’art, which would have held great significance for the viewer. The Hundred Antiques is a miscellaneous collection of emblematic forms, comprising of the Four Treasures, the Eight Treasures, and the symbols of the Four Fine Arts (music, chess, calligraphy and painting) together with other representations of sacrificial vessels, flowers and animals.
Among some of the objects visible on the screen are:
Books – symbols of leaning and one of the Four Signs of a Scholar.
Brush Holder – scholarly attainments.
Coral Carving – longevity. Officials of the 2nd grade wore at a hat button of coral.
Incense burner – ancestral worship.
Lute or Qin – marital bliss.
Mirror – heals those who become mad at the sight of a demon or spirt.
Money or Quin – Images of Chinese money include coins, gold bars and paper money.
Tripod – filial piety, an ancient ritual vessel.
Wine pot – warns not to drink to excess.
These images are among the many visible along the top border of the screen with a series a animals running along the bottom borders panels, also signifying various strengths, good fortune and longevity. The earlier examples made for the Chinese market often have inscriptions on the reverse recording their presentation as gifts often on birthdays; they became the standard gift on the retirement of senior officials from the Chinese court. Intriguingly the Kilkenny Castle screen has beautifully carved elegant Chinese calligraphy on the reverse. The Victoria and Albert Museum has stated, “So far all known Kuan Cai screens are from the Kangxi Period (1654-1722). Later pieces were made for the European markets are of lower quality, many rather crude”. Despite having some slight damage, the screen in Kilkenny Castle certainly falls into the Kangxi Period and is of exemplary craftsmanship.
The original fashion for these Coromandel Screens may have been Dutch and the fashion came to England after 1688. It seem to have dissipated rapidly from around 1700 largely replaced with Oriental themed tapestries and later Chinese wallpapers. After the decline of the 18th century general demand for Coromandel lacquer remained low until a revival in the 1880’s, led in part with by a taste for Oriental art and blue and white porcelain. In Vita Sackville-West’s novel “The Edwardians” set in 1905 a Coromandel Screen in mentioned as “impersonal, conventional and correct” typifying the style of those who “unquestionably followed the expensive fashion”.
Coco Chanel, quoted at the start, was an euthanistic collector of Chinese folding screens, especially the Coromandel and is believed to have owned 32 folding screens, eight of which were in her apartment in Paris.
Peter Kenny January 2024