Victoria and Albert Museum

Take a Closer Look at Coromandel Screens

There are two Coromandel screens in the V&A. It would be incorrect to call them new discoveries. Afterall they are large objects, not something that got tucked away in a corner and forgotten by curators. Yet it is exactly their large size that makes them difficult to study close-up.

Both screens were acquired by the V&A in the 19th century. This one was bought in 1885, from the well-known Paris dealer Siegfried Bing (1838 – 1905). The Museum paid an enormous sum for it - £1000. I went through all the purchases of the same year. There were only two objects more expensive, and they came from the Fountaine collection which was supposed to be very famous. I did not have time to check records further back, but I would not be at all surprised if that sum was the highest paid for a Chinese object since 1852. Then, for some unknown reasons the Museum bought another screen four years later, at the still very expensive price of £700.

The Far Eastern gallery came into existence only in 1952, where the two screens were displayed at the far end of the gallery. The problem with screens is we usually just see the front but not the back. Also anything above eye level tends to escape the viewer’s attention. Photographs are not much help either. Because the screens are heavy and difficult to handle they were photographed in the early 20th century and not again until the 1980s. The photographer did take a few shots of the back, but the height of the screen made it impossible for the details of the design to show up clearly on the photos.

Then in 2000 one of the screens was chosen to be displayed in the British Galleries. Conservators set it up in the tapestry gallery and new photography was taken – that’s why there is part of a tapestry behind the screen. Thanks to modern technology the curator can now examine all the details from her own computer screen. The first thing I noticed is the attempt to reproduce the calligraphy of renowned scholars. They come in different scripts, with names attached to them such as Tang Yin and Chen Jiru. The combination of poetry and picture reminds me of the ink cake books such as the Fangshi mopu 方氏墨譜 and Chengshi moyuan 程氏墨苑. The individual patterns on the borders, known generally as bogu 博古patterns, also have their parallels in the ink cake books.

Yang Ming 楊明, one of the authors of Xiu shi lu 髹飾錄, describes the kuancai technique as ‘the design engraved in intaglio, like that of a printing block’ 陰刻文圖,如打本之印版. Looking at the details of the screen I would say that not only is the technique similar to woodblock cutting, but the overall design was probably inspired by illustrated books of the day. A great deal of labour would have been required in the production. The selling price, even for a country with no shortage of labour, would have been high. Consequently, old screens in Europe were not discarded but were turned into some other form of furniture. The boy servant on the side panel of this chest has part of his head chopped off – a clear sign of the recycling of wood.

My colleagues in the European departments often asked me where in China were Coromandel screens made. So far I have not been able to answer with certainty. In view of the similarity between woodblock and kuancai lacquer I am inclined to say Huizhou, also known as Xin-an. Huizhou was a major centre for printing and publishing in Ming and early Qing times. It was also the hometown of Huang Cheng 黃成, one of the two authors of Xiu shi lu and himself a lacquerer.

Most Coromandel screens are dated to Kangxi. We know some were intended for Chinese customers and some were sold to Europe. Some screens bear long inscriptions, usually celebrating the birthday of a state official, for example the one now in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, with a date of Kangxi 9th year, equivalent to 1670. Of those sold to Europe the best documented examples are three screens used as wall panelling, installed in the Palace of the Frisian stadholders in Leeuwarden in about 1694, and moved to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in 1880.

Sarah Medlam, my colleague in the European Furniture Section, has done a survey of European furniture that incorporates Coromandel lacquer. Her survey reveals that the Coromandel screens were not used as a free-standing screen in 17th century Europe. They were either used to line walls – as panelling, or the individual panels were cut up to decorate cabinets. Some European furniture can be dated quite precisely, because an invoice exists, or an inventory, or some other records. This cabinet from Ham House was made in circa 1675. You can see the right door is made of two pieces of wood, not one. Some scholars think it results from an old screen being re-used. But in the 1670s newly made Coromandel screens were still arriving in Europe so the cabinet-maker did not necessarily have to use recycled screens.

Thus it would seem logical to assume that the screens made for export would have an undecorated back. I cannot imagine a European merchant spending money unnecessarily on a screen with decoration on both sides, when all he needed was the decoration on the front. However, the majority of Coromandel screens, including those with inscriptions, and those with beautiful calligraphies on the back, are in western collections today. The Zhongguo qiqi quanji, published in 1995, features only one kuancai screen, now in the Anhui Museum.

It seems China stopped making Coromandel screens after the Kangxi period, but in Europe the use of Coromandel lacquer continued into the 1780s. That probably was the reason why more Coromandel screens ended up in the West than in China today. We do not have time to look into that half of the story now. What I would like to hear is that there are other kuancai lacquer pieces in Chinese collections that I don’t know about. It is through information sharing that we can gain a better understanding of this remarkable product which is unique to China.