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Britain's Chinese EyeLiterature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain$

Elizabeth Hope Chang

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780804759458

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804759458.001.0001

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(p.71) Two Plate
Britain's Chinese Eye
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes how the circulation of patterned porcelain allowed the Chinese garden to be understood as a domestic commodity, and also explains how the increasingly mechanized production of that commodity revised British creative and narrative self-conception. It connects artistic technique, commercial conditions, and consumer practice in describing the ways that domestically manufactured pieces of porcelain became identified primarily as Chinese objects wielding Chinese visual influence. In the transformation of British commodities into Chinese objects, we can connect the economic conditions described by traditional theories of consumer practice with the newer critical category of thing theory through rhetorics of political and racial difference. The chapter begins by considering Romantic-era satires on blue and white china in the first decades of the nineteenth century and then moves on to descriptions of the porcelain-collecting practices of Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1860s.

Keywords:   China, porcelain, Chinese garden, self-conception, Chinese visual influence, Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

In 1838, Mark Lemon published what purported to be “A True History of the Celebrated Wedgewood [sic] Hieroglyph, Commonly Called the Willow Pattern” in Bentley's Miscellany. The broad and questionable humor of this piece, in keeping with Lemon's later role as editor of Punch, comes not so much in its description of the “true” origins of the willow pattern plate's standard elements of mandarins, pavilions, rivers, bridges, and, of course, willow trees, which all make familiar components of the Chinese garden as readers had come to understand it. Nor is the humor especially located in the basic plot of Lemon's story of Chou-chu, who had, “in addition to his other commodities … a daughter.”1 In Lemon's story, just as in other accounts this daughter, Si-So rejects her father's choice of husband and instead conducts an unsanctioned affair with the impoverished musician Ting-a-ting that ends, inevitably, in parental discovery of the affair, the lovers' separation and consequent double suicide, and, finally, the transformation of the two young Chinese into doves. Indeed, in these bare facts Lemon's history, though silly, is not really different from the many other “retellings” of the willow pattern's fabricated folk tale in British periodicals and children's literature throughout the century.

Instead, Lemon's satire declares itself through an acknowledgment of the willow pattern's ubiquity. Before beginning his “true history,” Lemon inserts a bracketed imperative to the reader—“[Gentle reader,* ring the bell, and desire John to bring you a ‘willow pattern plate.’ John has obeyed you, and, with your permission, we will now proceed]”—to which is added the following note: “*The humour (if any) of this sketch will be better (p.72) understood if the above requisition be complied with.”2 Lemon then describes the building and grounds of Chou-chu's residence on Lake Slo-Flo, concluding with their most salient aspect: “[T]here is one feature which it would be presumptuous to describe,—a feature which has given it celebrity as undying as that of the Staffordshire Potteries: This feature is its WILLOW!!! (See plate).”3

To understand what might be considered humorous in Lemon's pun, we have to understand what it meant to look at a willow pattern plate, or indeed any patterned blue and white china in Britain in the nineteenth century, and to expect that look to return both value and meaning to a broader reading context. While descriptions of Chinese gardens offered by British travel narratives showed China's aesthetic difference as a spectacular direct experience, writers' descriptions of looking at blue and white china conveyed that aesthetic difference allusively. The china provides a material reference point for a pre-existing storehouse of images and narratives of Chinese gardens so embedded that it would be “presumptuous to describe” them. This isn't to say that physical Chinese gardens didn't embed their own shared visual histories for those who traveled to see them, only to emphasize what Lemon also makes clear: the china's availability to every “gentle reader” greatly increased the population doing that sharing.

China, therefore, directs the visual constitution of nineteenth-century British subjects most effectively through its metonymic commodity. This china is an object both individually possessed and understood as a defining national possession, a site of reading open simultaneously to all British people at once—or at least all those able to summon John with a bell. Here what is significant is not so much the specific moment that porcelain is offloaded from a trading ship or produced in a Kiln, but more the evolution of porcelain as an epistemological category throughout the British nineteenth century. Following these circulations allows us to read the china through what Arjun Appadurai has called the history of the commodity's social life.4 Blue and white china is a material object that through its developing social life becomes understood by British writers and artists to be capable of encoding vision, and the cultural categories that make vision possible, through the artificial intrusions of its design.

It is important to make immediately clear here that I am handling material difference and history imprecisely within this discussion. Antique imported blue and white porcelain from China and domestically manufactured modern patterned earthenware and porcelain from Britain are of (p.73) course not interchangeable. Yet early European traders had influenced the designs of such antique porcelain from the beginning days of the China trade, as I discuss further below. Thus, when certain British consumers insisted on taking their china as Chinese they did so in order to deny key circumstances of both material and formal hybridity.

The efforts involved in rendering a common domestic object unequivocally foreign exemplifies the paradox of the familiar exotic that I have described. In particular, the kind of blue and white porcelain labeled the willow pattern comes to be both a comforting icon of British domesticity and a dangerous token of visual difference. But for the china to carry weight as a symbol of both domesticity and foreignness, collectors of china needed to negotiate a conversion from economic to cultural capital. As I show in this chapter, the operative terms of that conversion change across the century. First, the material signified by the common term “china” came to encompass not just foreign-produced true porcelain but also domestic earthenware. Second, the designs printed on this domestic china became refined, standardized, and mechanically reproducible. And third, the literature and art that made narratives out of the china's pictorial image increasingly sourced those stories in a domestic present rather than a foreign past.

This chapter pays attention to all of these changing ways of reading china, whether those readings understand china as circulating object, reproducible image, or rewriteable story. This is necessary because, regardless of assignments of aesthetic value, all of these evolutions propose a similar primary significance for the Chinese commodity in the making of British standards of authentic representation. In this chapter, as in the last, interpreters of Chinese aesthetics are connected not so much by their affection or disregard for China's influence but by their shared understanding of Chinese aesthetic productions as important places to locate discussions about the complex nature of visual truth in the modern global era.

I read three historical moments that evidence this progression. First, the chapter examines several Romantic-era essayists: Robert Southey, Charles Lamb, and Leigh Hunt. All of these writers understand the conception of the writing subject through the blue and white china in that subject's possession not just as an intimation of consumer practice but as a meditation on visual interpretation. Southey, Lamb, and Hunt all take the pattern's visual challenges seriously and seek, in their texts, to absorb the artificiality of its Chinese aesthetics within a native British literary tradition. Later, with the development of the willow pattern in domestic potteries, that integration (p.74) gets so fully economically and materially achieved that the mere circumstance of possession is no longer remarkable. Instead, writers turn their attention to the narrative context of the pattern, and, like Lemon, use the “true history” of the willow pattern story to challenge the operations of literary realism, most thoroughly in the case of George Meredith's novel The Egoist. Concurrently, pre-Impressionist artists attempt to rescue antique porcelain from its conflation with ubiquitous domestically produced earthenware, and use the porcelain's rarity to mark their own aesthetic difference from the more middle-brow artistic taste that surrounds them. Whistler and Rossetti constitute themselves as visual subjects through their possessions as much as Charles Lamb did, but for the later artists the china is valuable only by virtue of, rather than in spite of, its difference. In all three moments, the china and the larger aesthetic conventions that it makes a part of give important information about the material object's capacity to convey the making of the creative British visual subject. This effect is registered across social strata high and low, and remains powerful whether the blue and white means to convey luxury or the middlingest domesticity.

Remarking on the wide range of China's influence, as Lemon does in the “True History,” also becomes cover for a deeper anxiety: that this influence imposes distinction where there is no true difference. Lemon's lengthy set-piece upon one of the musician Ting-a-ting's nightly serenades to his lover Si-So, for example, makes clear the satirist's play on false translation of an exoticized domestic object already apparent in the title. In this verse, the “original” lyrics first printed as “O-re ye-wi-te Slo-flo/ Ic om-to mi Si-so” are then “translated” as “O'er the white Slo-flo/ I come to my Si-so.”5 While the sing-song hyphenated rhythms of the “original” verse reflect a general British mockery of Chinese phonemes, the aural equivalency between the two verses redirects the critique internally. Reminding the reader of the seemingly exotic willow pattern's domestic origins with the Staffordshire pottery firm of Wedgwood, comparing the pattern's design to the newly understood writing system of hieroglyphics, and exaggerating the arbitrary linkage between printed words and spoken sounds, Lemon's essay finds its humor in the slippages between apparently separate terms. These are as much visual and verbal conditions as oral and verbal contrasts. When he directs his reader to “See plate,” punning on the interchangeability between china cabinet commodities and textual illustrations, he makes clear that the problem of Chinese visual difference must equally be a problem of British textual production.

(p.75) Romantic Satires on Blue and White China

Although the texts this chapter considers are all published after Macartney's embassy, the history of porcelain's reception in Europe long predates that failed expedition. Indeed, it was in part porcelain's global popularity that occasioned Macartney's requests for trade concessions in the first place.6 This history, however, rarely emerges in British writings on China, as Lydia Liu has shown in her analysis of porcelain and earthenware's linguistic chiasmus of cause and effect in Robinson Crusoe.7 In negotiating between popular and personal stories of the place of china in Britain, Southey, Lamb, and Hunt all ignore or revise the general economic and industrial inequities that allowed China to dominate the worldwide porcelain market in the eighteenth century. Yet the rhetorical repudiations and revisions of Chinese visual influence that their essays perform were only possible given that blue and white had been such a long-standing universal object of desire.

As the premier Chinese export porcelain since at least the fifteenth century, blue and white china had a profound effect on the Near East and Europe both through the quality of its material manufacture and the sophistication of its design. Traders bringing porcelain westward frequently requested particular patterns as well as specific shapes and sizes of porcelain pieces. In response, Chinese manufacturers used those specifications not only to make exact copies but also to extrapolate a hybrid aesthetic that incorporated both European- and Chinese-specified designs. By the early eighteenth century, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, and Swedish artisans were all supplying forms and decorations to the hodge-podge style known as “Chinese export porcelain.” The resulting product, as Julie Emerson notes, “confuses modern historians: it is not easy to ascertain the original destination or intended market for these hybrid wares.”8 As its melange of design inspirations grew and multiplicity of production points expanded, the cultural assignations given to the export china became, if not increasingly arbitrary, increasingly revelatory of the cultural imperatives directing aesthetic distinction.

Yet eighteenth-century critiques of Chinese porcelain usually focused much more on the material object than on the visual implications of the design printed on that object. Throughout the eighteenth century, these attacks had taken particularly gendered and classed shape; for only wealthier (p.76) kinds of women were held to possess the leisure necessary to build an impressive collection of imported porcelain. John Gay's 1725 “To a Lady on Her Passion for Old China,” for example, documents a woman's obsessive desire for china—“China's the passion of her soul;/ A cup, a plate, a dish, a bowl/ Can kind wishes in her breast,/ Inflame with joy, or break her rest”—but also directly equates fragile femininity with the delicacy of the empty, functionless porcelain vessel: “When I some antique Jar behold,/ Or white, or blue, or speck'd with gold,/ Vessels so pure, and so refin'd/ Appear the types of woman-kind:/ Are they not valu'd for their beauty,/ Too fair, too fine, for houshold duty?”9 Men, on the other hand, metaphorically correspond to a different kind of material in Gay's poem: “He's a strong earthen vessel made, For drudging, labour, toil and trade.”10 The ensuing metaphorical dichotomies, which posit women as antique, pure, refined, empty, and useless while men are modern, earthy, strong, and useful, give an early example of the potent metaphorical power carried by the material distinction between porcelain and earthenware. Gay's equation of women with porcelain, like Alexander Pope's linkage of lost female chastity with a flawed china jar in The Rape of the Lock or Addison's or Steele's attacks on women's irrational appetites in The Spectator, brings together critiques of feminine frivolity, impurity, and consumerism.11

As the century turned, however, two changes occurred. For one, the East India Company's trade in imported porcelain to Britain began to lull, in part because of the rise of domestic porcelain manufacture by the Staffordshire potteries. Although the British manufacturers had lagged behind Meissen and Sèvres in discovering the technology for fusing minerals at the very high temperatures needed to produce true porcelain, British industrialists like Josiah Wedgwood did pioneer new marketing techniques to sell that porcelain once it began to be produced, allowing British porcelain rapidly to gain wider distribution. Joanna Bailie's 1790 poem “Lines to a Teapot” provides a fascinating imagined history that traces this falling-off of interest in imported Chinese wares from the perspective of the now-undesirable Chinaware teapot itself.12 But additionally, the once domestically focused critiques began to incorporate information from the increasing number of British travel narratives describing journeys to China, John Barrow's Travels in China chief among them. Patterns on china now could be compared with first-hand reports of the gardens they supposedly depicted, and the verbal-visual debate revived anew in China's particular geographic and visual context.

(p.77) Robert Southey clearly draws on his reading of Barrow's work, among other travel narratives, in his own satiric take on the travel genre, the 1807 Letters from England.13 In this work, a purported translation from Spanish of the travel observations of one Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, the author finds among other English faults a misguided English proclivity to import Chinese porcelain. As Espriella explains, while the Chinese material has a technical quality not present in English productions, the Chinese “must yield the palm in whatever depends upon taste.”14 Even given the superior heraldic and armorial designs of domestic manufacturing houses, “such are the effects of prejudice and habit, that the grotesque and tasteless patterns of the real china are frequently preferred; and the English copy the hair-line eyebrows of the Chinese, their unnatural trees and distorted scenery, as faithfully as if they were equally ignorant of perspective themselves.”15 Yet, Espriella continues, this adherence to the grotesque may be forgiven. He writes that the China-designed

plates and tea-saucers have made us better acquainted with the Chinese than we are with any other distant people. If we had no other documents concerning this extraordinary nation, a series of engravings from these their own pictures would be considered as highly curious, and such a work, if skillfully conducted and annotated, might still elucidate the writings of travellers, and not improbably furnish information which it would be in vain to seek in Europe from other sources.16

Southey's satire of course depends upon the needless complexity of this suggestion. Yet the altogether improbable conditional tense of the suggestion shifts the target of the critique from consumers to readers and writers. In framing his sentences without human subjects, Southey ensures that no particular hand or eye takes responsibility for the exegesis of Chinese works. And in emphasizing the degrees of visual and textual remove from the actual distant Chinese themselves, Southey makes mockery of such an approach to cross-cultural understanding, while at the same time acknowledging the powerful wish for such documentary visual evidence as a way of providing an authenticating visual truth. Espriella's proposal reminds readers of the problems inherent in realist documentary representation, not the least of which is the proposition that such representation can ever exist in the first place.

Having reviewed Barrow's Travels in China only two years earlier for the Annual Review, Southey clearly remembers the attacks in Barrow's narrative on the Chinese porcelain painters as “servile imitators” who do “not (p.78) in the least [feel] the force or the beauty of any specimens of the arts that may come before them; for the same person who is one day employed in copying a beautiful European print, will sit down the next to a Chinese drawing replete with absurdity.”17 In Southey's mockery of the annotation the plates might provide, knowledge production itself becomes a form of copying across media, inevitably undermined by its circular origins. Meaning-making through commodity content fails before it can begin, as Espriella's offhand contention “if we had no other documents” makes clear. Reading the Letters' satire against the opening lines of Southey's review of Travels in China further illuminates Southey's disdain for the serious study of material culture. If in the Letters the plates offer only a critique of strategies of comprehension, the careful work of travelers discussed in the Barrow review seems, at least, to be transparently instructive: “Whatever the commercial effects of our embassy to China, literature has reaped ample advantages from it. The drawings of Mr. Alexander, and the work of Mr. Barrow, have communicated more information concerning this extraordinary empire and its inhabitants, than could be collected from all our former travellers.”18 Given Alexander's exclusion from many of the embassy's most important occasions, Southey's praise of his drawings as accurate communications of visual truth must already be suspect. But we also need to question the implicit visual hierarchy that Southey establishes between his review of Barrow's Travels and his own satiric Letters from England. Although Southey asserts the higher value of the information communicated by Alexander's drawings over the acquaintance imposed by Chinese plates and tea-saucers, Britons increasingly came to imagine China by way of the latter rather than the former. Looking ahead through the century, Southey's hope that literary representation and fine art might supplant the commodity's visual influence clearly cannot be fulfilled.

Charles Lamb's 1823 essay “Old China” demonstrates a different resolution of this dilemma. While Southey's Espriella took refuge in his national difference from the English and their misguided appreciation of the “documents” of Chinese porcelain, Lamb's fictional alter ego reclaims that frivolous appreciation and remakes it as a point of pride. When Lamb, writing in his customary London Magazine persona of Elia, begins his essay with the amused confession that “I have an almost feminine partiality for old china,” he immediately calls forth long-standing associations of women and china.19 Yet it is also evident that Lamb's “feminine partiality” will not lead the essay into a comparison of fragile female virtue with frail china jars in (p.79) the way of Gay or Pope, any more than it will pay attention to contemporary travel narratives in the manner of Southey. Lamb's essay concerns itself less with the material of porcelain, which British potteries now possessed the ability to manufacture, and more with the emotional effects of the designs painted upon that porcelain. Although Lamb's essay complies with contemporary understanding that blue and white documented a repressed and despotic Chinese imperium, he also makes clear from the title onward that the long-standing common knowledge of these patterns licenses his cursory and playful readings of that despotism.

Karen Fang has read “Old China” as a troping of Romantic genius and imperial consumer culture, a contextualization that fits with more general calls to understand Lamb not just as a superb stylist but also as an active observer of the public sphere writing in an era when periodical publication was becoming an increasingly important way of constituting that sphere.20 Fang finds “Old China” to be Lamb's second-generation Romanticist, commodity-based, periodical response to Coleridge's great poetic work of the imagination, “Kubla Khan,” and indeed, it is clear that Lamb cannot conceive of an independent vision of China divorced from the substance of the commodity. “Old China” contains none of the vividly exotic imagery that troubled the sleep of Wordsworth's rural child or Coleridge's opium-addicted poet.21 This is despite, or perhaps because of, the nature of his daily occupation—both Lamb and his alter ego are commercial clerks, Lamb in the East India Office and Elia in the South Sea Office. Writing to his friend the Cambridge Orientalist Thomas Manning, who was then traveling in China, Lamb exclaims: “China—Canton—bless us—how it strains the imagination and makes it ache!”22 A vision of China squeezes in only around the edges of Lamb's London existence. Toward the end of the letter to Manning, he writes: “How the paper grows less and less! In less than two minutes I shall cease to talk to you, & you may rave to the great Wall of China. N.B. Is there such a Wall. Is it as big as Old London Wall by Bedlam?”23 While Lamb fails to conceive (even jokingly) of the vastness of China's famous landmark, he retains control at the smaller scale of the souvenir. In a letter written to Manning before his departure for China, Lamb is already requesting mementos for himself and his sister: “But you must bring [Mary] a token[,] a shawl or something and remember a sprightly little Mandarin for our mantel piece as a companion to the Child I am going to purchase at the Museum.”24 The level of vivid familiarity demonstrated in Lamb's request for a “sprightly” figurine to fit a planned group of (p.80) collectibles suggests how firmly Lamb's vision of the country is shaped by China's exports.

Indeed, the metonymic products of China are so entrenched in Lamb's consciousness as to be untraceable. Lamb acknowledges that “we have all some taste or other, of too ancient a date to admit of our remembering distinctly that it was an acquired one…. I am not conscious of a time when china jars and saucers were introduced into my imagination.”25 The product of china backdates the country of China; the former growing ever more intimate as the latter remains distant. Likewise, the figures on the tea-cup remain familiar even as their context dissolves. Lamb, nostalgically contemplating his favorite designs, recalls:

those little, lawless, azure-tinctured grotesques, that under the notion of men and women, float about, uncircumscribed by any element, in that world before perspective—a china tea-cup. I like to see my old friends—whom distance cannot diminish—figuring up in the air (so they must appear to our optics), yet on terra firma still—for so we must in courtesy interpret that speck of deeper blue, which the decorous artist, to prevent absurdity, had made to spring up beneath their sandals.26

For Lamb, the distinction between commodity and communal memory overlap. Even his satire of the tea-cup's failed perspective carries a doubled meaning. The “old friends whom distance cannot diminish” may fail to have grown appropriately smaller within the flawed perspective of the pattern, but they also refuse to subside into the shadowy space of Lamb's lost memories. This twists a new perceptual strand into the standard nineteenth-century formula ordering the globe, which placed Britain in a dynamic present and China in a spatially dislocated, temporally stagnant past. If China's unchanging empire no longer connoted beneficial stability, as it had for earlier observers, the patterns of its china gave comfort in their familiarity.

Lamb locates his comedy in the disjunction between the tea-cup's standards and the British conception of standardized linear logic, codified social ritual, and distinctive identity formation.

Here is a young and courtly Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver—two miles off. See how distance seems to set off respect! and here the same lady, or another—for likeness is identity on tea-cups—is stepping into a little fairy boat, moored on the hither side of this calm garden river, with a dainty mincing foot, which in a right angle of incidence (as angles go in our world) must infallibly (p.81) land her in the midst of a flowery mead—a furlong off on the other side of the same strange stream! Farther on—if far or near can be predicated of their world—see horses, trees, pagodas, dancing the hays.27

Filtered through the optics of a British observer and the angles of a British world, the tea-cup patterns render incomprehensible the everyday movements of offering tea, stepping into a boat, or dancing the hays. Insurmountable distances inflate and collapse; inanimate objects interact actively with the natural world. The artificial play of spatial and temporal markers described by Chambers in the Dissertation on Oriental Gardening expands exponentially here. The gardens presented on the surface of the china symbolically refer to a space already understood to be more symbolic than real. Indeed a vision of the world refuses representation here in either visual or narrative terms, and the eye must adapt to a different standard to justify its own affections. Yet the failed attempt to give grounded existence to these figures demonstrates more than just the nonsensicality of the Chinese world. Lamb's imposed relationships serve a self-creating purpose as well. By describing the figures as old friends and his fondness for china as an ancient taste, Lamb writes the commodity of china into the foundations of his own consciousness and gives the figures a temporal continuity that the mutability of the design does not immediately provide. The very deficiencies of the pattern provide the terms by which Lamb can map the shifting spaces of his own consciousness.

Lamb does not, however, abandon the china's commercial derivation. In admiring his “set of extraordinary old blue china (a recent purchase) which we were now for the first time using,” Lamb remarks “how favourable circumstances had been to us of late years, that we could afford to please the eye sometimes with trifles of this sort.”28 But the trifle is bittersweet. While Elia fulfills his promise of the first sentence and takes the “feminine” role, delighting in the acquired object and the ritual surrounding it, his cousin Bridget—read by critics to be a stand-in for Charles's troubled sister, Mary Lamb—objects to their easy ability to acquire such objects. She points out: “A purchase is but a purchase, now that you have money enough and to spare. Formerly it used to be a triumph…. A thing was worth buying then, when we felt the money that we paid for it.”29 With the wealth to invest in china representations of leisure, Bridget suggests, their own pleasures in actual recreations are vanished: “[H]olydays, and all other fun, are gone, now that we are rich.”30

(p.82) On the surface, Elia scoffs at Bridget's concerns, saying, “I could not help … smiling at the phantom of wealth which her dear imagination had conjured out of a clear income of poor—hundred pounds a year.”31 But her memories of earlier, smaller purchases replicates on a lesser scale the kind of nostalgic revisionism that Elia invests in his own notions of the mandarins and ladies of the china tea-cup. Enclosed within his present purchase is the consciousness of an irretrievable past preserved only through a perpetual rereading of the china's design and a parallel perpetual capitulation to the china's defiant rejection of visual and temporal logic. Elia ends by writing of his desire to have the delight of youthful days back again, no matter the cost:

I know not the fathom line that ever touched a descent so deep as I would be willing to bury more wealth in than Croesus had, or the great Jew R—is supposed to have, to purchase it. And now do just look at that merry little Chinese waiter holding an umbrella, big enough for a bed-tester, over the head of that pretty insipid half-Madonna-ish chit of a lady in that very blue summer-house.32

The blue china, held out as a diversion from the pain of the past's unrecoverable loss, also signifies something more than that. In the exercise of viewing the blue china, Lamb finds space to conflate the systems of commodity and nostalgia irreconcilable in external life. Not even the spectacular wealth of the mythic or the alien can buy back the past, but even the modest new domestic wealth of a clerk can purchase a set of china that matches his most deeply entrenched imaginings. Possessed with the reflective capabilities to imagine the “world” of the tea-cup disengaged from rules and measures, Elia/Lamb proposes a supplemental space for the articulation of memory. The capacities of nostalgia to collapse the past into a string of intensely felt experiences immune to the contingencies of money find their embodiment and articulation in the description of the figures painted upon the blue china. Although the figures, in Elia's imagination, are divorced from daily exigencies, the set of china itself can be purchased. In the viewing of a china collection, therefore, some measure of connection to an imaginative space without rational demands can be constructed. The ironically stated “feminine partiality” of the essay's first line becomes a possible revision of that partiality's implications: acquisition of china not out of a shallow concern with appearance and status but as an attempt to instill and preserve feeling within the contours of the commodity.

(p.83) The lingering presence of Lord Amherst's failed 1816 mission to the Qing court shadows Lamb's words here, as Macartney's failure shadowed Wordsworth's, Coleridge's, and Southey's.33 Amherst, carrying a list of requested commercial and political concessions closely equivalent to Macartney's, was pressed into an audience with the emperor on the first day of his arrival in China and nearly as summarily dismissed from the country with his demands unfulfilled. Despite this short stay, members of Amherst's mission did manage to observe Chinese landscape and commodities. Clarke Abel, the naturalist accompanying the Amherst mission, comments particularly on the masses of china, writing: “I scarcely recollect seeing any spectacle in China that gratified me more than a first-rate porcelain warehouse.”34 Although Lamb's essay shares this gratification, its ratified tone excludes the very economic contexts that were the substance of the Macartney and Amherst missions. Yet the narratives of the Amherst mission, like those of Macartney's, also highlighted China's deliberate self-removal from contemporary events as a defining precondition for Chinese aesthetic production. Lamb's elision of the conditions that brought his old china to Britain in the first place, then, is itself an expression of an aesthetic detachment learned from designs upon China.

In this way, Lamb's essay foreshadows the efforts of the pre-Impressionists later in the century. Both used their possessions to capture a sense of distant aesthetics without directly engaging with the contemporary crises that enforced that distance. Yet Lamb's fellow Romantic periodical writers tended to resist this remove; for many of these authors, the interest of the pattern came specifically in its generic parody of travel narratives. This comedy came in the contrast between visual illustrations and verbal descriptions, as in the case of Southey, but it also emerged through repetition and the serial self-perpetuation of satire in the expanding periodical press. When Thomas Hood begins his 1826 essay “Fancies on a Tea-Cup” thus: “I love to pore upon old china, and to speculate, from the images, on Cathay. I can fancy that the Chinese manners betray themselves, like the drunkard's, in their cups,” he both echoes and debases Lamb's ratified aesthetic by inserting direct national reference.35 Likewise, Leigh Hunt's 1834 essay “Tea-Drinking,” which appeared in the London Journal, continues Lamb's ekphrasis while shifting the import of that reading strategy. For Hunt, an inspection of the porcelain pattern serves to link defects in the tea-cup's artistic composition directly to the epistemological defects of the Chinese people. Hunt writes that

(p.84) their tea-cup representations of themselves (which are the only ones popularly known), impress us irresistibly with a fancy that they are a people all toddling, little-eyed, little-footed, little-bearded, little-minded, quaint, overweening, pig-tailed, bald-headed, cone-capped or pagoda-hatted, having childish houses and temples with bells at every corner and story, and shuffling about in blue landscapes, over “nine-inch bridges,” with little mysteries of bell-hung whips in their hands,—a boat, or a house, or a tree, made of a pattern, being over their heads or underneath them (as the case may happen), and a bird as large as the boat, always having a circular white space to fly in.36

The easy movement from “little-eyed” to “little-minded” demonstrates how much more than decorative significance these patterns carry. Here, as throughout, ways of seeing connect easily to ways of being seen. Popular knowledge here equals visual knowledge, and visual knowledge proves endlessly vulnerable to the twisting conceits of fancy. In tea-cup representations, at least, meaning cannot be controlled, but instead transfers “irresistibly” to any chance viewer.

As a result, Hunt's essay is everywhere concerned with the specter of societal transformation through commodity exchange. He writes: “What a curious thing it was, that all of a sudden the remotest nation of the East, otherwise unknown, and foreign to all our habits, should convey to us a domestic custom which changed the face of our morning refreshments; and that, instead of ale and meat, or wine, all the polite part of England should be drinking a Chinese infusion, and setting up earthenware in their houses, painted with preposterous scenery!”37 These “simpletons,” who display their earthenware as if it were true porcelain, cry, “‘Well, what is a tea-cup!… It holds my tea—that's all.’”38

But if such tautologies doom the common reader, Hunt takes solace in the “right tea-drinker,” whose habit reinforces an already leisured lifestyle: “It may be noted that the introduction of tea-drinking followed the diffusion of books among us, and the growth of more sedentary modes of life,”39 Hunt concludes, noting the many appearances of the country of China in the European literary tradition. Here the focus of Hunt's essay is not a critique of the improper perspective of the tea-cup pattern but rather a demonstration of the development of correct vision supported by refined tastes. To see properly requires an act of reverse ekphrasis: reading in the picture not its represented scenes but a canon of literature that defies and subverts the established commodity chain. To do this allows the reader to participate in an alternative collective imaginary supplied by text, not design. That is (p.85) to say, reading from tea-cup to tea is the thought-progression of a simpleton, but nuancing a represented scene with the received history of European literary representations, however, demonstrates both taste and cultivation. Literary transport here overwrites visual transport, and, more particularly, literary fiction outclasses travel narrative in representational force.

While Hunt's diversion into Western literary history represents one endpoint, “The Broken Dish,” another poem by Thomas Hood, suggests another. The poem comically describes the fate of the pattern: “Walking about their groves of trees/ Blue bridges and blue rivers/ How little thought them two Chinese/ They'd both be smashed to shivers!”40 These lines, frequently cited in subsequent blue and white satires, suggest the inevitable direction of this minor genre: that the essayist will become increasingly the pattern's ventriloquist, speaking from a perspective within the pattern's diegetic space in order to make that narrative available for extra-diegetic play. And, increasingly, this play will take as its comic object neither the Chinese nor the individual author, but the wide class of British “gentle readers” looking at their patterned plates.

The domestic production of patterned china was indeed already well under way throughout the Romantic era. With the invention of transfer-printing in the mid-eighteenth century, designs on earthenware (and later porcelain) could be easily standardized through mechanical reproduction and so marketed by pattern. Yet the patterns marketed remained derivative of Chinese designs. Design historians point to the belated technological modernity of the British potteries as one cause of the persistence of Chinese styles, suggesting that British firms replicated Chinese designs as compensations for their failure to match Chinese manufacture of true porcelain.41 Others suggest that Chinese and other Asian designs, as well as European imitations of those designs, were successful because they “had the effect of giving a physical form” to new social and cultural values integrated in rising imported social practices such as tea and coffee drinking, made possible in turn by other imported commodities.42 The persistence of Chinese designs also, however, must be understood to endure as a particularly useful point of contrast—describing personal resistance to their regulated forms helps make clear how a Briton might see both individually and naturally.

Britain was not the only country whose native tradition of applied arts was influenced by imported blue and white china. But in the development of the Chinese-inspired willow pattern by British potteries, the phenomenon achieved by far the most commercial success. The history of the pattern's (p.86)


Fig. 3. Willow Pattern Plate, Spode, ca. 1800–1820. Given by Miss E. J. Hipkins. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

early days is somewhat murky and contested, but certain points seem agreed upon. A Chinese pattern known as “Mandarin” inspired Thomas Turner, at the Caughley manufactory, to develop two proto-willow patterns in the mid-1770s. Josiah Spode produced the earliest examples of what is considered the standard pattern in or around 1790, and the designation of willow pattern was in general use by a variety of manufacturers by 1800.43 Under the standardizing effect of transfer printing production, the range of blue and white designs effectively narrowed into a single, formalized design made up of certain key elements: a bridge, a river, a gate, two or three pedestrians, two doves, and a willow (Figure 3). To read as the willow pattern narrative directed, one begins in the lower right portion of the plate, at the (p.87) palace where the daughter defies her father's choice of husband, and proceeds clockwise around the plate across the bridge and lake, until arriving at the two doves which represent the lovers' spirits united even after death. The particular plate reproduced here is from the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent and was manufactured sometime in the years 1800–1820, but its elements nearly exactly match designs still in manufacture today. This is certainly not to suggest that every willow pattern looked exactly like this one; different firms developed their own signature variations, and further, these variations were pillaged from firm to firm with great regularity as patterns were frequently abandoned in favor of more fortuitous combinations of the standard elements. The profusion of British producers eager to make more “Chinese” porcelain and British consumers eager to buy it expanded both the pattern's influence and its openness to satiric attack.

The willow pattern therefore remained a familiar reference point. Writes Chambers's Journal in 1860: “How is it that, after so many explorations of Cathay, and almost as many books as explorers, we seem to know nothing certain concerning the Chinese and their character? Nay, we are in some respects even worse off than in the days when our information was drawn exclusively from the Willow Pattern Plates in every dwelling-house; for although less extensive and practical, that was at least consistent and uniform.”44 The sheer weight of the commodity's presence has now overcome the mocking influence that Southey once assigned to the visual influence it conveyed. Its standardization now becomes its virtue despite the unreliability of its internal referents. The willow pattern plate and its associated narratives have proved both too numerous, too popular, and too flawed to enter into critical studies of ekphrastic literature, more usually focused on such works as Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”45 Yet accounting for the presence of the willow pattern in nineteenth-century Britain ought to extend beyond histories of economics and design and into such epistemological questions. As one of the most centrally recognizable touchstones of Britishness, and particularly domestic middle-class Britishness, during the greater part of the century, the willow pattern at the same time constantly evokes Britain's opposites: both the foreign geography of China and the unintelligible visual logic of an image composed without attention to standards of European design. Seeking meaning in the willow plate, whether truths about the Chinese character or truths about the way the British can begin to tell their own stories, presupposes that these seemingly opposite truths will in the end be revealed to be the same.

(p.88) The Willow Pattern and George Meredith's The Egoist

The literature of the willow pattern plate is, therefore first and foremost, a literature of ubiquity. As J. F. Blacker attests in his Nineteenth-Century English Ceramic Art: “[It] would be difficult to find any inhabited spot on the earth's surface, where an Englishman had lived, without some evidences of the willow-pattern plate.”46 At the Strand Theater in London, the 1851 play “The Mandarin's Daughter” featured an opening speech delivered by a Chinese enchanter in which he explains his surprise “At finding the English so ready to treasure/The legends of China,” as evidenced by their display of blue and white “upon table, stand, dresser and shelf/In Earthenware, China, stone-hardware and delf/Drawn longways and shortways, drawn outside and in/On plate, cup and saucer, dish basin, tureen.”47 It is even reported by Compton Mackenzie that Cardinal Newman “picked up half a Willow Pattern saucer in the crater of Vesuvius” while visiting Italy in 1833.48

Of the many essays emphasizing the willow pattern's omnipresence, the Family Friend's 1849 sentimental narrative tellingly entitled “The Story of the Common Willow Plate,” perhaps best explains both the nostalgic affection for the pattern as well as the visual dilemmas it proposes by virtue of its ubiquity. The Family Friend exclaims: “The old willow pattern plate! By every association, in spite of its want of artistic beauty, it is dear to us. It is mingled with our earliest recollections; it is like the picture of an old friend and companion whose portrait we see everywhere, but of whose likeness we never grow weary.”49 The piece here echoes Lamb's entrenched memories of blue and white china, but with a difference. Now the material is linked to a single design, produced in domestic factories, and the old china is not associated categorically, by material kind, but identically, by pattern name. Further, in imagining the plate as an old friend seen everywhere, the Family Friend description highlights the ways that the willow plate's omnipresence cuts between domestic and public venues of knowledge. The very multiplicity of the reproduction becomes not alienating but endearing, even though the double sense of “common” suggests not only its wide availability but its lowered cultural status.

Although this ubiquity parallels the expansion of British informal empire in China in the years surrounding the Opium Wars, the willow pattern's availability stems not from international trade but from domestic production. (p.89) Thus, repeated dismissals of the pattern as a fleeting fashion belie the snowballing power of its cultural presence: the willow pattern came to be this national touchstone because it was always already present as a point of reference, whether in imagination or in point of fact. As a result the willow pattern's history is simultaneously self-generating and self-effacing, sourcing its narrative origin in ancient Chinese legend even as its material production takes place in contemporary Britain. From the moment of its first production in the late eighteenth century, the willow pattern changed the way that British writers and artists understood their self-constituting relationship with commodities and with the foreign.

The willow pattern therefore betokens British belated technological modernity in its falsely archaic imitation of actual antique china while frequently disguising the actual technical innovations of the plate's transfer-printed process. An 1845 Eraser's Magazine tour of an English manor house points out in the course of “a history of the plates and dishes” that “the commercial manufacturing advantage given by the power of transferring a print to the clay over the production of the same effect by means of the pencil … became of the same relative importance as printing to manuscript,” and finds the willow pattern to be the emblematic image of this changeover.50 This reinforcement of the pattern as a readable site, however, poses difficult implications for the narrative it produces. If the plate itself is a printed page, does reading the plate produce the same effects as reading a verbal work? And, as that printing is reproduced, do the narratives themselves multiply?

Charles Dickens offers eccentric but instructive answer to these questions through the voice of an animated willow plate itself. As Lara Kriegel has shown, the personification of various goods was a favorite rhetorical device of writers in the era of the Great Exhibition and of Dickens in particular, as my next chapter will also explore.51 In his “A Plated Article,” cowritten with H. W. Wills for an 1852 issue of Household Words, Dickens makes plain the ways in which the technical history of pattern printing offers a visual equivalent to the history of changing forms of print media, and, more specifically, the ways that an aesthetic difference deemed Chinese challenges the realistic representation toward which both of these histories ought to build. Dickens's contribution to Wills's detailed summary of transferware's industrial production is a lengthy and fantastic description of the encounter between a bored reporter seeking refuge from a tiresome dinner in Staffordshire and that reporter's tirelessly self-promoting willow pattern dinner (p.90) plate. Comments the plate: “[D]idn't you see (says the plate) planted upon my own brother that astounding blue willow … [?] And didn't you observe … that amusing blue landscape, which has, in deference to our revered ancestors of the Cerulean Empire, and in defiance of every known law of perspective, adorned millions of our family ever since the days of platters?”52 To which the reporter responds: “I had seen all this—and more. I had been shown, at Copeland's, patterns of beautiful design, in faultless perspective, which are causing the ugly old willow to wither out of public favour; and which, being quite as cheap, insinuate good wholesome natural art into the humblest households.”53 This anticipated withering of the willow pattern, of course, fails to come true, and purchasers of Copeland Spode china were far more likely to display willow on their mantelpieces and dinner tables than any “natural art.” That Dickens recognizes this preference is evident in the piece's title linking the periodical article printed from a plate to a porcelain plate that is itself an article of print. But the idea that printed plates of either kind can carry out transformative moral work through visual insinuation continues the persistent sense of the visual object's capacity to change the way its viewers see.

Dickens's fears of the tyranny of the Chinese images makes a part of a larger cultural discussion of China's oppressive sameness prominent in midcentury liberal discourse. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty notably singles out China as a nation both repressive and temporally disjunct in two paradoxical ways: both as a stagnant nation of the past and a warning example of the future. The Chinese, Mill writes: “have succeeded beyond all hope in what English philanthropists are so industriously working at—in making a people all alike, all governing their thoughts and conduct by the same maxims and rules; and these are the fruits…. [U]nless individuality shall be able successfully to assert itself against this yoke, Europe … will tend to become another China.”54 Although the forces impelling England's progress “towards the Chinese ideal of making all people alike” do not work in the same way, in both cases Mill frames the “Chinese ideal” of identicality as one that unites rhetoric of aesthetics with those of politics and morals.55 The emphasizing of China in particular, among all the despotic nations of the East, for particular analysis in a chapter that ends with the warning that “[m]an kind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it” reminds us how the stereotyped character that China both produced and threatened to impose took visual shape across conceptual levels.56 In looking specifically at the challenge (p.91) China posed to British liberalism through the work of its material metonyms, we find that this crisis emerges as much through the internal logic of domestic culture as from observations made abroad.

George Meredith's 1879 novel The Egoist makes a difficult but interesting example of this by seizing upon the legend of the willow plate to direct the formation of the individual self in a domestic context. Meredith produced the narratively innovative Egoist at the beginning of the latter half of his career, a period in which, disgusted by the poor reception of his earlier novels, he increasingly disregarded concerns for public popularity and critical attention alike. This perhaps explains the challenge in summarizing The Egoist, a novel that makes complex use of both the narrative of the willow pattern legend and the image of the willow pattern plate as preexisting structures. In this sense, The Egoist can be read as a novelization of an invented folk tale. But Meredith adds additional layers to his use of the material object by writing the willow pattern plate and the willow pattern legend into the novel as cultural reference points that the characters can discuss and as material commodities that can be displayed, exchanged, or destroyed.

The Egoist's plot, as critics have noted, recapitulates the willow pattern legend almost exactly: a young daughter seeks to marry a poor scholar rather than the wealthy husband her father has chosen, and, after enduring setbacks and risking paternal wrath, jilts her wealthy suitor just before their hasty wedding and flees away across a lake—in this case Lake Lucerne—with her beloved. In The Egoist, the young daughter is Clara Middleton, the poor scholar Vernon Whitford, and the wealthy man for whom the daughter is intended is an English aristocrat named, significantly, Willoughby Patterne. The metanarrative play on the structuring legend works only intermittently, however; while the characters are seemingly unattuned to the tide character's antonomasia, they are perfectly aware of the symbolic implications of the willow pattern story. In a typically convoluted exchange, Willoughby's neighbor and staunch supporter Mrs. Montstuart recounts to Willoughby an earlier comment made by another neighbor, Lady Busshe, on the topic of Lady Busshe's wedding present to Sir Willoughby: “‘I shall have that porcelain back,’” Mrs. Montstuart quotes Lady Busshe as saying. “‘I think,’ says she, ‘it should have been the Willow Pattern.’ And she really said: ‘he's in for being jilted a second time!’”57 What this compacted interchange means to convey, in terms of the plot, is that Lady Busshe understands that Clara Middleton is wavering in her willingness to marry the (p.92) tyrannical Sir Willoughby, and seeks to convey this knowledge to Sir Willoughby via Mrs. Montstuart through a coded reference to the legend of the willow pattern as represented by willow pattern china. Sir Willoughby, typically, catches the reference easily, reflecting later on “the claws of Lady Busshe, and her owl's hoot of ‘Willow Pattern,’ and her hag's shriek of ‘twice jilted.’”58

Meredith's description of the struggle for control between Willoughby and Clara central to the novel thus works as a critique not only of aristocratic practices of courtship and marriage but also of the genre of realist novel most evocative of that milieu. When Clara stands looking out over the grounds of the landed estate to which she will soon be bound by marriage, her sense of constraint falls heavily on the reader.

She went to her window to gaze at the first colour along the grey. Small satisfaction came of gazing at that or at herself. She shunned glass and sky. One and the other stamped her as a slave in a frame. It seemed to her she had been so long in this place that she was fixed here: it was her world, and to imagine an Alp, was like seeking to get back to childhood.59

As is typical throughout the novel, Meredith's prose is both epigrammatic and densely allusive. This description of Clara as “fixed” and “stamped … as a slave in a frame” seems fitted to a vision of a pattern framed upon a porcelain plate; for Clara's position seems not unlike that of the two Chinese unaware of their imminent smashing to shivers in Thomas Hood's “The Broken Dish.” Both are enslaved to the inevitability of their own story. Coming as it does in a novel that certainly represents the most sustained and many-registered attempt to thematize patterned porcelain in all of British literature, this description of Clara highlights Meredith's close attention to patterns “stamped” upon porcelain as a rich middle ground for social comedy. But it also shows that he recognizes them as an opportunity for something more: a sustained consideration of the epistemological fixity of narrative. As both mirror and sky work to contain Clara's visual and mental self-conception as well as her narrative direction, a fixity of place becomes a fixity of form. This enslavement via visual enframing serves, in Meredith's rendering, as a critique of the tyranny of realist representation itself.

Linkages of the realist novel to shifting visual practices, such as those of Nancy Armstrong and Alison Byerly, find the genre of realism dependent on what Armstrong terms “a shared set of visual codes” that operate as “an abstract standard by which to measure one verbal representation against (p.93) another.”60 Byerly, focusing more specifically on representations of particular visual works within realist novels, judges that “these representations imply a real world through their representational reference to it”—that is, “the representations themselves attest to the presence of an ontologically prior world.”61 That neither critic examines The Egoist demonstrates generally the difficulty of incorporating the applied arts into theories of representational practice conceived upon a fine-art model. Unhinged from the eye of any individual artist or author, the material object usually instead envelopes a broader, culturally determined way of seeing.

The willow pattern, however, funnels this vision back into a single visual field without abandoning its broader consequences. Patricia O'Hara has suggested that “The Egoist … critiques civilized egoism by allusively displaying the blue willow legend as a mirror in which Victorian society is meant to find its own reflection: the collective British ‘we’ are unmasked as being just as barbaric as the collective oriental ‘them.’”62 Meredith's text, however, focuses less on explorations of oriental barbarism and more on the ways that a narrative legend can become a visual mirror of the self. The shared visual memory that links the image of the willow plate to the text of the willow legend for every British reader offers a model of narrative enslavement that Meredith can exploit for his own ends, which, for Meredith, is more important than the legend's alleged geographical origins.

Thus the consideration of pre-existing images, both real or imagined, must still be central to discussing both The Egoist's realist representations as well as its critiques of such practice. That characters repeatedly reference the visual pattern when they in fact mean to refer to the verbal story is telling but as of yet little attended to; indeed, if critics have recognized the structuring conceit of the willow pattern in The Egoist at all, they have focused on the textual narrative of the legend as disseminated through nineteenth-century literature and not on the visual narrative of the pattern plate. In general Robert Mayo's 1942 pronouncement on the text still stands as a commonplace: Meredith's use of the willow story, Mayo concludes, is “an exercise in adroitness, an elaborate conceit which adds to the effect of quaintness and artificiality in the novel, but advances nowhere.”63

Instead, much recent criticism of The Egoist draws on its links to Darwin's 1872 The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Willoughby, himself an amateur scientist, contents himself with the knowledge that “[he] looked the fittest, he justified the dictum of Science. The survival of the Patternes was assured.”64 Yet in the careful readings of Carolyn Williams (p.94) and others, which find post-Darwinian narratives and counternarratives within The Egoist's texts, the connections between visual and evolutionary patternings have rarely been drawn.65 Certainly Meredith's novel is, at least to some degree, a proleptically feminist text attentive to male barbarism, and, certainly, its narrative fatalism owes much to a sense of Darwinian determinism. But Meredith's own obsessive return to the details of female and marital subjectification imposed by the realist novel through his self-conscious parodying of the realist novel's modes of representation redirects our attention not to the novel's ends but to its processes. As Michael Riffaterre observes of the novel's relentless return to porcelain in his Fictional Truth: “The signs that function as indices pointing to fictionality are, I think, quite visible…. [S]uch obviousness is designed to represent the artist and his artifice even more clearly than would conventional authorial intrusions.”66 For Riffaterre, as in some ways for Armstrong and Byerly, these kinds of self-questioning and self-exposing moves by the realist novel in the end enhance rather than deny the genre's representational authenticity. Yet Riffaterre's analysis does not follow up on the obviousness of the willow pattern's structure plot in particular, focusing instead on the general presentation of Clara Middleton as “a dainty rogue in porcelain” and the multiple material implications of that judgment.67

Thus Riffaterre's lack of attention to the complicated pattern history of The Egoist's “obsessive trope” of porcelain necessarily confines his discussion to a formal consideration of the play between text and subtext, in which the subtext “always constitutes a second reading of what the text surrounding it is about, a poetic or humorous metalanguage of the narrative.”68 Restoring the circulating text and object of the willow pattern legend and plate into the narratological analysis, however, returns us to the scene of Clara at her window. The novel foregrounds the fatalistic inevitability of its ends: “I'm haunted by an idea that porcelain always goes to pieces,” offers Colonel De Craye, a would-be wedding guest who has seen his own planned wedding present for Clara and Willoughby, a porcelain vase, shatter in a carriage accident caused by Clara's first attempt to escape marriage and Patterne Hall.69 But if in a patterned temporal chronology past necessarily begets future, a pattern stamped within an encircling frame only partially depends on such synoptic order. As Richard Brilliant has observed, “[C]omplex visual narratives have a dramatic character in an Aristotelian sense, because both the single action and complex whole are implicated in the visual field open to the beholder. As a result, the presentation of visual (p.95) narratives may develop both diachronic and synchronic modes of reading, the former determined by the succession of images, the latter freed from those constraints.”70 While the willow pattern plate is not a visual narrative in the classical sense that Brilliant analyzes, the real significance is that it is treated by Meredith—both intra- and extradiegetically—as one, with the expectation that the reader will understand these multiple levels of reading and the challenges they mean to impose.

The presence of the willow pattern plate as a visual artifact connecting the realist world of the novel with the real world to which it refers, then, confounds the authenticating power of that connection. The willow pattern is at once a diachronic narrative, a synchronic narrative, a reproduced and reproducible narrative, and a metavisual site. Although ostensibly a single object, it is consistently understood in the literature of the period as a kind of visual medium. In Meredith's hands, the pattern's presence is a tool in his deconstruction of high realism via the genre of comedy. Throughout his “Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit” (1877), a short work produced just prior to The Egoist and perhaps even more reflective of his bitter attitude toward his own readers and critics, Meredith thematizes comic genius as, above all, clear social vision, a formulation that holds true in the novel as well. The willow pattern plate, both “glass and frame,” is at once a mirror of the novel's narrative constrictions and a metanarrative consideration of the framing constraints of vision.

That Meredith considers this work of refraction to be taking place both within the plot of the novel and also in the novel's generic exchange with other literary productions is evident in The Egoist 's “Prelude.” This prefatory essay on the sources of comedy begins with a consideration of “the biggest book on earth … ‘The Book of Egoism’” and proceeds to reflect on the role of the humorist in reducing this text to manageable proportions:

[T]he inward mirror, the embracing and condensing spirit, is required to give us those interminable milepost piles of matter … in essence, in chosen samples, digestibly…. [T]he realistic method of a conscientious transcription of all the visible, and a repetition of all the audible, is mainly accountable for … that prolongation of the vasty and the noisy, out of which, as from an undrained fen, steams the malady of sameness, our modern malady.71

Meredith's archaism of “vasty” as a disapproving characterization of the excessively visual realist novel might seem perverse given his novel's obsessive narration of each character's every blink and look, but it also demonstrates how much the material artifact of the willow pattern plate can enhance what (p.96) is in essence such a familiar European story of betrothal and betrayal. In relying on his readers' shared visual memory of the object, Meredith can capitalize on the plate's boundary crossing status by incorporating visual as well as textual perspective. Like the Romantic-era satires of china discussed earlier, The Egoist thrives on the play between positions that are distinct but not different. Orient and Occident, barbaric and civilized, primitive and modern, past and present—to the novel these divisions are ultimately irrelevant. They are all equally meaningless in essence, and only take meaning through the relations they are assigned as pages in Egoism's giant book. The randomness of these distinctions, however, is only evident if a reader adopts a temporally synchronic, and thus necessarily visual, mode of reading.

Meredith's novel then represents an immense amplification of the kinds of interpretive possibilities Lamb begins to assign to blue china in his essay some fifty years earlier. Yet in embedding the willow pattern plate within The Egoist, Meredith is, for all his attention to porcelain's fragility and value, ultimately not particularly interested in any critique of consumer culture. Rather, the material object offers a trajectory of resistance to what he defines as the transcriptive representationality of the realist novel through the plate's filtering presence in a reader-viewer's personal archive of remembered images. Clara must reject both “glass and frame”—and, implicitly, pattern plates—because such forms work in Meredith's reading only as arbitrary marker-points along the vast stretch of experience, dividing but not distinguishing assigned life events. The condensing spirit of the inward mirror, however, operates more like Lamb's entrenched memories of old china: it offers a visual corrective to the undigested spread of all the visible. A way of seeing derived from a Chinese pattern undergoes a double translation—first into the industrially mass-produced pattern plate, and then into the satiric self-critique of narrative.

In its rewriting of the marriage plot as darkest comedy, The Egoist, perhaps alone of the works I consider in this study, foregrounds China's aesthetic distinction to the complete exclusion of its geographic remove. Despite Meredith's individual inattention to the circumstances of Chinese ethnographic difference, however, his radical satire would not have been possible without the preceding century's amalgamation of aesthetic forms. The thoroughly domestic location of the novel's critique, therefore, represents not a successful excision of Chinese influence from British creative fictions, but the definitive integration of the two. Writing China becomes a way of writing home, and vice versa.

(p.97) The formal artistic innovations of the later nineteenth century also depend on submerged cultural associations with foreignness, both contemporary and antique, but the artists prioritize the associations differently. In pre-Impressionist painters' adoptions of Chinese porcelain as a signature component of their creative personae, the exotic associations of the china are not evacuated of foreign influence, but endlessly dependent upon it. The imagined territory of China remains an important counterpoint to their own spatial self-creation in their studios and houses, and so their employment of Chinese porcelain continues to be geographically situated in a way that Meredith's writing is not. What makes these artistic collections meaningful domestically as well as expressive of an exotic aesthetic, however, is their foundational acceptance that the act of viewing Chinese things transforms the British field of vision. Indeed, for Whistler and Rossetti, the modern British viewing subject cannot come into existence without, among other influences, the constitutive effects of a Chinese way of seeing.

Whistler and Rossetti as Collectors of Blue and White Porcelain

In his review of Whistler's 1864 work Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, William Michael Rossetti begins enthusiastically, writing: “[H]is picture of a Chinese woman painting a blue vase is the most delightful piece of colour on the walls: the more you examine it, the more convinced you become that it will yield new pleasure on reinspection” (Figure 4).72 For those looking at the painting, the description of the red-haired Jo Hiffernan, Whistler's frequent model, as a “Chinese woman” perhaps proves surprising. Equally surprising is the suggestion that she is painting the vase, since the pot is clearly long since glazed and fired. But Rossetti is not the only one to describe the painting this way. The Illustrated London News writes: “The subject is a Chinese lady, painting the blue jars known to collectors of Oriental china for their “six marks” and their painted representations of ladies innocent of crinoline.”73 The Art Journal interprets the model herself as forming part of the inanimate decor, writing: “[S]he looks as if she had just stepped out from a china bowl, so stiff is she in bearing, and so redolent of color in her attire.”74 Even Whistler himself told Henri Fantin-Latour in a January 1864 letter: “I have a picture for the academy here—I shall send you a sketch very soon—It is filled with superb porcelain (p.98) from my collection, and is good in arrangement and colour—It shows a porcelain dealer, a Chinese woman painting a pot.”75

The mysterious redefinition of the adjective “Chinese” in these assessments of the painting becomes clearer in the continuation of William Rossetti's review:

Its harmonizing power of art is so entire that we find it a choice piece of Orientalism, though conscious that there is not even an attempt at the Chinese cast of countenance. This “lange lizen” … is painting her blue pot “of the six marks,” so deservedly prized by collectors, with a natty touch and appreciative turn of the head which do not allow us to mind whether she sees her own “lange lizen” through eyes of the proper almond-shape or not.76

Clearly phenotype does not determine the designation of the model as Chinese, just as her movement of a paintbrush across an already glazed and fired porcelain does not alter her designation as artist. The overwhelming visual influence of the porcelain pots here spreads from the design of the pots themselves to the woman associated with them. Though the formal pattern that the contagion of visual influence stems from is not nearly as precisely defined, the surface tracings of blue that distinguish the porcelain remain equally important. Looking at china, we find, can give one the look of China, and, through the site of the painting, viewers can reconcile seeming differences: porcelain dealer and porcelain collector, eyes of proper almond shape and eyes of other shapes, displayer and displayed, model and artist, artist and objet d'art, viewer and viewed. Functioning as a surrogate for the painter himself, the model's acts of “painting” replaces the productive creative process with a performative aesthetic. Here the model's “appreciative turn of the head” carries heavier significance than her dry paintbrush; the modeling of an aesthetic involvement comes to replace the demonstration of a physically marked participation in that aesthetic. The porcelain, then, is not only a prop supporting the model's “choice Orientalism” but also a touchstone for a kind of artistic and aesthetic operation that goes beyond the patterns of representation. What we as viewers must notice are not so much the elements of the painting's composition but the character of its subject's gaze. Her way of seeing, like ours and like Whistler's, is an action in progress shaped by the visual media of the blue and white jar. The painting is a translated self-portrait, with the female model demonstrating the preference for old china that Lamb calls “almost feminine” and the movements of the dry paintbrush a symbolic demonstration of the invisible reverse, the trace effects the porcelain's designs convey to the artist's eyes. In (p.99)


Fig. 4. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks (1864), Philadelphia Museum of Art: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

(p.100) observing this reverse visual process, we are ourselves drawn into the cycle of spectatorship. As Rossetti puts it: the more we look, the more we know we will want to keep looking.

By our participation in the negotiations Lange Leizen performs, then, we are involved in the complex use to which Whistler and his fellow artists put these blue and white pots. Subjects of the paintings as well as tokens of the taste and artistry of the painter, the pots grant a tangible example in which a Chinese way of seeing can be located. If viewers cannot physically render their eyes the proper almond shape, these pots can perform that figurative refocusing for them. Furthermore, the staginess of the model's actions denotes the artificiality of the decorative scene, a scene dependent not on an organic correlation of self and surroundings, but on a constructed collusion between possessions and aesthetic sensibility. Whistler's mother, Anna, catalogues the content of Lange Leizen in an 1864 letter to James Gamble, describing a girl who “sits beside a shelf … upon which several pieces of China and a pretty fan are arranged as if for purchasers…. [By] her side is a large jar and all these are facsimiles for those around me in this room—which is more than half Studio for here he has an Easel and paints generally—tho he dignifies it as our withdrawing room.”77

The blue and white china, arranged as if for purchasers, yet a fundamental decorative object in Whistler's studio and also a feature of the intimate domestic space, bridges three initially divided sites—the showroom, the studio, and the drawing room—which are beginning to come together in the lives and work of these Victorian artists. As Paula Gillet has shown, the arrangement of the mid- to late-century English painter's studio represented a radical revision of the workshops occupied by the artisan-tradesmen of previous centuries. These elegant spaces, Gillet argues, demonstrate one way in which ideals of gentility and sophistication might be reconciled with handwork, which traditionally stigmatized trade; as Gillet points out, the acknowledgement of painting as a profession, which came in the 1861 census report, was double-edged, granting financial security even as it betrayed Romantic-era ideals of artistic originality. Whistler's “dignifying” of his creative and commercial space with the implied leisure of the “withdrawing room” exemplifies these tensions, and the arrangement of blue and white china offers one possible route to reconciliation.78 This composition of a woman engrossed in contemplation of luxury commodities is not only found in Lange Leizen; Whistler's paintings Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864), Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony (1864–70), and, in some (p.101) sense, The Woman in White (1862) and Rose and Silver: La Princesse du pays de la Porcelaine (1864) all demonstrate what Michael Fried terms “the exploitation of an absorptive matrix to give affective ‘depth’ to a highly decorative gestalt.”79 Fried contends that this matrix “was later to be fundamental to the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists such as Pisarro, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, and Matisse.”80

Whistler's The Artist in His Studio (1865–66) (Figure 5) represents a culmination of a sorts to this series, though its loose brushwork and small size comparatively diminish the attention it has received. The allusive effects of the composition are here especially important. Whistler stands, brush in hand, painting a canvas outside of the compositional frame. Directly behind him, a large mirror offers a heavily blurred impression of the scene, while two women sit to his back right, one, in European dress, languidly reclining on a chaise, the other, clad in a silken robe, standing and contemplating a fan, while on the wall opposite the implied canvas, blue china is displayed from floor to ceiling. The barely discernible reflections in the mirror and the clue that Whisder's paintbrush appears to be in his left hand when in fact he was right-handed suggest to us that the painting must be a representation of the image in another mirror, one that occupies the same position we do when we view the painting. This recalls to us the composition of Velázquez's great portrait Las Meninas (1656–57), a painting that exercised a heavy influence on the work of Whistler as well as Manet, Degas, and others of their circle. Both Las Meninas and The Artist in His Studio raise important questions about where, exactly, we can locate the perceiving consciousness that brings this scene into view.81

But examining the painting along its other axis—from side to side rather than from front to back—we find similar questions being asked in the context of a different symbolic connection. This horizontal connection links the blue china on display to the artwork in progress across the room and balances the china's familiarity as a visual object with the unfinished painting that is its opposite. Proper understanding of this equivalency, however, poses a challenge. We cannot see the image of the painting in progress within the space in which it is created; instead, the material canvas we are looking at becomes recognizable as the canvas implied within the image only after a process of careful inspection. Given the strong emphasis on reflection in the painting as a whole, we cannot help addressing these questions about the distinction between artistic subject and artistic object to the blue china as well. It is an equivalency that proceeds circularly; we are (p.102)


Fig. 5. James McNeill Whistler, American, 1834–1903, The Artist in His Studio, 1865/66, Oil on paper mounted on panel, 62.9 × 46.4 cm (24 3/4 × 18 1/4 in.), Friends of American Art Collection, 1912.141, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography. © The Art Institute of Chicago.

(p.103) reminded of the china's abstracted visual implications despite its material presence, and we discover the painting to be physically before us despite its representational absence. The Artist in His Studio, therefore, establishes this china as the symbolic canvas for Whistler's artistic self-creation even more surely than did Lange Leizen, not only because Whistler himself is present in the image but also because the porcelain is linked even more visually explicitly to the artwork and its visual reception. Collections of porcelain and painted canvases offer reinforcing evidence of the artist's conceiving eye.

Thus, while the formal designs appearing upon the porcelain remain important, attention is now equally granted to the public personae of Whistler, Rossetti, and other members of the pre-Impressionist movement as artists and as collectors manipulating their own representations of these designs. Their painted representations of the blue china patterns, in fact, begin to attract the same criticisms the blue china patterns themselves once did. Lange Leizen, for example, is attacked for the way the large pot in the lower right hand corner is angled to present maximum viewability even at the expense of “correct” perspective. “There is not a picture with worse drawing, or one so ostentatiously careless in handling, in the whole exhibition,” judges the Illustrated London News.82 Many histories of the Impressionist era trace the broader compositional influence of Asian art on artists like Whistler, Manet, and others—influence often held by nineteenth-century reviewers to inspire such “careless handling”—though these critical histories usually focus exclusively on the connection between Japanese woodblock prints and European oil-paintings that contain reproductions of these prints, such as Manet's Portrait of Emile Zola (1868). Yet less apparently commensurate categories of viewed images and objects also conveyed artistic influence and dictated visual practice. European artists borrowed not only artistic techniques from the Asian objects they were collecting but also a certain way of seeing that could be expressed through those techniques, just as Meredith borrowed not only the willow pattern's “plot” but also the operations of its rhetorical design.

As the very elements critiqued on the tea-cup were becoming hallmarks of pre-Impressionist art—abandonment of strict linear perspective, fragmentation and disruption of compositional elements, arbitrary bounding of the visual field, and repetition and seriality of design components—the status of blue and white china was again revised. The display of blue and white china became again a marker of distinction, but a distinction afforded (p.104) only through a successful manipulation of the china's status as a collectible commodity object that directly inspired a particularly modern creative capacity, a task made far more difficult by the vast amounts of “Chinese”-style porcelain and earthenware available on the market by the end of the nineteenth century produced in various geographical sites and historical eras. While eighteenth-century aristocrats could demonstrate their wealth simply by displaying any pieces of the rare dishware they had managed to acquire, the growth of British potteries and a century's worth of trade with China had removed blue and white from the exclusive province of the very rich and the very refined. Amassing a “good” collection of blue and white in the 1860s and 70s required as much technical connoisseurship as aesthetic appreciation, yet remained necessary, for only a narrowly defined sort of porcelain appeared able to sufficiently reinforce artistic status.83 Thus possession of blue and white china, like display of Japanese prints, became demonstration of foreign influence that productively differentiated the artistic eye from the everyday. But on the other hand, unlike the Japanese print, the material of china was only uneasily understood to be authentically antique and exotic. While the 1862 International Exhibition had imported Japanese prints and art objects to London, the willow pattern and other British-produced modern porcelain constantly impinged on attempts to effectively isolate blue china as token of imported difference, artistic or otherwise. Here we must keep in mind generally, though not directively, a knowledge of the sharply divergent course of Japan and China in the arena of late-nineteenth-century international relations: while a newly opened Japan was held to productively incorporate Euro-American influence throughout the 1860s, 70s, and beyond, the insular Qing ministers of that same period were viewed as repressive forces refusing necessary changes brought by the West to their country.

Whistler and Rossetti were therefore subjects of the international marketplace even as they sought to use their display of china to demonstrate their removal from the workaday world. Artist and client positions overlapped, and, since blue and white china had value appreciable in both the economic and cultural spheres, the artists' use of this porcelain as a reference point for their own aesthetic distinctiveness pulled them in separate directions. They could profit from their porcelain directly through its sale, profit indirectly through the porcelain's artistic display, or do something of both by painting and selling portraits depicting abstracted viewers profitably contemplating their surrounding china.

(p.105) The first necessity in rendering blue and white china a productive marker of aesthetic distinction was to reinforce the separation between physical and artistic consumption. Blue and white china, even in the form of plates and platters, is always valued not for the food it holds but for its intrinsic beauty. The Pennells, Whisder's early biographers, recount: “He slept in a huge Chinese bed…. He ate off blue and white. ‘Suppose one of these plates was smashed?’ Miss Chapman asked Whistler once. ‘Why then, you know,’ he said, ʿwe might as well all take hands and go throw ourselves into the Thames!”84 Whistler's jocularly suicidal remark exposes both the limitation of Miss Chapman's understanding of the china plate as an exclusively material object and Whistler's understanding of himself as another iteration of Hood's two Chinese wandering through a grove of blue willows that will soon be shattered. For Whistler, the plate itself is at once utterly inconsequential as a tangible possession and yet at the same time thoroughly indispensable as a site charting an aesthetic style of vision—and the paradox of this position is perhaps in itself the point. Like Oscar Wilde's melodramatic cry “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!” Whistler's staking of his physical existence on the preservation of his porcelain collection demonstrates his celebratory indifference to the frivolities of the terms of his artistic self-definition.85

Whistler and Rossetti both grounded their artistic taste in their competitive pursuit of China. Rossetti's assistant, Henry Dunn, remembers how the two “tried to outvie the other in picking up the choicest pieces of ‘Blue’ to be met with.”86 In a letter written to his mother during an 1864 trip to Paris, Dante Rossetti recounts: “I went to [a] Japanese shop…. [T]he mistress of the shop … told me, with a great deal of laughing, about Whistler's consternation at my collection of china.”87 The Pennells argue the opposite: “The chief bond between Whistler and Rossetti was their love for blue and white…. Rossetti was supposed to have made it the fashion. But the fashion in Paris began before Rossetti owned his first blue pot…. Whistler brought the knowledge and the love of the art to London.”88 The distinction drawn here between “love” and “fashion” helps demonstrate the ephemeral nature of the pursuit in general, which could be delineated only through abstract feeling rather than clear-cut precedence. For of course neither man introduced the world to blue and white china. Thus the only way to distinguish innovation was by establishing taste, expressed through a combined “knowledge” and “love of the art,” as an unassailably higher standard, and the artistic eye that embodied such taste as discernible through material collection.

(p.106) Competition came not only in the length or level of one's collecting impulse but also in the quality or authenticity of one's appreciation of it, a strain of expression that extended to the leading commercial importers of porcelain. Murray Marks, who supplied both Whistler and Rossetti with many of their pots, is described by his biographer as one who “already had a great appreciation for this Blue and White china, and who was really the first person in London to expose it under suitable surroundings, with a keen sense of its decorative importance and beauty.”89 In Marks's memoirs, the dealer's “keen sense” supplants even Rossetti's taste and forms the basis for an aesthetic exchange. Marks recalls of his initial viewing of Rossetti's blue china the thought that “it was a poor collection, and consisted chiefly of the common stuff which was to be picked up in London at that time,” but also remembers that, in the same visit, “[t]he Venus Verticordia arrested my attention, and almost took my breath away.”90 Rossetti's sensual portrait provides the cultural capital—and economic value—to finance his collecting impulse, an impulse that renders Rossetti vulnerable to a loss of artistic status by assembling a “poor collection” of “common stuff” not equivalent to his otherwise high artistic standards. Marks the commercial dealer, who is rendered breathless by Rossetti's oil paintings, feels confident to challenge Rossetti's taste in a different sort of art object. Rossetti's ability to maintain a stable value for his own artistic output is endangered by his willingness to link his paintings with his collections of objects. If the blue china meant to reinforce the artwork's singular value failed in that support, then the Venus Verticordia itself is in danger of ultimately being judged “common stuff.” This was danger felt more acutely by Rossetti than Whistler, largely because of Rossetti's own willingness to duplicate his original artwork.91 While Rossetti, unlike Whistler, did not as frequently make blue and white a thematic presence in his paintings—though it appeared as a dramatic compositional back-drop to one of his most effective female portraits in The Blue Bower (1865)—he nevertheless structured the reinforcing foundation of his creativity on his possession of the porcelain.92

Rossetti, by virtue of his reputation as an artist, was still better able than Marks to inflate the value of blue china by granting his imprimatur on the object's collectible value. When buying china, William Rossetti writes in his Reminiscences, Dante “bought largely, and very tastefully; and—unfortunately for himself as well as others—he ferreted about for such things to an extent which availed to send up the market price of them.”93 William recalls the genesis of Dante Rossetti's china collection in terms shifting from the (p.107) vocabulary of productive labor, aesthetic connoisseurship, and blatant expenditure. While William acknowledges that “[t]here must of course have been in London some fine collections of ‘blue china’ before Rossetti's time,” he insists that “my brother's zeal and persistence were such as to send up prices in the market.”94

Thus the tasteful, nonmercantile display of blue and white china and other art objects acquired on the market became essential to establishing the encompassing eye of the artist and to explain the way that eye could both transform and be transformed by surrounding commodities. The way an artist lived was an essential and exclusively visual articulation of his aesthetic refinement. Although Murray Marks could assemble a fine collection of china using his trade and commercial connections, he could not arrange them as part of general artistic lifestyle as Dante Rossetti could. Writing to his friend Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti revels in his assemblage: “My Pots now baffle description altogether, while the imagination which could remotely conceive them would deserve a tercentenary celebration. COME AND SEE THEM.”95 Dante's artistic persona was sufficient to unify a disparate collection of purchased porcelain into a self-reflective entity. William writes of Dante's porcelain: “One of his earliest purchases was that of the whole collection of blue china formed by the retiring Italian Ambassador…. Its cost to my brother was I think £200…. In fact, what between free expenditure and good taste in choice, he formed a very fine display of blue china, which made his big sunlit drawing-room a sight to see.”96 The moment of appreciation has an exclusive experiential, sight-based status, grounded entirely in the particular locality of No. 7 Cheyne Walk. Rossetti's artistic vision, transformed by his own collection, can also remake the Italian ambassador's china into part of a new picture: the aesthetic drawing room, a site that proposes a new way of seeing. Rather than warranting a pre-existing notion of the visual real, these artists assembled a new definition of seeing insinuated from their possessions.

As not only a private place but also a public venue for displaying his artistry, Rossetti's house, like Whistler's, both defined his taste and allowed its replication by patrons and the general public. As Ford Madox Hueffer explains, “Rossetti wanted to fill his house with anything odd, Chinese, or sparkling,” and those who read accounts of his lifestyle and decorative decisions equally understood the category of Chinese-ness as functionally equivalent to designations of rarity or reflectivity.97 By erasing a vast difference in space and time and placing together objects linked only by their (p.108) status as “curiosity,” Rossetti collapses the boundaries of distinctive origin in rewriting the borders of his personal domestic space. His collection represented a way of seeing made tangible, by which the collector-artist could demonstrate his enhanced visual acuity and model this reformatted vision to others. In making the representation of his artistic vision exist at the general level of the collection as well as at the individual level of the art object, Rossetti was able to market his eye on multiple levels.

This tension between the public and private space of the artist returns again in one of Whistler's most famous scandals. The story of the ill-fated “Peacock Room,” an 1876–77 project of the artist's originally undertaken to provide his patron Frederick Leyland with a place to display La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelain and a large collection of blue and white porcelain, is well chronicled by Linda Merrill in her Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, but certain elements bear repeating here.98 The falling-out between the two men occurred when Whistler, seeking to perfect the milieu in which his paintings were to be viewed, damaged the expensive leather coverings of the room walls by overlayering them completely with gold paint. The room, thus gilded, became a self-sufficient demonstration of Whistler's taste, though not of Leyland's. Leyland's dissatisfied response was to pay Whistler in pounds, as he would pay a tradesman, not in the guineas that an artist would receive. Although Leyland made emphatically clear his rejection of the Peacock Room as a satisfactory artistic product, popular reception judged differently. When considered as a self-contained installation, the Peacock Room establishes a level at which wall decorations, oil paintings, and collections of porcelain functioned in the same way as more transportable canvases. Their arrangement within the room, precisely placed and proportioned, gave a permanent trace of the artistic gaze for public consumption. Indeed, Whistler ensured much appreciation of the room by inviting large parties of viewers while Leyland was out of town. That the room was written up in a number of London publications as a complete entity indicates further its holistic status as equally valued collection. It did not ultimately matter that the purchaser of the porcelain to be displayed was Leyland; now the entire room is remembered as Whistler's creation, its disparate origins forgotten. What centers the collecting and locates the artistic eye of both Whistler and Rossetti, then, are the boundaries of commercial origin and destination. The fundamental source for these pieces of porcelain is the Oriental shop in London or Paris, but the ultimate product, after the arrangement of these objects, is the unified aesthetic sensibility (p.109) that goes on sale as background to their paintings. The difference between the spare arrangement of Whistler's home and Rossetti's crowded treasure palace falls away at the source—a commercial vendor of curious objects.

As the century drew to a close, however, commercial availability, imperial expansion, and colonial administration signaled a coming broadness of visual accessibility that would inevitably dull the edge of artistic difference. Charles Eastlake complains in Hints on Household Taste (1868) that “[f]or many years past the manufacture of Oriental ware has been steadily deteriorating, and this fact, I fear, is in great measure due to the increased facilities of our intercourse with India, and to the bad influence of modern European taste on native art.”99 Or, as William Rossetti writes in his diary recounting a visit to a “new” Japanese shop in Rue Vivienne during an 1864 trip to the Continent: “The bad effects of European intercourse are unmistakably visible … especially in the coloring, which is worse than worthless.”100 For the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, this depletion of exotic effect could be solved by finding new sites of influence and inspiration, both geographical and methodological.

But for the many more Britons whose china cabinets contained the common willow plate, blue and white china remained in favor and, indeed, traveled a comfortable continuing path into British domesticity as a familiar site of exotic influence preserved fondly in childhood memory. The latter-day history of the willow pattern plate becomes, across the turn of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, ever more inextricably connected with a nostalgia for youth, as earlier writings by Lamb and the Family Friend were already making clear. Versions of the willow pattern story were published as picture books, dramatized as children's plays, and even published in rhyming form and sold to raise money for the “Trent Vale Female Domestic Mission and Maternity Fund” in 1882. As a visual reference ubiquitous in certain settings even today, the willow pattern plate continues to connote an enduring and unchanging British domesticity simply in its appearance on tea-table or in a china-cupboard. All of the debilitating visual stasis that the pattern once implied has been absorbed into a positive narrative preserving English crockery as a household landmark.

As the next chapter argues, Britons would find new ways of thematizing Chinese visual and physical contagion in the story of the London opium den. But, in implicating that foreign site in British narrative epistemology, they drew on their own native narrative techniques of exhibition and display. This gave representational cohesion to the den's alternate visual aesthetic, (p.110) yet it also forced British writings to integrate that foreign aesthetic within their own stories. The pernicious lingering effects of this integration at century's end counterpointed the willow pattern's benign presence, and posed ominous questions about China's future global status after the Qing empire's anticipated collapse.


(1.) Mark Lemon, “A True History of the Celebrated Wedgewood Hieroglyph, Commonly Called the Willow Pattern,” Bentley's Miscellany 3 (1838): 61–65, 62, 63.

(2.) Ibid., 62.

(3.) Ibid., 63.

(4.) See the introduction to Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(5.) Lemon, “A True History,” 64.

(6.) The literature on the design and material history of porcelain is extensive. Some particularly helpful critical and historical works include John Carswell, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago, 1985); Robert Copeland, Spode's Willow Pattern and Other Designs after the Chinese (London: Cassell, 1980); Howard Coutts, The Art of Ceramics: European Ceramic Design, 1500–1830 (New Haven: Bard Graduate Center for Studies in Decorative Arts and Yale University Press, 2001); Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates, eds., Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 2000); Rosalind Fischell, Blue & China: Origins/Western Influences (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987); Duncan Macintosh, Chinese Blue and White Porcelain (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collector's Club, 1994); Sarah Richards, Eighteenth-Century Ceramics: Products for a Civilised Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).

(7.) Lydia Liu, “Robinson Crusoe's Earthenware Pot,” Critical Inquiry 25, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 728–57.

(8.) Emerson, Porcelain Stories, 253.

(9.) John Gay, “To a Lady on Her Passion for Old China,” in John Gay: Poetry and Prose, ed. Vinton A. Dearing, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 1:292–94, 292, 293 (ll. 7–10, ll. 31–36).

(10.) Ibid., 293 (ll. 47–50).

(11.) As critics like Beth Kowaleski-Wallace have noted, this appraisal of the insatiable female consumer is tempered by a pride in the successful trade economy that feeds her collecting habits. See Kowaleski-Wallace's Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

(12.) See Joanne Tong, “Romantic c/ China: The Literature of Chinoiserie,” Literature Compass 6, no. 3 (2009): 599–614.

(13.) The construct of the Letters, which use a foreigner's observations to cloak more trenchant critiques of one's own country, had already been popularized by such works as Walpole's Letter from Xo Ho (1757) and Goldsmith's Citizen of the World (1762), both told from the point of view of a Chinese writer.

(14.) Robert Southey, Letters from England (London: Cresset, 1951), 192.

(15.) Ibid., 191.

(17.) Barrow, Travels in China (London: Cadell and Davies, 1804), 326. Barrow further comments: “Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese can boast of giving to (p.204) the materials much elegance of form…. And nothing can be more rude and illdesigned than the grotesque figures and other objects painted, or rather daubed, on their porcelain, which however are generally the work of the wives and children of the labouring poor. That they can do better we have evident proof; for if a pattern be sent out from England, the artists in Canton will execute it with scrupulous exactness; and their colours are inimitable” (306).

(18.) Robert Southey, “Travels In China,” in The Annual Review, and History of Literature, for 1804, Vol. 3 (1805), 69–83, 69. The review concludes by nevertheless expressing a political divergence from the staunchly royalist Barrow: “[We] have not, like [Barrow], that horror of the enlightened doctrines of the rights of man, which he expresses in a manner so little consistent with his usual good sense and good manners. We … will … only repeat our hope, that a system, which, like that of the Chinese government, and indeed all the Asiatic governments, totally prevents all improvement, all increase of knowledge and happiness, may be radically destroyed” (81).

(19.) Charles Lamb, “Old China,” in Elia and the Last Essays of Elia, ed. Jonathan Bate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 281–86, 281. The essay was first published in London Magazine 7, no. 39 (March 1823): 269; it was collected in The Last Essays of Elia (1833). The text used in Bate's edition is the 1823 version.

(20.) Mark Parker argues that Lamb's private “strategies of personal consolation … can be read as public strategies for resolving the contradictions and pressures of the current political crises,” which also include for Parker the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre and the trial of Queen Caroline. See Mark Parker, Literary Magazines and British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 50.

(21.) It is worth restating here, as Fang also reminds us, that Coleridge was able to write independently because of financial support from Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood.

(22.) Thomas Manning, according to his later biography, was the first Englishman to visit Lhasa and meet the Dalai Lama, which he did in 1810 despite the dissuasions of Lamb, who wrote to Manning: “Pray try and cure yourself…. Read no more books of voyages; they are nothing but lies.” Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, ed. Clements Markham (London: Trübner, 1876), clx.

(23.) Lamb to Thomas Manning, 5 December 1806, in The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, ed. Edwin W. Marks, 3 vols. to date (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975–), 2:244–50, 244.

(24.) Lamb to Thomas Manning, 10 May 1806, in ibid., 2:225–27, 225.

(25.) Lamb, “Old China,” 281.

(28.) Ibid., 282.

(30.) Ibid., 283.

(p.205) (31.) Ibid., 285.

(32.) Ibid., 286.

(33.) Lamb's friend Thomas Manning served as interpreter on this mission.

(34.) Clarke Abel, Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (London: Longman, 1818), 174. See also Henry Ellis, Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China (London: John Murray, 1817).

(35.) Thomas Hood, Whims and Oddities (London: Lupton Relfe, 1826), 78.

(36.) Leigh Hunt, “The Subject of Breakfast Continued—Tea-drinking,” London Journal 9 (July 1834): 113–14, 113.

(37.) Ibid, 113.

(38.) Ibid., 114.

(40.) Thomas Hood, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Walter Jerrold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920), 295 (ll. 13–16).

(41.) See Coutts, The Art of Ceramics, 153–54. Coutts also points out that the underglaze blue used to manufacture British pieces of Chinese design was the cheapest of all the colored glazes.

(42.) Richards, Eighteenth-Century Ceramics, 181.

(43.) For an expanded version of this history, see Copeland, Spode's Willow Pattern, 33–39.

(44.) “More Celestial Intelligence,” Chambers's Journal 328 (April 1860): 237–40: 237.

(45.) See, for example, James A. W. Heffernan's Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

(46.) J. F. Blacker, Nineteenth-Century English Ceramic Art (London: S. Paul, 1912), 342.

(47.) The Mandarin's Daughter, British Library ADD MSS 43038A, British Library, London.

(48.) Compton Mackenzie, The House of Coalport 1750–1950 (London: Collins, 1951), 35.

(49.) “The Story of the Common Willow Plate,” Family Friend I (1849): 124–54, 124.

(50.) “The Pryor's Bank, Fulham,” Fraser's 32, no. 192 (December 1845): 631–46, 636.

(51.) See Lara Kriegel, “The Pudding and the Palace: Labor, Print Culture, and Imperial Britain in 1851,” in After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), as well as John Plotz, Portable Property: Victorian Culture on the Move (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Catherine Gallagher also describes Dickens's practice of animating the inanimate in the context of Great Expectations; see Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 189.

(52.) “A Plated Article,” Household Words 5, no. 109 (24 April 1852): 117–21, 120.

(p.206) (53.) Ibid., 120.

(54.) John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Penguin, 1981), 67–68.

(55.) Ibid., 68.

(57.) George Meredith, The Egoist (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 286.

(58.) Ibid., 288.

(59.) Ibid., 168.

(60.) Nancy Armstrong, Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 11.

(61.) Alison Byerly, Realism, Representation, and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 6.

(62.) Patricia O'Hara, “‘The Willow Pattern that We Knew’: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow,” Victorian Studies 36, no. 4 (1993): 421–42, 431. See also her “Primitive Marriage, Civilized Marriage: Anthropology, Mythology, and The Egoist,” Victorian Literature and Culture 20 (1992): 1–24.

(63.) Robert Mayo, “The Egoist and the Willow Pattern,” English Literary History 9, no. 1 (1942): 71–78, 78.

(64.) Meredith, The Egoist, 35.

(65.) Carolyn Williams, “Unbroken Patternes: Gender, Culture, and Voice in The Egoist,” Browning Institute Studies 13 (1985): 45–70; Jonathan Smith, “‘The Cock of Lordly Plume’: Sexual Selection and The Egoist,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50, no. 1 (1995): 51–77; Anna Maria Jones, “Eugenics by Way of Aesthetics: Sexual Selection, Cultural Consumption, and the Cultivated Reader in The Egoist,” LIT 16, no. 1 (January–March 2005): 101–28.

(66.) Michael Riffaterre, Fictional Truth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 25.

(67.) Meredith, The Egoist, 36.

(68.) Riffaterre, Fictional Truth, 26, 28.

(69.) Meredith, The Egoist, 212.

(70.) Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 19.

(71.) Meredith, The Egoist, 4.

(72.) William Rossetti, “The Royal Academy Exhibition,” Fraser's Magazine Vol. 71, (July 1865): 57–74, 67.

(73.) “Fine Arts: Exhibition of the Royal Academy, Third Notice,” Illustrated London News, 21 May 1864, 494.

(74.) “The Royal Academy,” Art Journal, Vol. 26, (1 June 1864): 165–66.

(75.) Nigel Thorp, ed., Whistler on Art: Selected Writings and Letters of James McNeill Whistler (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 23.

(76.) Rossetti, “The Royal Academy Exhibition,” 67.

(77.) Nigel Thorp, ed., Whistler on Art, 26.

(78.) Paula Gillet, Victorian Painter's World (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1990).

(p.207) (79.) Michael Fried, Manet's Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 228. See also his longer contextualizing discussion of these paintings, 222–32.

(80.) Ibid., 228–29.

(81.) Ibid., 391ff.

(82.) “Fine Arts: Exhibition of the Royal Academy, Third Notice,” Illustrated London News, (May 21, 1864): 494.

(83.) On the cultural status of the collector, see Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).

(84.) E. R. Pennell and J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1919), 98.

(85.) Quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Knopf, 1988), 45.

(86.) Henry Treffy Dunn, Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and His Circle (London: Elkin Mathews, 1904), 24.

(87.) D. G. Rossetti to his mother [Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti], 12 November 1864, in Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. Oswald Doughty and John Robert Wahl, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 2:526–27, 527.

(88.) Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 85.

(89.) G. C. Williamson, Murray Marks and His Friends (London: The Bodley Head, 1919), 33.

(90.) Ibid., 52.

(91.) For more on this, see Gillet, Victorian Painter's World, 49; and Oswald Doughty, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Victorian Romantic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), 313. Doughty describes Rossetti's disgust at making “pot-boilers and replicas” “for filthy lucre's sake.” Dianne Sachko Macleod points out that this practice of replications was not problematic for most middle-class Victorian art purchasers, as they were more concerned with the amount of labor invested in the making of the art object. See her Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 16.

(92.) On the history of The Blue Bower, see Paul Spencer-Longhurst, The Blue Bower: Rossetti in the 1860s (London: Scala Publishers in association with the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 2000).

(93.) William Rossetti, Some Reminiscences (London: Brown Langham, 1906), 1:283.

(94.) Dante Gabriel Rossetti His Family Letters, with a Memoir, ed. William Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1895), 1:263.

(95.) Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 2:501.

(96.) Rossetti His Family Letters, 1:263.

(97.) Ford Madox Hueffer [Ford Madox Ford], Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections: Being the Memories of a Young Man (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 143.

(98.) Linda Merrill, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

(99.) Charles L. Eastlake, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details (Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1878), 223.

(100.) William Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 1862–1870 (New York: Charles Scribners, 1903), 59.