D.L. has a fine little Asian ornamental bronze figure standing at about 30 inches. It is in the shape of a Japanese pagoda with seven stacked six-sided tapering roofs. Each corner of the dragon eaves (those wonderful upturned roof-lines) is accented by a little tole (tin) bell. The piece rests on a custom-made rosewood stand that echoes the diagonal of a mountain path. D.L. tells me her mother treasured this piece in the 1950s and left it to D.L., who wonders about its function and value, and, moreover, its history.
This is a fanciful decorative accessory and nothing more, as it does not do anything. It's not a lantern; it's an objet d'art. As a style these small pagodas reach as far back as the 18th century, and again reoccur in the mid-1850s. At these two times in history, both China and Japan entered Occidental consciousness, due to increasing trade (18th century), and tourism (19th century). We will see that D.L.'s piece comes from the last era of a style called chinoiserie.
So beloved were these little tabletop pagodas that before the souvenir makers of the Asian world knew Asian architecture fascinated the West, French designers made tabletop pagodas for the wealthy of Paris. They often ornamented these pieces with champlevé, the French version of cloisonné, an enamel on metal process. French designers who perhaps never actually saw a pagoda imagined the Asian style, creating a completely new genre of decorative art and architecture called chinoiserie in the 18th century, which caught on in both France and England. Visit the Brighton Pavilion built in the 18th century to see the English imitation of the Asian style. Chinoiserie, created by craftsmen really not familiar with the Asian style, is always fanciful, and delightfully whimsical, because it is imagined and not learned. D.L.'s piece is a great example of the romance of chinoiserie.
The history of western designers imagining and executing Asian designs reaches back to the 18th century, but D.L.' s piece dates from the 1920s, which also saw a recurrence in chinoiserie designs as part of the wave of exoticism in the decorative and visual arts (think of Valentino in the 1921 movie The Sheik or the rediscovery of Egypt). However, revising on Asian themes and exotic styles was nothing new. Kings throughout the years were captivated by the architectural ideas of Asian structures: No less a German than Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1770 commissioned the Pagoda Dragon House for his Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, Germany.
Thus, the 18th century saw the entry of the pagoda into western architecture, then in the 19th century into western decorative arts. But the "modern" pagoda as we see it reimagined in Europe, and in D.L.'s piece, is not exactly modern. The Japanese wooden Horyu-ji, built in the seventh century, is one of the oldest wooden structures known. The pagoda has entered the imaginations of creators for a thousand years, as we shall see, with origins in the tomb-like stupa. The nine-story Xumi Pagoda in Hebei China was built in 636; the Chinese iron pagoda of Kaifeng was built in 1049.
The stupa, a relative of the pagoda, originated in ancient India as a religious structure for sacred relics (third century BCE) and writings. In fact, in South Korea, in the pagoda called the Seokgatap, which was built in the eighth century and made of granite, held in its protection the oldest woodblock print, "The Great Dharani Sutra," hidden inside of its second roof, until 1966.
One of the reasons for the popularity of D.L.'s form of ornamental pagoda is the many examples of decorative art that exist in pagoda shapes. Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) artisans produced garden bronze lanterns with pagoda tops, also created in stone — and today in concrete.
At the top of D.L.'s pagoda we see a typical tall finial presiding over the piece. Two reasons exist for the prominence and importance of this feature: Tall and high pagodas necessarily need a metal lightning rod, called a "demon arrester." If the demon arrester includes a globe, this is a reference to the blooming lotus. On D.L.'s pagoda, we see the rod shooting from the lotus.
The value of this little gem is $900. D.L. writes that with any luck, her niece, not of the generation who welcomes such objet d'art, will want it. I hope this article convinces her to love it!
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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