Complicated objects: artifacts from the Yuanming Yuan in Victorian Britain

Abstract

The 1860 spoliation of the Summer Palace at the close of the Second Opium War by British and French troops was a watershed event within the development of Britain as an imperialist nation, which guaranteed a market for opium produced in its colony India and demonstrated the power of its armed forces. The distribution of the spoils to officers and diplomatic corps by campaign leaders in Beijing was also a sign of the British Army’s rising power as an instrument of the imperialist state. These conditions would suggest that objects looted from the site would be integrated into an imperialist aesthetic that reflected and promoted the material benefits of military engagement overseas and foregrounded the circumstances of their removal to Britain for campaign members and the British public. This study mines sources dating to the two decades following the war – including British newspapers, auction house records, exhibition catalogs and works of art – to test this hypothesis. Findings show that initial movements of looted objects through the military and diplomatic corps did reinforce notions of imperialist power by enabling campaign members to profit from the spoliation through sales of looted objects and trophy displays. However, material from the Summer Palace arrived at a moment when British manufacturers and cultural leaders were engaged in a national effort to improve the quality of British goods to compete in the international marketplace and looted art was quickly interpolated in this national conversation. Ironically, the same “free trade” imperatives that motivated the invasion energized a new design movement that embraced Chinese ornament. As a consequence, political interpretations of the material outside of military collections were quickly joined by a strong response to Chinese ornament from cultural institutions and design leaders. Art from the Summer Palace held a prominent place at industrial art exhibitions of the postwar period and inspired new designs in a number of mediums. While the availability of Chinese imperial art was the consequence of a military invasion and therefore a product of imperialist expansion, evidence presented here shows that the design response to looted objects was not circumscribed by this political reality. Chinese ornament on imperial wares was ultimately celebrated for its formal qualities and acknowledged links to the Summer Palace were an indicator of good design, not a celebration of victory over a failed Chinese state. Therefore, the looting of the Summer Palace was ultimately an essential factor in the development of modern design, the essence of which is a break with Classical ornament

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