During the last, crucial phase of writing up and submitting my PhD thesis on the Royal Pavilion, I received an invitation to attend a gathering of scholars, curators and architects from around the world in Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Hui province in North-West China, to talk about the subject of my research. The three-day event, The Dimension of Civilisations, was organised by MOCA, a new Museum of Contemporary Art near Yinchuan, which is due to open in 2015. The museum will comprise four main collections: early Chinese photography, contemporary Chinese art, maps and Chinese export ware. I was invited on account of my doctoral research, which focused on the interior of the Royal Pavilion. The Pavilion includes much late eighteenth and early nineteenth century export ware, as well as European modifications and imitations of it.
After six years of leisurely, joyful and rewarding part-time research, I felt confident talking and writing about Georgian Britain’s fascination with the Far East, in particular China. However, the invitation to deepest China and the prospect of introducing George IV’s extravagant English seaside pavilion to Chinese experts took me well out of my comfort zone, and for a long time I was evasive about accepting the invitation, somehow hoping it would sort itself out by not actually happening. I had never been to China and the prospect of travelling there on my own and being able to contribute something valuable to a scholarly conference and the preparations for the opening of a major new museum seemed utterly daunting, if very tempting.
I decided to accept when I found out that a fellow Sussex researcher, Joshua Gong, and Patrick Conner, a colleague from London who is a specialist in Chinese exports paintings, were also going to be there. Patrick also happens to have a connection with the Royal Pavilion, having been the Keeper of Fine Art at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery between 1975 and 1986.
For complicated reasons I had to fly out to China on my own, which was not entirely enjoyable. The overnight flight to Beijing was tolerable, but the connecting flight to Yinchuan was stranded on the runway for several hours, by which time I was already exhausted from the long journey. For the last few hours of the flight to Beijing I had been looking out of the window, seeing a barren and alien looking landscape, with unfamiliar patterns and colours, and I could not help wondering about the determination of people creating an overland trade route through what looked like an endless desert. At Beijing airport I still felt reasonably confident; everything was neat, bright and spotless, the whole complex having clearly been enlarged and modernised for the Olympic Games in 2008. When I eventually landed in Yinchuan, late at night, tired, after a 3-hour flight eastward, I finally suffered from culture shock – not necessarily in a bad way.
I was met at the airport by the conference organisers and driven through a world that was entirely new and unknown to me. Yinchuan is a large and expanding city with vast thoroughfares, neon-lit highrises and countless ambitious building projects lining its long streets: a city whose shape and dimensions I was not able to comprehend, even after spending several days exploring it. Yinchuan, and Chinese city planning and investment strategies, remained a mystery to me, but the strongest (and most lasting) impression of my time there was the ambition and confidence that underpins the MOCA project. I was showered with gifts on my arrival and treated with great respect, the hotel being the most luxurious one I have ever stayed at. It was clear that the organisers were also keen to show the European and US American delegates what they had achieved. The ultimate aim was, it seemed, to understand historic cultural exchange and inspiration and to continue this exchange within the remit of a new regional museum. And so I introduced George IV’s strange Chinoiserie building to an interested and inquisitive Chinese audience, keen to include Europe’s fascination with China in previous centuries in their discussions and representations of Chinese art. I felt honoured to be part of this, and on a personal level it was a most exciting way to present years of research work.
I was glad that the event took place in a lesser known and quite remote part of China. We were shown some historic sites nearby, for example pre-historic rock carving in the Helan Mountains to the west of the Yinchuan plain, near the Mongolian border. The air was sweet and with the actual conference behind us I was able to fully embrace all the new impressions. A crew of journalists and cameramen followed us on that day, which also included a visit to Yinchuan University, the art college there, and – most importantly – the site of MOCA itself. The museum complex, complete with artists’ studios and accommodation, is located at quite a distance from the city centre, but the confidence and belief in the long-term success of the project was ever present. I imagined the spirit of the early days of the railways to have been similar: thinking ahead, with an indefatigable belief that it will all be worthwhile and be advantageous for generations to come. Almost all delegates were at one point interviewed by Chinese TV about their views on cultural exchange between China and the West and the significance of art in general. I found myself standing at the foot of the Helan Mountains being asked about what connects pre-historic rock carvings with contemporary art. Working as a guide in the Royal Pavilion prepares you for unexpected questions like these.
I had planned to add a day in Beijing on the return journey in order to visit the Forbidden City. The Royal Pavilion interiors were not only significantly informed by export ware brought to Europe by the East India Companies but also by an image of China conveyed by one of the few artists who had made it to “Cathay” in the late eighteenth century, William Alexander, who accompanied Lord McCartney’s embassy to the Emperor Qianlong in China in 1792. I was keen to retrace some of Alexander’s steps, to see some of the places, ornaments and objects that he would have seen, drawn, painted and eventually presented to his British audience. Alexander thus created an image of China that would become a common point of reference and influenced the decorations of the Royal Pavilion. George IV’s interior decorators John and Frederick Crace used Alexander’s books and prints as sources for their Chinoiserie designs, and we can see interpretations of Alexander’s landscapes on the walls of the Music Room and his Chinese figures transferred to chandeliers and glass screens in the building. Alexander has long been a hero of mine and I included a copy of Alexander’s book The Costume of China from 1805 in last year’s exhibition Regency Colour and Beyond. Back in 1981 Patrick Conner and Susan Legouix Sloman curated an exhibition William Alexander: An English Artist in Imperial China at Brighton Museum.
The visit to the Forbidden City nearly didn’t happen, because I had not realised that it was not going to be open to the public on my extra day in Beijing. But Joshua Gong arranged for me to be collected from my hotel in Beijing by a team of expert guides, to be taken into the closed Forbidden City. Together with Patrick Conner I enjoyed an exclusive and utterly privileged tour of this most overwhelming of places. The sky was heavy with smog, drenching everything in an unreal colour, and the emptiness of the squares normally packed with thousands of visitors was simply stunning. I was thus able to concentrate on the intricate ornamental details of the temples and bridges, as well as enjoying the enormity of the space in peace and quiet, wandering around the southern section (or ‘Outer Court’) for hours, before being treated to a spectacular dinner by my hosts. Patrick and I expressed an interest in the Qianglong Gardens in the northern section of the Forbidden City (part of the exclusive ‘Inner Courts’) and were collected again early the following morning, ushered past the waiting crowds and into those areas of particular relevance to us. Suddenly, much of what I had been reading about and researching over the last few years made a lot more sense: I had been studying mostly Chinoiserie, not Chinese art, but there I was, finally being able to see what had inspired Europeans, what William Alexander had been sketching frantically and beautifully more than 200 years ago, and – most importantly perhaps – I finally understood Europe’s fascination with such a distant, overwhelming and colourful culture. I will never look at a dragon ornament in the Royal Pavilion in the same way again, having seen ‘the real thing’ in such privileged circumstances and with expert guides. The generosity of my Chinese hosts was astounding and I found myself wondering why I was treated with quite so much respect by both the MOCA event organisers and the team at the Forbidden City. To a large part generosity towards guests must simply be a Chinese characteristic, but I also sensed a particular interest in communication and exchange with the West, a desire to forge new relationships and to learn from each other’s histories. Just as I wanted to know what Alexander had seen on his journey more than 200 years ago, my Chinese hosts and colleagues wanted to know why and how Chinese art and symbolism found its way into the Western imagination. This was true international cultural exchange that will forge important and exciting connections between East and West. Very soon the lady who had arranged our visit to the Forbidden City, the Deputy Head of the Chinese Archaeological Bureau, will be visiting the UK and I will, of course, offer her a very special visit to the Royal Pavilion in return. I have been invited back to the opening of the museum in Yinchuan in 2015. I will not hesitate next time. In fact, I can’t wait.
Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher at the Royal Pavilion