East Meets South — Kensington


How odd it feels to walk through the splendid ground floor exhibits of the Victoria & Albert Museum into the courtyard and see “The Eternal City” made of irregular rock slabs set on their sides around the pool, and decorated with plastic flowers. I suppose the installation by a Beijing artist qualifies as “fine arts,” one of the categories for The Great Exhibition of 1851, the event that secured the future of the V&A, but it looks pretty slapdash to me.


The idea of that international fair was to showcase goods and the newest means to manufacture them. In 1851, when the so-called “Crystal Palace” was built in Hyde Park for the extravaganza, it was the architecture itself that won the day. Less understood is that the conception of the event was very grand and very moral. As a Stanford University scholar has pointed out, Prince Albert’s influence emphasized “peace, love and ready assistance, not only between individuals but between the nations of the earth.”


Economic competitiveness was very much on the English mind, but exhibition commissioners thought by sharing their ideas and accomplishments, nations might beat swords into ploughshares.[i] Most of that brotherly love, however, was reserved for nearby neighbors. Foreigners from more exotic lands, including China, were viewed with skepticism. In fact, the only quasi-official mention of China is in a quote from the satirical “ Authentic Account of the Chinese Commission,” a poem that ends with the execution of the delegate who praised the exhibition, and is illustrated by caricatures that depict the Chinese as animal-like and savage.


Relations had evidently improved by London’s International Exhibition of 1865. The London Journal announced; “China and Japan will both be splendidly represented in all their varied branches of arts and art-manufactures . . . ” China sent examples of their ornaments including lackerware [sic.], porcelain, wood carvings, rare jade, and bronze – and also a collection of medicines.[ii]


It is on the V&A web site that one can find information that illuminates what was going on at the time. When Victoria came to the throne (1837), ambitious industrialists had their eyes on untapped markets in East Asia. While Canton was an open port, trade activities were severely restricted by Chinese authorities. “Britain redressed this trade imbalance by selling two products from British India: raw cotton and opium.” Opium had been banned in China (but not Britain), and in 1839 the emperor ordered that arriving cargos be dumped. Britain sent in warships. China was defeated in this First Opium War and was forced to open Shanghai and to cede Hong Kong “in perpetuity.” Foreign merchants were aggressive, and problems escalated into another war in 1857. The Earl of Elgin negotiated a treaty for an embassy in 1858. Continued conflict led to the torture and death of British and French troops as they looted the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860. Yet the Chinese capitulated.[iii]


Japan also was being explored at that time. While goods from both countries had been exhibited in London, the V&A credits photography with helping westerners imagine both those cultures. Visitors saw them as very different. In Japan they experienced the romance of the past; China they perceived as backward. China remained reluctant to accept any western influence, whereas Japan, whose artistic achievements won praise, benefitted from exhibitions. They not only won admirers and collectors, but they gathered knowledge about technology, which they put to good use.  China however excelled in ceramics and has influenced British ceramics up through modern times.


In Room 47 of the museum are many wonderful examples. I focused on animal images yesterday, so that I might interest my grandchildren in where I had been.

[i] http://www.stanford.edu/group/ww1/spring2000/exhibition/start.html; from paper by John Kemper, “Internationalism and the Search for a National Identity: Britain and the Great Exhibition of 1851 (May 23, 2000).



[ii] http://thevictorianist.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/international-exhibition-of-1862.html


[iii] Wikipedia offers further insights to the differences between China and England regarding opium trade.

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