Aestheticizing Identity and Commodifying Place: Chinese Wallpaper and the British Atlantic in the Eighteenth-Century

Sabky, Tabitha, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Huang, Yunsheng, AR-Arch History Dept, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, AR-Arch History Dept, University of Virginia
Sewell, Jessica, AR-Planning Dept, University of Virginia

The vast consumption of Chinese wallpaper in British culture in the eighteenth-century resulted in a substantial amount of this material surviving today as a central component of British heritage. The use of Chinese wallpaper at a time when political, social, economic, and cultural changes were constantly being negotiated in comparison with one another, helped to create an aesthetic that represented what it meant to be English. As a product of cross-cultural exchanges, chinoiserie, as a larger style, popularized and commodified racial, political, and economic interactions in the Eighteenth Century British Atlantic world. Orienting the value of English art and objects within local and global geographies of goods, this thesis aims to understand how Chinese taste became a symbol of British identity, and how the concept of an individual’s behavior and interaction with material goods reinforced artistic and fashionable hegemonies of taste. In placing the foreign within a picturesque, painted landscape, the use of Chinese wallpaper offered an aesthetic solution for western gazes; this use controlled the exotic views as contained through the lens of western consumers, domesticated and distant landscapes, and provided the viewer with curated interpretations of the British Empire’s colonial interactions. As the British Empire expanded to include new territories and people, English culture became a commodity through which one could negotiate status amongst shifting class relationships. Chinese wallpaper, therefore, allowed one to express an English aesthetic identity through the appropriation of non-English images. This thesis examines Chinese wallpaper in relation to spatial hierarchies within domestic architecture of the British genteel classes to facilitate discussions around placement, use, and cultural meaning of objects. Engaging inter-disciplinary approaches within discussions of architecture, art, material culture, gender, economic, and social histories, this project aims to improve understanding of how Chinese wallpaper contextualized an expression of commodified identity in the transnational and transcultural eighteenth-century British Atlantic.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
Chinese Wallpaper, Chinoiserie, British Atlantic, Gentility, Consumption, Colonial America
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