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‘The infusion of a China Plant […] sweetened with the Pith of an Indian Cane’: Consuming, Tasting and Visualising the Empire

Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding


Les dernières décennies du XVIIe siècle virent l’arrivée, sur les tables aristocratiques, des porcelaines et du thé importés de Chine par le biais du commerce avec l’East India Company, mais aussi du sucre, venu des Antilles. Au même moment, un type de nature morte prenant comme sujet la consommation du thé devenait très recherché. Thé, porcelaines et sucre dans ce type de peinture offrent un discours matériel sur les échanges mondiaux reliant Indes orientales et Antilles. Cet article montre qu’il s’agit alors de présenter une version matérielle de l’histoire de l’empire et une vision où l’empire s’apparente au monde des choses. La description du Royal Exchange de Joseph Addison dans son essai du Spectator (1711) vient corroborer cette idée, en offrant une image impériale de Londres sous le signe du commerce. Cette étude du texte d’Addison, de certaines natures mortes et peintures de conversation de l’époque, propose de s’intéresser à la représentation de l’empire sous l’angle de la consommation et de la matérialité.

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Factors in the trading world are what ambassadors are in the politick world; they negotiate affairs, conclude treaties, and maintain a good correspondence between those wealthy societies of men that are divided from one another by seas and oceans, or live on the different extremities of a continent. (Spectator n° 69, 1:296)

1Joseph Addison’s famous essay on the Royal Exchange in the Spectator n° 69, dated 19 May 1711, underlines the role commerce played as a prime instrument of England’s imperial agenda, bringing together not only “wealthy societies of men” but also various commodities “divided from one another by seas and oceans.” The Royal Exchange, presented as “an Emporium of the world,” becomes an emblem of Britain’s commercial and political empire. In a still life painted by London-based Flemish artist Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten around 1696, a luxurious and highly sophisticated silver candleholder celebrates the excellent craftsmanship of the silversmith who designed it. A classical female figure holding a cornucopia, eyes lifted up to the smouldering candle, occupies pride of place in the painting, and points to a full, and perhaps somewhat anxious, consumption of the pleasures and bountiful riches of life. Yet the eye is intriguingly drawn to the small white paper with a red wax seal containing tea leaves. The paper’s sealed corner displayed on the front edge of the table gives special emphasis to the presence of tea and invites the viewers to focus their attention equally on both the Chinese leaves in the foreground and the silver figure.1 The cost and precious value of both are also equally alluded to. Tea and its consumption are here opulently displayed, with the presence of a Yixing style redware teapot and porcelain tea cups, sugar rocks and the showy silver piece. The viewer is invited to enjoy a sensory feast, where the visual and tactile pleasures of looking at, and feeling, shiny surfaces are blended with the mouth-watering anticipation of the delicate green tea, sweetened by sugar and ready to be drunk in the cup.

  • 2 For studies on sugar and its relationship with slavery and the empire, see Walvin; and Mintz.

2Brought together on the varnished table, Chinese and West Indian commodities enter a dialogue about English colonialism and imperial trade. The viewers are presented, as it were, with the last triumphant episode of an imperial and colonial sea narrative encapsulated, calmly, elegantly, in this visual display of the interlocking of the four corners of the world. The female figure recalls the role of women as agents of domestication of foreign commodities imported into England though global trade. In appearing together on the canvas, the riches of both East and West Indies are symbolically integrated into the domestic sphere of England. The emphasis on the consumption of exotic commodities and the allusion to female consumers, through the presence of the candleholder, offer a glorious vision of Britain’s commercial and colonial endeavours, whilst overlooking its most sordid counterpart, slavery. The silvery-white female somewhat obliterates the presence of African slaves without whom there would be no sugar on the tea table.2

3The aesthetic pleasure produced by the surfaces and materials of commodities has been analyzed by Roland Barthes, in his study of Dutch still life painting, under the rubric of the “sheen,” or “luisance," which he interprets as a celebration of “man and his empire of things”:

Le souci des peintres hollandais, ce n’est pas de débarrasser l’objet de ses qualités pour libérer son essence, mais bien au contraire d’accumuler les vibrations secondes de l’apparence, car il faut incorporer à l’espace humain, des couches d’air, des surfaces, et non des formes ou des idées. La seule issue logique d’une telle peinture, c’est de revêtir la matière d’une sorte de glacis le long de quoi l’homme puisse se mouvoir sans briser la valeur d’usage de l’objet. Des peintres de natures mortes comme Van de Velde ou Heda, n’ont eu de cesse d’approcher la qualité la plus superficielle de la matière : la luisance. (21)

4I would like to suggest that materiality and the superficial quality of glossy textures act precisely as surfaces that allow for a mythology of imperial narratives to be told about men and their possessions, and about how these exotic goods came to England. As Simon Schama points out, Dutch still lifes offered visual evidence of commercial imperialism:

Some of the stunning examples of this genre […] exemplify the fateful connection between the ‘domestic empire of things’ and the global empire of commerce. [...] Dutch culture, […] essentially consisted of what could be classified, inventoried, priced, owned and displayed: coral from the Indies (West and East); Mingware and Japanese lacquer from the China Seas; Turkish and Persian rugs from the Levant; monkeys, parakeets and shells from Coromandel and the Guinea coast and Brazil. (479)

5Neither Barthes nor Schama, however, seem to pay attention to the illusionistic aspect of these colonial narratives encapsulated in this pictorial genre, and more importantly, to the value of this illusionism, which, I argue, attempts at aestheticising the politics of empire, and fictionalizing its moral virtues. Looking at the discourse of empire and mercantile capitalism through the lens of consumption and taste, I want to suggest that Addison’s essay on the Royal Exchange, the subtle elision of marked references to slave labour from pictorial narratives (be they still lifes or conversation pieces) and the insistence on the brilliance and benefits of consuming commodities, enabled Britons to justify and legitimise the expansion of imperial trade and colonialism, built upon a broad notion of empire articulated along the lines of territorial, political and economic sovereignty. I propose to read tea vanities, paintings celebrating scenes of sociability amid material culture, and texts glorifying England’s imperial and colonial endeavours as utopias, displaying a self-assured façade that dissimulates cracks or flaws in an idealized aestheticized economic and political system supporting global trade. Subsumed under exotic commodities and luxuries, the reality of expanding or maintaining imperial domination is thus glossed over. Texts and paintings offer a utopian geography grounded in Europe that masks any form of dystopian practice, such as forced labour.

  • 3 See Lisa Jardine.
  • 4 For a history of the East India Company, see H. V. Bowen, The Business of Empire: the East India Co (...)
  • 5 On still life paintings, see Sam Segal.
  • 6 See Lindsey Bridget Shaw; and V. Alayrac-Fielding, La Chine dans l’imaginaire anglais des Lumières.

6England and the United Provinces shared common features at the turn of the seventeenth century: both Protestant, these two nations also competed for commercial leadership in the East Indies and developed a taste for exotic commodities and curiosities.3 The Dutch VOC stood as a powerful rival to the English East India Company in the last decades of the seventeenth century until the East India Company took leadership in the following century.4 Artistic productions of the period reflect the rise of both nations’ commercial imperialism and similar artistic tastes for still lifes and portraits.5 It cannot be doubted that Dutch still lifes paved the way for Pieter Van Roestraten’s fashionable tea still lifes produced in England for an aristocratic clientele in the last decades of the seventeenth century6 and later, and for the obsession for materiality ̶ luxurious textures and precious commodities ̶ recorded in numerous conversation pieces displaying the sitters’ material wealth – including their human chattel, the black servants populating many conversation scenes.

  • 7 The painting is at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

7In a few Dutch still lifes of the last decades of the seventeenth century, a black servant already appeared in the painting among the various commodities displayed. In a pronk still life painted by Barend van der Meer dated from around 1675-80, Chinese porcelain, a Persian rug, a silver jug and its accompanying plate, Mediterranean wine and fruit are lavishly exhibited, whilst the figure of a black servant can be, at first, only glimpsed at.7 Yet, peering through the darkness, one can, at first, only make out a figure shrouded in the shadows. Different from the confident servant bringing tea in later English or Dutch conversation pieces, a black servant emerges out of the darkness through slight touches of light distributed by the gleam of his eyes, the white of his teeth, and the brilliance of his pearl ear-ring that draws him close to the fascinating silver jug he is attracted to. Julie Berger Hochstrasser has noted the chromatic link, in the painting, between the black servant and the crafted silver piece: “His mouth gapes as if in awe of its richness, revealing a few white teeth, while a pearl on his ear captures a glint still softer than the whites of his eyes, and the pale cloths around his neck and forehead just emerge from the shadows” (225-26).

  • 8 For other analyses of the figure of the black servant in English conversation pieces, see David Dab (...)

8Present, yet somewhat absent since relegated to the dark background, this figure of the black servant is precisely an embodiment of the imperial history of how these luxurious commodities arrived onto elegant tables in Europe. He stands for the sugar so proudly displayed in many still lifes, in particular those painted by Pieter van Roestraten and his followers in England, which elide the topic of slavery and avoid raising moral scruples. Sugar, tobacco, tea became the staple of the consumption of the aristocracy at the end of the seventeenth century and of the wealthy throughout the eighteenth century. They all constitute the material epilogues of complex European imperial histories. For contemporary viewers, the figure almost hidden in darkness is arresting as it offers a discourse on the status of the Black slave as exotic commodity to be consumed through his metonym, sugar, but it also reminds us of the silent abominations of slavery that this visual culture repeatedly overlooks or remains mute about. The black servant is both object and subject: reified, he belongs to the range of exotic possessions of a Dutch family, and is shown as another commodity, not unlike sugar or exotic fruit. As a subject, he is also the embodiment of the Other, of radical and racial difference. He has been orientalised with a turban, which indicates that his origin, Africa and/or probably the West Indies, is both present and obliterated, subsumed under the generic rubric of Orient, of Otherness, of exoticism. He is also a subjected subject, the very sign of a triumphant global trade, fuelled by slavery, mercantile capitalism and its accompanying subjection of other peoples.8

  • 9 Lisa Rowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents.

9The position of the African slave in the background of the painting is also indicative of the significance of his secondary role in the painting: he is inferior to the commodities which, ironically, his labour has produced (tobacco and/or sugar). Indeed, he occupies a somewhat less important position than sugar, which ravishes the taste buds of masters and viewers alike. He appears in a marginalized position, at the periphery of precious commodities, as though the sordid reality of the ruthless mechanism of modern global trade had to be understated, or remain unexpressed. Does the painter unconsciously elude the topical issue of slavery, preferring, instead, to aestheticise the consequences of the slave trade? However disturbing it may be in hindsight, this painting, and many other Dutch still lifes and English tea still lifes, highly popular in England through the work of Van Roestraten, evoke what Lisa Rowe has termed “the intimacies of the four continents,” the interconnection of products, produce, artifacts and people from various parts of the world, through the commercial exchanges triggered by global trade and global economies.9 The material intimacies of the four continents find a resonance in the famous lines on the Royal Exchange in The Spectator:

Nature seems to have taken a particular care to disseminate her blessings among the different regions of the world, with an eye to this mutual intercourse and traffick among mankind, that the natives of the several parts of the globe might have a kind of dependence upon one another, and be united together by their common interest. Almost every degree produces something peculiar to it. The food often grows in one country, and the sauce in another. The fruits of Portugal are corrected by the products of Barbadoes: the infusion of a China plant sweetened with the pith of an Indian cane. The Philippick Islands give a flavour to our European bowls. The single dress of a woman of quality is often the product of a hundred climates. The muff and the fan come together from the different ends of the earth. The scarf is sent from the torrid zone, and the tippet from beneath the pole. The brocade Petticoat rises out of the mines of Peru, and the diamond necklace out of the bowels of Indostan. (1:296)

10The passage underlines the commercial and imperial network between the New World, Europe and Asia. Silver was the trading currency used by European merchants to buy foreign commodities in China, which gave Spain and its silver mines in Peru strategic prominence in global exchanges with other European nations. Commerce in Asia was thus dependent on colonialism in the New World. Significantly, no mention is made in the text of the horrors of the Middle passage and of the necessity of slave labour in West Indian colonies, such as Barbados mentioned by Addison, to produce sugar. Joseph Addison’s essay builds a mythology of the commercial alliance between nations and reads as a celebration of liberal economies, praising the spirit of entrepreneurship, and the Whig ideology of commerce and free trade:

I am wonderfully delighted to see such a body of men thriving in their own private fortunes, and at the same time promoting the publick stock; or in other words, raising estates for their own families, by bringing into their country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous (1:296).

11The link is here emphasised between the wealth of the British nation and the building of individual business empires and fortunes. The portrait of the aptly named Money Brothers, painted by John Francis Rigaud between 1788 and 1792 is a good example of how, some 80 years after Addison’s essay, global exchanges had shaped and had been shaped by merchants towards the end of the century.10 In this painting, the Money Brothers are shown as gentlemen tradesmen (two of them have their hair powdered), whose successful careers are driven by Britain’s trade with the East Indies, and the growing influence of the English East India Company. The map emblematises their voyages and careers as officers of the East India Company. Robert, the youngest sibling, who stands to the left, is looking at his eldest brother William Taylor, and points to a map of China, and more precisely to Canton. James points to the Bay of Bengal, with his forefinger directed to Calcutta.

12According to Addison, the success of British commercial imperialism is visually present in English interiors: the dining-room, the drawing-room, the dressing-room and the bedchamber bear the trophies of the benefits of trade. Commerce also symbolically enlarges Britain’s territories, without always requiring the necessity to conquer new lands: British consumers can thus comfortably enjoy at home the wine of French vineyards or taste nutmeg, clove, mace and other spices of the Indonesian archipelago of the Moluccas. The benefit of commercial imperialism, Addison argues, lies in the ambivalence of territorial expansion and centripetal accumulation:

Our ships are laden with the harvest of every climate; our tables are stored with spices, and oils, and wines: our rooms are filled with pyramids of china, and adorned with the workmanship of Japan: our morning’s draught comes to us from the remotest corners of the earth: we repair our bodies by the drugs of America, and repose ourselves under Indian canopies. My friend Sir Andrew calls the vineyards of France our gardens: the spice-islands our hot-beds; the Persians our silk-weavers, and the Chinese our potters. Nature indeed furnishes us with the bare necessaries of life, but traffick gives us greater variety of what is useful, and at the same time supplies us with everything that is convenient and ornamental. (1:296)

  • 11 The idea of foreign artifacts being domesticated through female agency has been examined by Laura B (...)

13England becomes a modern Garden of Eden, where nature is present through raw produce, but also transformed into manufactured commodities. The reader is given a modern, imperial version of earthly paradise, where nature co-exists with art and artifice, where luxuries reflect man’s use of nature’s blessings. In this essay, Addison focuses on the bodily functions of ingesting, tasting and consuming the products of the empire, and on the function of adorning the body as a process of domestication of the foreign.11 Consumption, appetite and greed were recurrent themes addressing the nature of territorial expansion and relating it to the taste for novelty and the craze for consumer goods. Thus the creation of the country’s empire conflated with the rise of individual business empires, and depended on personal appetites and ambitions.

14Addison also constructs a utopian geography of England, placed, ideally, in a perfectly balanced environment and climate, which, consequently gives it a central role in organizing global trade. Associated with untamed wilderness before the advent of commerce, it becomes a new, sophisticated natural and yet artificial Garden of Eden thanks to global exchanges:

If we consider our own country in its natural prospect, without any of the benefits and advantages of commerce, what a barren uncomfortable spot of earth falls to our share! […] Nor is it the least part of this our happiness, that whilst we enjoy the remotest products of the north and south, we are free from those extremities of weather which give them birth; that our eyes are refreshed with the green fields of Britain, at the same time that our palates are feasted with fruits that rise between the tropicks […].Trade without enlarging the British territories, has given us a kind of additional empire: it has multiplied the number of the rich, made our landed estates infinitely more valuable than they were formerly, and added to them an accession of other estates as valuable as the lands themselves. (1:296)

  • 12 See Thé, café ou chocolat ? Les boissons exotiques à Paris au xviiie siècle, exhibition catalogue; (...)

15Global market commodities marked transformations in clothing, decorating and furnishing but also contributed to defining new practices of sociability, such as drinking tea, coffee or chocolate, thereby also shaping new codes of conduct and fashionable, cultural identities.12 Exotic artifacts and commodities, far from being mere accessories, or appendices to a modern clientele, became material metonyms of individuals who bought, tasted and consumed them. People were defined by what they consumed, and turned into commodities. Canto 3 of Pope’s Rape of the Lock thus offers a collusion between people and objects in a description of the conversations held at Hampton Court:

Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the pleasures of a court;
In various talk th’ instructive hours they past,
Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;
One speaks the glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen;
Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling,
and all that. (9-18)

16A Japanese or Chinese lacquer screen conflates with the image of the British Queen, who “dost sometimes counsel take̶ ̶̶ and sometimes tea” (Canto 3: 8) whilst West Indian or American snuff and a Chinese fan make “various extremities of the world meet,” to quote Addison’s prose. Likewise, the coffee ceremony gathers the Americas (such as Peru for silver), Europe (where the coffee-drinking scene takes place), Japan (where the lacquered table originates), and China (which has supplied porcelain) as well as the Levant (where coffee comes from):

For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crown’d,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round;
On shining altars of japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze:
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China’s earth receives the smoking tide.
At once they gratify their scent and taste,
And frequent cups prolong the rich repast. (105-12)

  • 13 Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain, exhibition catal (...)

17Eighteenth-century conversation paintings in England often revealed the material intimacies of the four continents through the presence of global market commodities: sugar, tobacco, spices, textiles, tea, porcelain often appeared in these group portraits. The traffic of human souls served colonial ambitions. The slave trade generated great profits which, in turn, served British merchants and planters to enlarge their fortunes and be part of further colonial expansion in other parts of the world, such as China, and India in particular, where the influence of the East India Company grew exponentially throughout the eighteenth century.13

18In a portrait by an unknown artist, entitled Elihu Yale, William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire, Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant, painted circa 1708, global exchanges offer a point of entry to understand the reason for the presence of the famous and prosperous merchant with distinguished members of the English aristocracy. This painting can be seen as a visual example of The Spectator’s prose about the transformation of England’s economy into a modern, global one. Around the table are gathered Elihu Yale, who sits in the centre and thus occupies a central position, William Cavendish, second Duke of Devonshire, who sits on the right in a dark-blue velvet coat, and his younger brother, James Cavendish on the left, in red. The presence of a lawyer, standing behind Elihu Yale and James Cavendish, seems to confirm that the painting, commissioned by Yale, celebrates the marriage contract between Yale’s daughter, Anne, and James Cavendish.

19The painting is a prime example of how global exchanges shape relationships between people, in particular between classes, but also tells a story about the collusion between people and objects, emphasizing how bodies and identities are commodified and traded, and conversely, how objects become personified. Elihu Yale can be considered as a global figure, as indicated in his self-penned epitaph on his tombstone in Wrexham churchyard in Wales: “Born in America, in Europe bred, In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed, Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; in London dead.” His identity was fashioned by the emerging global economy of the seventeenth century, by commercial imperialism but also by colonialism.14 He travelled to India at the age of 23 and served as a clerk in the East India Company’s settlement of Fort Saint George in Madras (now Chennai), where he eventually became governor and amassed a colossal fortune of nearly £200,000 through private trade in diamonds.15 This painting, commissioned by Yale, captures the globally connected world in which he and his contemporaries lived. He is surrounded by objects that weave a story about his career, his social and professional successes. The painting displays a wealth of precious and foreign commodities brought to England by global trade: an Indian diamond, mounted on Yale’s ring, Madeira wine in glasses, poured by the African slave, himself an exotic commodity, wearing a metal collar around his neck, which identifies him as enslaved, and other portables, such as snuff boxes, pipes, tobacco can be seen. Emphasis is laid on the transactions of bodies, through marriage and the building of financial empires and businesses. Bodies are being sold and traded for money. The absence of the bride, Anne Yale, testifies to her being dealt with as matrimonial commodity, which draws a parallel with the traded body of the black slave, and provides interesting insights on power relationships in patriarchal societies and on processes of racial and sexual differentiations.

20If Anne Yale’s commodified status and that of Yale’s African servant are arrestingly mirrored in the painting, racial differentiation usually remained unmistakably codified, however, in conversation pieces staging white masters and their black servants in domestic settings. The contrasting use of white and black, of light and dark tones, served to racialise and materialise bodies and identities. A Family Portrait (circa 1735), painted by William Hogarth, is highly emblematic of the interlocking of various products of either colonial or commercial empire. A mounted Chinese or Japanese lacquered cabinet on stand, or possibly japanned in England, works as a sign of luxury and wealth. Its precious value has been reinforced by its gilded frame. It is hard to determine whether the cabinet was japanned in England or comes from China, but either way, the impression of foreignness prevails.16 This lacquered cabinet, whether actually Chinese, or English, acts as a mirror of both successful trading activities in Asia, in particular with China, and of English excellence in varnishing. It is also a mirror of the wealth, taste and social status of the family. It works as both other and self: in their famous treatise on japanning, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing Being a Complete Discovery of these Arts (1688), John Stalker and George Parker insisted on the narcissistic value of lacquer, using its specular qualities to reflect the household and its inhabitants. Yet, lacquer also evokes otherness: through the interplay between black and white in the painting, the black lacquered surface mirrors the blackness of the young black servant who is seen bringing tea. He has been commodified and probably orientalised through sartorial exotic dressing up.

  • 17 Alayrac-Fielding, Rêver la Chine.

21I have shown elsewhere that objects, in particular Chinese artefacts and objets d’art, can be seen through a form of ornamental orientalism, understood as both structure and surface, where these ornamental objects, through their colour, shape, structure and material, play a central role in the construction of British culture at home.17 The cropping of the figure reveals the secondary role of the black servant to the eyes of the family he attends on, and stresses his peripheral, marginal significance, underlying racial differentiation and hierarchy. Meanwhile, China’s civilized status appears as a mirror image of the smooth demeanour and polite manners of the family. The whiteness of the women’s bodies, arms and hands, echoes the whiteness of porcelain, while the matching blue and white clothes bear resemblance to the perfect harmony of the blue and white service. Also the whiteness of the large vase in the hearth matches the neo-classical environment of the drawing-room.

22In this painting, things might not be what they appear to be at first sight. A closer look at the scene reveals many signs of perturbation and incoherence and leads to question whether this painting was an actual commission, since it is to be doubted whether any family might have wished to show themselves in such disarray. The black page that brings an upturned tea cup might function, as is often the case in Hogarth’s paintings, as an ironic viewpoint on the scene, in the same manner as the one in plate 4 of Marriage à la Mode (1732) or plate 2 of The Harlot’s Progress (1732). His peripheral role is confirmed by the fact that, for purposes of reframing the painting, there has been no qualm about cropping him out because he was not considered as valuable as the young boy in the armchair.

23Chi-Ming Yang has argued that eighteenth-century ideas about race can be analysed through the lens of material culture and, in the case of this painting, has shown that the blackness of lacquer worked as a metonym for the slave’s body.18 Bodies and commodities, she argues, can be seen as surfaces that can be racialised. Here, the servant’s black skin recalls the black, glossy surface of the japanned cabinet. Indeed, an analogy can certainly be made between the figure of the black servant and that of a figure on the japanned lacquer, in a not dissimilar fashion to chinoiserie figures that appeared on many ornamental articles of furniture in English interiors.19 However, I would like to suggest that the visual connotation of black lacquer in Hogarth’s painting, as well as in texts and other pictorial evidence, does not only present a romanticised fiction of slavery, but offers a more versatile message on how imperial commodities, and their imitation at home, embody various identities, being that of a black servant, the Chinese (and Japanese) artists that produced the lacquered cabinet or that of the white masters. In their treatise, Stalker and Parker compared black lacquer’s reflective surface to a mirror held up to those who purchased it and furnished their home with lacquered wares: “No amorous nymph need entertain a dialogue with her glass, or Narcissus retire to a Fountain, to survey his charming countenance, when the whole house is one entire speculum”(3). In this passage, lacquered furniture unambiguously embodies the taste of those who chose it as decoration for their home: it even materializes their bodies and becomes a metaphor for both body and social identity. Far from running an analogy between black skin and lacquer in their work, Parker and Stalker, on the contrary, suggest a form of material specularity between the black lacquered surface and the white skin of men and women, narcissuses and nymphs of the domestic sphere. Japanning, i.e. the imitation of lacquer in England, is compared by Parker and Stalker to a performance of the self, where male and female japanners become colonisers, play the role of adventurers, who, metaphorically, enter unchartered territories and cover black varnished surfaces with fictions of territorial conquests:

[B]ecause I may not be so clear and satisfactory in my rules to those who before never attempted any thing [sic] of this nature, to whom ʼtis a perfect Terra incognita, an undiscover’d Province; for their sakes I shall willingly make an addition of a few pages, to shew in a plain and more particular manner the way of working some patterns in this Book either in Metals or Colours, by the knowledge whereof they may be enabled with ease and inclination to perform any enterprise that shall oppose them. (39)

24Japanning is thus presented as a venture into unchartered territory, an artistic practice that opens new means for processes of territorialisation, offering the possibility of thinking about colonisation, through the artistic appropriation of a foreign artistic technique. The japanned, glossy black surface produced by white men and women marks, in that regard, not only a formal, and metaphorically, geographical, appropriation of the other, but also a recognition of the self in the mastery of an originally exotic, foreign art: “If I may be allowed to bestow hearty wish, it must be […] that from these lines, […] may spring experienced artists, that will invest it with splendor and reputation […]” (51). The glossy surface of black lacquer produced in England is presented as a testimony to the excellence of the practitioners. The Latin etymology of splendor is splendor, “brilliance,” from splendere, “to shine, to be bright.” Specularity between the identity of japanners and those who possessed lacquered cabinets on the one hand, and the brilliance of exotic Japanese or Chinese lacquer on the other, is thus reinforced, where the glossy material, whether actually Asian or imitated in Europe, reflects the social and cultural identity of their collectors. This versatility of the social and cultural meaning of Asian lacquer and its Western imitation in Europe, thus, complicates the analogy between bodies and surfaces rather than offer one single metonymic reading.

  • 20 Many albums representing the manufacture of porcelain were produced in Canton. See for example the (...)

25Glossy narratives and artistic productions that tackled territorial and commercial expansion through materiality and the display of a global world of goods, tended to celebrate the Whig ascendancy, and in doing so, attempted to avoid more problematic issues at work in commercial imperialism and colonial ambitions, such as the plight of slavery. Another untold narrative, that of Chinese labour, remained mostly absent from the history of Britain’s commercial empire as displayed through its material culture. The intensive labour of Chinese porcelain potters at Jingdezhen was often romanticised and aestheticised in pictorial representations, produced in Cantonese workshops for the Western market, of the various stages of the manufacture and transportation of porcelain in idyllic landscapes, in series of gouache or watercolour vignettes.20 However picturesque these scenes may have been for a European clientele, the difficulty in transporting porcelain from Jingdezhen to Canton, a strenuous 800-mile overland journey over lakes and mountains, was no less real, but was glossed over in these visual productions. The porcelain made in Jingdezhen had to be carried by barge across lakes and rivers and then transported through the mountains, a perilous undertaking, before it could finally reach Canton. From there, it was shipped to Europe, embarking on another dangerous journey of some 12,000 miles on board East Indiamen. Thus, the sometimes grim reality behind the arrival of beautifully crafted objects and exotic commodities tended to be silenced and replaced by ideologically motivated glossy narratives of commercial success. Yet these objects and paintings also invite historians of material culture to discover untold imperial stories and read the multi-layered global narratives of England’s imperial history.

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Primary sources

Addison, Joseph, and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Ed. Donald F. Bond. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. 1712. Ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. 1941. London: Routledge, 1991.

Stalker, John, and George Parker. A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing Being a Complete Discovery of these Arts. London, 1688.

Secondary sources

Alayrac-Fielding, Vanessa. “Plaisirs exotiques et identité en Grande-Bretagne au xviiie siècle : du jeu frivole au jeu de pouvoir.” Je(u), joie, jouissance / Games and the Self: Joy, Enjoyment and Pleasure. Ed. Françoise Buisson, Jane Hentgès, Christelle Lacassain-Lagoin et Michael Parsons. Rives – Cahier de l’Arc Atlantique 4. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2011. 111-38.

Alayrac-Fielding, Vanessa. La Chine dans l’imaginaire anglais des Lumières. Paris: PUPS, 2016.

Alayrac-Fielding, Vanessa, ed. La Chine: Chinoiseries et regards croisés entre la Chine et l’Europe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Tourcoing: Éditions Invenit, 2017.

Barthes, Roland. Le Monde Objet. Essais critiques. Paris: Seuil, 1964. 22-31.

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Bowen, H. V., Margaret Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby, eds. The Worlds of the East India Company. Rochester, NY: Brewer, 2003.

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1 The painting is kept at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam

2 For studies on sugar and its relationship with slavery and the empire, see Walvin; and Mintz.

3 See Lisa Jardine.

4 For a history of the East India Company, see H. V. Bowen, The Business of Empire: the East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833.

5 On still life paintings, see Sam Segal.

6 See Lindsey Bridget Shaw; and V. Alayrac-Fielding, La Chine dans l’imaginaire anglais des Lumières.

7 The painting is at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich

8 For other analyses of the figure of the black servant in English conversation pieces, see David Dabydeen; on the link between chinoiserie and the representation of oriental dress-up of black servants, see Alayrac Fielding, “Plaisirs exotiques."

9 Lisa Rowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents.

10 The painting and information about the sitters can be viewed at
For general information about the East India Company, see also H. V. Bowen, Margaret Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby, eds,
The Worlds of the East India Company.

11 The idea of foreign artifacts being domesticated through female agency has been examined by Laura Brown in Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century Literature.

12 See Thé, café ou chocolat ? Les boissons exotiques à Paris au xviiie siècle, exhibition catalogue; also Alayrac-Fielding, La Chine dans l’imaginaire anglais des Lumières, 107-09.

13 Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain, exhibition catalogue 10-13.

14 For analyses of the painting, see <>.

15 For more information on Yale’s collection of objets d’art, jewellery, luxury furniture, and curiosities, see Diana Scarisbrick and Benjamin Zucker, Elihu Yale: Merchant, Collector, and Patron.

16 For different views on the meaning of the work, see

17 Alayrac-Fielding, Rêver la Chine.

18 <>.

19 In “The Aesthetics of Incorruptibility in Behn's Oroonoko,” Chi-Ming Yang has offered to see Imoinda’s “japanned” skin and Oroonoko’s “Polish’d Jet” blackness in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko as romanticized visions of the African slave trade which commodify and orientalise the protagonists as if they were ornaments.

20 Many albums representing the manufacture of porcelain were produced in Canton. See for example the copy kept at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, France:

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Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding, « ‘The infusion of a China Plant […] sweetened with the Pith of an Indian Cane’: Consuming, Tasting and Visualising the Empire »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding

Université Lille SHS
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Vanessa Alayrac-Fielding is a senior lecturer in British eighteenth-century studies. Her research focuses on eighteenth-century British art and cultural history, visual and material culture, and in particular the fashion for chinoiserie in English decorative arts and the representation of the Orient in British art. She is the author of La Chine dans l’imaginaire anglais des Lumières (1685-1798) (Paris : PU Paris-Sorbonne, 2016) and has recently edited Rêver la Chine : Chinoiseries et regards croisés entre la Chine et l’Europe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Tourcoing : Édition Invenit, 2017).

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