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The Swedish East India Company
Trading to China 1731-1813

China and Sweden Through a Thousand Year

By: Bo Gyllensvärd, 1992

It is a well known fact that Chinese silk was exported far away through Asia already during the Han-dynasty (206 BC- 221 AD). The oldest finds of this material found in Sweden are some fragments of patterned silk excavated in Birka, a commercial center of the 9th century, west of Stockholm.

The silk trade had increased extensively during the Tang-dynasty(618-906 AD). Silk came to the west first on the silk road through central Asia and later on also by sea to the Mediterranean world. This export went on through the centuries. From the middle age (14th century) the 16th and 17th centuries Chinese silk has been preserved in Swedish churches used as priest robes and antependiums or, altar front hangings.

Chinese porcelain and stoneware reached the Near East already during the Tang-dynasty but Europe first in the 16th century. When direct trade had been established between Europe and the far East in the latter half of 16th century, first on Portuguese and later on Spanish, Dutch and English ships, the first blue and white Ming-porcelain reached our country.

In 1631 King Gustaf II Adolfus was given a precious cabinet made by the famous ebenist Hainhofer in Augsburg. This contained many exotic things and some dishes, trays and cups of Kraak porcelain which at this time was brought to Europe. The cabinet is preserved at the University of Uppsala. His daughter, Queen Kristina, formed a collection of about 330 pieces of this type, which has partly survived. By the end of the 17th century several wealthy persons in our country had collections of Chinese porcelain, lacquer and various items arranged in special rooms "a' la Chinoise". The imported Chinese wares made a deep impression upon European craftsmen, especially the potters. In vain they tried to make hard porcelain but could only copy shapes and patterns from China on faience's made in Holland, France, England and Germany. On the white glazed earthenware's the blue cobalt was used to depict Chinese figure scenes, flowers, birds and other common patterns from late Ming and Kangxi porcelains. Even the Swedish faience factory Rörstrand copied Chinese motives in the 1730s.

At this time the Japanese and Chinese lacquered wares became admired and was soon imitated in the West. A popular handbook on Japanning and varnishing was published in London in 1688 by John Stalker, with engravings of various "Chinese" patterns suitable to use by experts as well as amateurs to adorn furniture, mirrors, trays and boxes of all kinds. Japanning became highest fashion among ladies in the upper class around 1700. The exotic motives were also reproduced on wallpapers, gilt leather and canvas to imitate lacquer screens. This imitative art was called "Chinoiserie".

In Sweden this kind of Chinoiserie was soon taken up. At the end of the 17:th century the Royal palaces had some of the Queens private rooms filled with Chinese porcelain, lacquer and other objects arranged on the walls above the doors and mantelpieces "a' la Chinoise".

Count Bengt Gabrielson Oxenstierna was very proud of having a room at his palace Rosersberg filled with Chinese porcelain in blue and white and colors arranged on gilt brackets around the walls. In 1690 he named this room Sanctum Sanctorum (the most precious) considering it very precious. In the large formal garden was a long pond with a small island in the centre. On this island was a pavilion covered with blue and white tiles inspired by Trianon de Porcelain in Versailles. This French palace was again inspired by the porcelain pagoda in Nanjing. Considerable collections of Chinese rarities were acquired from Holland but very little is preserved today.

The first book about China and Japan was published in Sweden already in 1667 and was written by two Swedish sailors who had visited the Far East on Dutch ships.

When the Swedish East India Company started in 1731 the situation changed considerably and a vast direct import of porcelain, lacquer, silk, spices and first of all tea, arrived at Gothenburg, the Swedish port for the China trade. At this time the foreign beverage tea had been introduced in our country and turned out to be the most profitable cargo in the trade. This new drink required suitable vessels which of course preferably should be of Chinese porcelain. Cups, saucers, pots, caddies, bowls and dishes were imported in great quantities.

When the rococo style succeeded the baroque in the 1720-30´s the chinoiseries changed into a still more European version. Leading French artists as Watteau, Boucher and Pillement introduced the Chinese sceneries on interior decorations such as wall hangings and tapestries. Their pictures were reproduced in series of engravings and spread all over Europe. Other chinoiseries were made by German artists as well.

Most of these compositions were rather fanciful and based on the Dutch and French publications about China of the seventeenth century such as a Martinus Martini, Novaes Atlas Sinensis (1655), Joh. Nieuhof, Het Gezamtschap der Nederlandische Oost-Indishe Compagnie. (1665), Athanasius Kirscher: China Monumenta...illustrata.... (1667), Phil. Couplet, Imperii Sinonem... (1687) and others.

The illustrations in these books were made by European designers who had never been in the Far East which explains the imaginative pictures. Even in the eighteenth century the renderings of Chinese conditions - the milieu as well as the people - were rather inaccurate and gave a most idealistic picture of the remote country. The interest for China had grown rapidly and many reports made by French Jesuit missionaries in China were published in the west. Chinas classical books were translated into European languages. China was looked upon as an ideal Empire where the people lived in a real Utopia. Philosophers as the German G. W. von Leibnis and Chr. Wolf and the French physiocrate Francois Quesnay and Marquise Mirabeau propagated in favour of the Confucian social system.

The physiocratic ideas were introduced in our country among others by Count Carl Fredrik Scheffer, who was the governor to the young crown prince Gustaf (Later King Gustaf III) who was well informed about the Confucian ideas. He had as a six years old boy acted at the inauguration of a small Chinese pavilion presented to his mother Queen Louise Ulrica of Prussia on her birthday the 25th of July 1753.

The small palace was built secretly at Drottningholm, the royal summer palace, in Chinese taste inspired by similar palaces on the Continent. The Crown Prince was dressed as a Chinese prince and had learned a few phrases in Chinese to be used when leaving the key to his mother. Great festivities were arranged in connection with this birthday present when Chinese drill was performed and theater performances were given with Chinese subjects. The exterior of the palace had been painted in red with yellow palm trunks at the corners. The roof was green and shaped as a tent. Chinamen and dragons were arranged above the entrance and windows. The interior was furnished with Chinese lacquer screens, silk on walls and chairs and lacquer cabinets. Chinese porcelain was arranged on the walls against lacquer screens. This small palace was rebuilt ten years later and then enlarged by two leading architects C.F. Adelcrantz and Jean Eric Rehn, who built the most attractive Chinoiserie in a mixture of real Chinese objects and European rococo interiors with Boucher's Chinoiseries painted on the walls by Swedish artists. This Chinese Pavilion is one of the few of its kind still in existence in Europe.

In the middle of the eighteenth century many palaces and mansions in Sweden had similar paintings on canvas in Chinese rooms. Dinner and tea services of porcelain were arranged in special Porcelain Kitchens filled with the precious items. It is possibly that well over 30 million pieces of Chinese porcelain were imported by the Swedish East India Company during 90 years, as the porcelain from the Far East was so much cheaper than the wares made in Europe at German, French and English factories.

At first the European shapes were reproduced in China and complete dinner services ordered for the western market. On these early pieces the decoration in blue and white or colored enamels were pure Chinese but after a while the patterns too became more and more European. Models and drawings were sent out to Canton and reproduced by skillful Chinese craftsmen. A special type was the so called armorial porcelain decorated with the coat of arms of a noble family who wanted to have it on its service. Several thousand English and European families had their services ordered in this fashion. Around 350 services were made for Swedish families of which some are designed by prominent Swedish artists as Christian Precht and Jean Eric Rehn. Amongst these are several made for the Grill family, who were closely related to the Swedish East India Company. An exceptionally large dinner service was presented to King Gustaf III to be used at his palace Gripsholm and decorated with the Swedish state coat of arms and crowns in blue and gold and designed by Jean Eric Rehn.

One of the most beautiful tea and coffee services made for Sweden was the one ordered for our famous botanist Carl von Linneaus. The pattern shows a botanical drawing of the flower Linnea Borealis most sensitively drawn in green, brown and pink enamels.

During the eighteenth century the Chinoiseries on the whole played an important role in Europe for ceramic, wall paintings, lacquered work and interior decoration. The rococo style can not be explained without the inspiration from China. When the English architect William Chambers published "Designs of Chinese buildings" in 1757 and in 1763 "A dissertation on oriental gardening" they made a great impression on the European garden architecture.

William Chambers had stayed in Canton several years at the service of the Swedish East India Company as a supercargo and did close studies of gardens and architecture around this city. When he came back to Europe he was engaged by the English court and created Kew Garden and other gardens with its Chinese pagoda and other oriental buildings.

The French formal garden was now succeeded by the English free park landscape with its various exotic buildings and details as pagodas, pavilions, bridges and open lawns, curving paths and irregular ponds and running water. The English Chinese garden was thus introduced by Chambers and soon to be spread to the rest of Europe.

In Sweden Fredric Magnus Piper, who had studied in England, created a garden of this type when King Gustaf III engaged him to plan the new gardens at Drottningholm and Haga, his summer palaces in Stockholm. They still exist and so does a small, but very tasteful, Chinese garden at Godegård, one of the mansions belonging to the family Grill.

When the direct trade between Gothenburg and Canton ended in the beginning of the 19th century the Chinese fashion diminished but never stopped completely. At the end of last century a revival of the rococo style appeared and a reborn interest for the Far East, now focused mainly on Japan, resulted in a new style, l'art nouveau or Jugend. This style in Europe is to a great extent inspired by Japanese art. In Sweden it was soon practised.

When the Qing dynasty ended in 1911 China was opened for the West. Quite a few Swedish scholars now went to China for studies in geology and natural science, in language, archaeology and art. In the early 20th century the geologist J. G. Andersson found sites in the Hoangho basin of Chinese Neolithic culture at Yangshao, which brought into daylight an advanced ceramic art, at this time unknown to the scholars. Then followed finds of Homo Pekingensis (the Peking man) datable to c/a 500.000 years ago who lived in grottos at Zhougoudien north west of Beijing.

Thanks to these sensational finds made in close co-operation with Chinese experts, Andersson was permitted to bring back to Sweden a representative collection of Neolithic material, the base of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, which opened in 1929. Later followed comprehensive collections of archaic bronzes and ceramic from Zhou, Han and Tang. A special committee was organized to give financial support to the scientific work going on in China and to acquire representative material. In 1921 the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf became the president of the committee.

In the twenties and thirties a new wave of serious interest for China spread in the West and museums as well as private connoisseurs started systematically to collect Chinese art, especially ceramic. The leading collectors in Sweden formed the China Club. The Swedish Art Historian Osvald Sirén spent a long time in China studying architecture, sculpture and painting and published pioneering works on these subjects. He also acquired collections for the state museums.

The leading sponsor and supporter all the time was the Crown Prince, who in 1926 visited China and through the years built up his private collection, which in his will was given to the New Far Eastern museum, which had been opened by the King Gustaf VI Adolf in 1963.

The new Far Eastern museum was arranged in an old building from 1700 on Skeppsholmen, an island in the center of Stockholm, where the most important state collections of material from China, Japan, Korea and India today are shown in a pedagogical and attractive way.

All the time Sweden kept up a cultural exchange with China and from the Peoples Republic received several important exhibitions. Today the interest for China, its people, country and culture is more intense than ever. Chinese food is appreciated all over the country and in every city or community Chinese restaurants serve typical Chinese dishes. The Chinese language is taught at our universities as well as Chinese history of art. From an Utopia in the Far East today China has become a member of the world community, of ever growing importance.

Bo Gyllensvärd

This article is an edited version of the original published on page 42-47 in the book The Golden Age of China Trade. The book also contains contributions by: Jörgen Weibull, W.E Cheong, Jan Kuuse, Anders Wästfelt, Berit Wästfelt, Bengt Johansson, Cai Hongsheng, Yang Renfei, Hedvig Brorson, Lin Kangyue, Zhang Wenqin. Published by Viking Hong Kong Publications, 1992.


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