1. View of Amsterdam, Claes Jansz. Visscher (II), 1611, (Detail of) Engraving

Article by Adam Schoon on behalf of The Magellan Centre
Studies on Europe & Asia 1400–2019

The East India Company (EIC) was created in 1600 to serve as a trading body for English merchants in order to operate in the East Indian spice trade. This trade had formerly been dominated by the Portuguese and Spanish but their power and influence had faded by the end of the 16th century. The East India Company developed its trade in commodities such as cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre and ultimately with tea, porcelain, lacquers, ivories, enamels and tortoiseshell. Later still opium was a regular cargo. This powerful company eventually became involved in politics and acted as an agent of British imperialism in India from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s. The diverse trade goods it carried were known as “Indian Goods” (as few really understood where the items were actually from, and indeed most were auctioned on arrival at port) and were to have an immense effect on the tastes and fashions in Europe, both then and now.

England by no means had this trade to itself. Dutch merchants were known for their success in bulk trades in the 15th century (such as Baltic timber, salt and grain) and in far “richer” trades by the 16th century (such as spirits, precious metals, wines and copper stills). In the 17th century, The United East India Company (VOC — Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or Dutch East India Company had risen to be a global trading power using solid financial institutional backing, proven trade routes, and long-established distribution ports such as Antwerp and Amsterdam. The opening illustration on this website shows part of an engraving of 1611 “View of Amsterdam” by Claes Jansz. Visscher (II).1 This detailed print shows merchants from all corners of the globe offering their riches to the mythical “Maid of Amsterdam”. The East Indians, Turks and Chinese bring precious stones, nutmeg, porcelain, stags and silk. A legend below the image (not shown) celebrates Amsterdam as the ‘trading capital of the entire world’ and recounts how the holds of the ships (described as ‘floating castles’) were laden with cargo from the farthest reaches of the earth.

As a consequence of the influx of new and desirable trade objects an area of established European art was enriched — that of still life painting. Many exotic trade goods and materials available after 1600 (when many of Europe’s various “East India Companies” were formed and operational) began to appear as subjects in still life paintings. Many still life pictures traditionally depicted staple props such as game birds and animals, fruit, shellfish, pewter or works of art, but as trade expanded so more exotic “objet” were depicted — many from distant shores such as Chinese porcelain vases and bowls (often mounted with silver or silver-gilt) mother of pearl dishes from India, coral from Africa, carpets from Turkey and even cockatoos from Australasia

A familiar genre today, still life painting became established in Britain in the late seventeenth century. In the 1650s such paintings were referred to as ‘dead-standing-things’, the term ‘still life’ (from the Dutch ‘stilleven’) only used some decades later. The genre had been established in the Netherlands earlier in the seventeenth century. Its introduction into Britain was through the work and influence of Dutch incomer artists. Pieter van Roestraten arrived in London from Amsterdam in the mid-1660s and became known for his ‘portraits’ of objects, particularly silver; another Dutchman known by the anglicised name of Edward Collier was active in London from the 1690s.

Artists of this “Golden Age” in The Netherlands include Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636–1695), Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1684) and Willem Claesz. Heda (1594–1680). Artists specialising in these often detailed works emphasised the decay present in the natural world and the transitory nature of worldly possessions. Pictures filled with “devices” alluding to these themes are also called “Vanitas” or “Memento Mori”. Navigational instruments and globes also appeared as subject matter at this time- revealing expanding scientific, mathematical and geographical knowledge as well as confirming colonial and commercial expansion. New species from the natural world also appeared such as orchids, monkeys and fruits. Even African servants appeared in still life paintings - the influence of earlier Portuguese commerce as well as that of The Spanish Netherlands. Coral and gold in a painting was itself a symbol of “Africa”.

Each subsequent century since has seen revivals of interest in still life painting from Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699–1779), Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) to Damien Hirst.

2. One of a Pair of Delftware Flower Pyramids, De Metaale Pot, Circa 1710—Circa 1720


Owning rare trade objects during the 17th century showed not just an intellectual appreciation of them as cultural objects but as symbols of your own wealth, success and status. One object in particular reveals new foreign trade influences on both material and design — the flower pyramid.2 Seeking to imitate Chinese blue and white porcelain Dutch potters in Delft and other centres of pottery modelled multiple-nozzled vessels in the form of Chinese pagodas! Enriched with blue and white decoration they hint at a “Vision of Cathay” (as China was known). Furthermore, at the end of the 17th century, Dutch “Tulipmania” (inspired by new tulip species imported into The Netherlands from The Ottoman Empire) gave serious and decorative purpose to these extraordinary multiple layered architectural display pieces. Made in pairs they were particularly popular in England — so from Hampton Court (where Mary II and her “Court of William III of Orange” pursued an almost obsessive collecting of all things Chinese and Chinoiserie) to Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, and Het Loo Palace, Netherlands the Chinese style was all the rage. Subsequently many future designs considered “so very European” owe their inspiration to China. For example, in the early 18th century the new rococo style used many Chinese patterns such as fence work and rocaille, and subjects of humour, imbalance, and surprise derived from oriental designs such as those painted on Chinese porcelain. Dutchman Cornelis Pronk (1691–1759) is well known for his designs made to specific commissions from The United Dutch East India Company. In 1734 he produced a design for this so-called chine de commande which was produced in China then shipped to Europe and sold there at an extremely high price. His “Ladies with Parasols” design was his most popular design and modern prints of it can still be bought today. The cabriole leg and claw and ball foot often found on furniture designed by Thomas Chippendale in the 18th century is derived from Chinese furniture of the Ming Dynasty.

3. Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Vase and Cover, Circa 1700 Qing Dynasty (1644—1912), Kangxi Period (1662—1722)


For a place to display newly acquired Chinese (or imitation Dutch Delft) porcelain in the late 17th century what better than a Chinese or Japanese Cabinet on stand (often flat-topped for this very purpose) or corner cupboard decorated with scenes of fantastic lakelands in lacquers of many colours.3 Imported into Europe “en-masse” in the holds of East India Company ships they remain popular to this day. Oriental or “Indian Goods” as they were generically called caused Europe to respond with its own imitations made of “varnish” instead of true lacquer. Stalker and Parker’s famous “Treatise on the Art of Japanning” published in London 1688 explains just how to make a version of this strange “lacker”, also supplying patterns and shapes to copy. Indeed, the love of Chinese objects and designs has remained popular in Europe ever since, with particular revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries (the Brighton Pavilion in particular), and early 20th century (Harrods range of Chinoiserie bedroom suites for example).

4. Cupboard, Herman Doomer, Circa 1635—Circa 1645, Oak, ebony veneers, and mother of pearl inlay


In the Netherlands during the early 17th century a new speciality — Ebony Joinery — was introduced into Amsterdam cabinetry.4 Cabinetmakers produced furniture veneered in precious exotic woods such as ebony, entirely covering the carcass (which was often oak). The period circa 1680–1720 saw a steady rise in the fashion for this style of “new” ebony furniture in the Dutch colonies. Colonial examples often use shapes that are decidedly Dutch while the decoration can be more “Indian”. VOC (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) officials moving on to their next post (or returning home) sometimes took along their expensive furniture. As a result, these ebony cabinets (either carved or inlaid with mother-of-pearl floral motifs) also became extremely popular in Batavia (Indonesia). The cabinets themselves were often used to house the owner’s “treasures” such as coins, corals, dried leaves or seeds, shells, miniature portraits, jewels and other curios — many originally traded by the VOC in the first place!

Goods brought back from India in the 18th and 19th centuries (when Britain’s colonial expansion and trade were reaching new heights) also had a major influence on European taste and included textiles, paintings, furniture (for example writing boxes and stands — from Vizagapatam) and metalwork (such as Bidriware, using zinc and silver from Bidar).

India became the largest exporter of textiles the world had ever known. India had over centuries developed unusual and advanced dyeing techniques using beautiful designs inspired by nature. Natural dyes helped enhance the liveliness of designs such as trees or flowers as appeared on many a European chintz palampore (bed cover). Many Indian words still in English usage reflect this period of massive trade in textiles — for example, pyjama, calico, dungarees, gingham, khaki, sash, and shawl. 'Chintz' is now a general term meaning a cotton or linen furnishing fabric of floral pattern stained with fast colours and made anywhere, but originally the word related specifically only to colour-fast, light, cotton fabrics made in India for the English market.

Paintings produced by Indian artists using European techniques, materials, palette and perspective are known collectively as “Company” paintings. They are characterized in medium with the use of watercolours (instead of gouache), and in technique by the appearance of linear perspective and shading. Aesthetically, they are the descendants of the picturesque scenes of India created by the likes of Thomas and William Daniell. Artists began to cater for their popularity by creating sets depicting traditional subjects. Such sets might depict a range of monuments, festivals, castes, occupations, or costumes of the subcontinent. The use of flora and fauna added to their exotic feel.

Trading Companies from the 1600s onwards had a considerable effect on style and taste in Europe, and later too in the United States of America. European “East India companies” brought new objects, furniture, painted views and foods stuffs from the wider world into the rooms of the wealthier classes — as few had travelled or had chance to travel. Europe’s’ insatiable curiosity for new places, new peoples, new flora and fauna, and new materials all had a huge effect on European taste and fashion — and still do.