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China Trade in New England: A Connecticut Captain's Journey
Foeiqua. Portrait of Abraham Gould Jennings, ca. 1820
Oil on canvas, 27 x 20 ¼ in. Fairfield Historical Society. Photo by Paul Mutino.

GREENWICH, CT.- The exhibition China Trade in New England: A Connecticut Captain’s Journey examines the historical, economic and societal impact of trade between China and New England from 1815 until 1839. Organized by the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, and on view there from October 30, 2004, through March 6, 2005, the exhibition features more than ninety objects related to this period of the China trade – paintings, wallpaper, furniture, lacquer ware, silver, ivory, textiles and porcelain drawn from private and public collections. The show is sponsored by members of the Board of Directors of the Bruce Museum, Stolt-Nielsen Transportation Group, Connecticut Ceramics Study Circle and media sponsor Connecticut Cottages and Gardens.

Inspired by the travels of Connecticut ship captain Abraham Gould Jennings, the exhibition brings to life the experiences of a 19th-century trader to China. Captain Jennings sailed from New York City to Canton between 1816 and 1823, and his travels represent those of numerous seafaring traders, whose industry led to a burgeoning market for Chinese wares and changing trends in American decorative arts. The show opens with an assortment of goods created by Cantonese craftsmen, presents the furnishings of an American ship captain’s cabin, which offer insight into his maritime experiences, and, finally, examines how thoroughly Chinese export furnishings became integrated into New Englanders’ lives.

Trading relations between the United States and China began in March 1785, when the Empress of China sailed into New York harbor with her hold filled with a cargo of tea, Nankeens (cotton), cassia, silk and porcelain. The growth and development of Sino-American trade was then stalled for almost fifteen years by a succession of European conflicts, including the French revolution in 1789, the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy’s impressments of American sailors, and a series of trade embargoes enacted by France, England and the United States. When the War of 1812 finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, peace was declared, and the United States resumed trading with China.

The period following the end of the War of 1812 became known in the United States as the “Era of Good Feeling.” The country was committed to promoting nationalism and allied economic growth, bringing comfort and security to many Americans. The industrial revolution, cheap transportation, and western migration contributed to the establishment of a successful middle class. Thus, the timing of renewed United States-China trade relations was economically fortuitous. The Chinese, whose trade with most of Europe had steadily declined, quickly realized that the United States provided a promising new market for their exotic goods. Previously, only the American gentry along with China trade merchants and their families had been able to special order luxurious and unique specialty items. Now, the emerging middle class could also buy mass-produced versions of these wares.

The exhibition China Trade in New England revisits these times and is designed to take visitors on their own journey through a ship’s hull laden with goods on a return voyage from China. It includes a painting by the Cantonese artist Lamqua which introduces the visitors to Canton and its hongs, or factories.

The exhibition presents the diverse fine and decorative arts available to China traders while providing an overview of the Chinese imperial government and how it handled foreign trade. On view are Chinese-export objects, grouped primarily by medium, that illustrate the history and value of commodities and the workshop environment. A range of representative silver ware, lacquer ware, ivory, mother-of-pearl, and porcelain is also on display. Although the fantasy of individual artists crafting each piece was promoted by the images on the objects exported, the reality is that industrial-style workshops employed armies of low-paid artisans to create the wares. However, these Chinese craftsmen were extremely adept at copying western forms.

The end of the gallery represents the vessel’s stern and the cabin of ship captain Abraham Gould Jennings of Fairfield, Connecticut. The large port of New York provided the captain with an opportunity for economic advancement. Gathered together are his navigational instruments and charts together with Chinese-made objects such as a daybed and men’s clothing plus his portrait by the Chinese artist Foeiqua. All help tell the story of Captain Jennings’s experience while at sea and in port at Canton.

The last room of the exhibition features a period room in a New England home. Shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, mariners from Salem, MA, Providence, RI, New Haven, CT, and other New England ports brought silk, tea, and porcelain along with paintings and decorative arts objects back from China. Lacquer ware, furniture, wallpaper, paintings and bric-a-brac ornamented the China trade merchants’ grand houses.

By the 19th century, these wealthy entrepreneurs set style and taste trends for middle-class New Englanders who decorated their lavishly furnished parlors with Chinese export objects. The parlor setting on display features a rare wallpaper panel and painting with a mannequin dressed in an oriental silk gown beside a lacquer sewing table. The scene demonstrates how pervasive and popular Chinese export wares were in American homes.

An exhibition brochure, written by Bruce Museum co-curator of the show Cynthia Drayton, accompanies the exhibition and examines the market for the vast array of Chinese export wares that were available to upper and middle class consumers.

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