Oriental Influences on English Taste

John Villiers describes the rich exchange of artistic ideas between Europe and the Far East during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. 

For most Europeans the Far East remained until the nineteenth, and even the twentieth century, a largely imaginary part of the world, and their vision of it seldom bore much resemblance to reality. Since the early Middle Ages, the Far East had been known to Europeans only through the small quantity of luxury goods that penetrated westwards - silks, porcelain, lacquer, ivory and the like - as they had done since the time of Alexander the Great, and through the few and largely untruthful accounts of occasional travellers.

From this scanty and unreliable evidence the medieval European built up a picture of a fabulous continent, ruled over by princes of vast wealth and peopled with all manner of prodigies, especially in ‘Cathay’. The curious thing was that this idealized picture of the East - and especially of China - which was drawn from the decorations of porcelain plates and some fantastic travellers’ tales, survived the shock of contact with the real Orient after Vasco da Gama’s voyage in 1498.

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