School of Culture and Communication - Theses

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    From diplomacy to diffusion: the Macartney mission and its impact on the understanding of Chinese art, aesthetics, and culture in Great Britain, 1793-1859
    Blakley, Kara Lindsey ( 2018)
    Recent art historical scholarship has begun to expand with studies in cross-cultural convergences and transferences garnering newfound attention. This dissertation, through a series of close readings, examines how the deterioration in the relationship between China and Britain manifests in art. In particular, I am concerned with the corollary concepts of depiction and diffusion: that is, how do British artists depict China and the Chinese, and then, how do these depictions diffuse into British visual and material culture more broadly? The primary temporal focus begins with the Macartney diplomatic embassy of 1793, and ends with Victoria’s accession. Through a semiotic interpretation, I demonstrate that the subtle changes in the British visual depiction of recurring Chinese signs (such as the pagoda or ladies of rank) reveal concomitant shifts in attitudes towards China. The concepts of depiction and diffusion comprise the first and second halves, respectively. Chapter Two examines the visual templates that the Jesuit missionaries based at the Beijing court created. Chapters Three and Four center on the imagery of William Alexander, who served as junior artist to the Macartney mission. His two illustrated travelogues (published 1805 and 1814) synthesized signifiers of China that had circulated in Britain for over a century, but his reinterpretation, in addition to his anthropological approach, anticipate an imperialistic turn. His images—which, notably, departed from the the fantastical chinoiserie which predated them— purported to demonstrate to armchair-travelers the way China ‘looked,’ but it is this very claim to authenticity which requires that the images be read anew through a postcolonial lens. Alexander’s images inform the work of Thomas Allom, who created entirely new Chinese scenes in the wake of the Opium Wars; this is taken up in Chapter Five. Chapters Six and Seven seeks to understand the diffusion of Chinese imagery in Britain, and what the cultural signification of that diffusion is. Chapter Six discusses the role of the anglo- chinois garden in eighteenth-century Britain. It also examines the role that William Chambers played in popularizing Chinese motifs, and how his legacy and contribution to an emerging Romantic aesthetic has been obscured in previous literature. Chapter Seven details the interior design scheme of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton (decorated 1802-1823). In the Music Room, Alexander’s documentary imagery has been transformed into decorative spectacle, and pagodas were miniaturized, trivialized, and brought inside: in this regard, Britain sought to possess China by proxy. By interpreting Britain’s Chinese imagery through a semiotic framework, I examine how artists and audiences negotiated increasing contact with China. Evocations of familiar signs belie a deteriorating relationship, which was hastened by Britain’s rapid industrialization and the unabating desire for Chinese goods. As art history embarks on an intercultural turn, connections between China and Britain in the early modern, proto-global world must be included in this field. This dissertation serves as one such point of departure.