Dr. Robert Blyth, senior curator of world and maritime history at the National Maritime Museum in London, shares about a late 18th-century miniature Chinese garden:

The Chinese miniature garden shows the “Three Friends of Winter”: a plum tree in coral, a pine tree in wood and ivory, and a bamboo in tinted ivory. All three endure the cold weather and together symbolize perseverance, integrity, and longevity. (National Maritime Museum, London)

If you looked around country houses in Britain, it’s entirely likely that you would find examples of this sort of scene: a sort of imagined topographical scene that’s been made out of natural materials.

You could imagine the sort of outline design appearing on a textile hanging or printed wallpaper, but here you have it in 3D form, so you can essentially walk around your Chinese painting, as it were.

Europeans at that time were particularly interested in all things Asian, Chinese in particular. This is the high point of chinoiserie, and here’s a sort of idealized form of a Chinese garden, a kind of ritual spiritual rendering of the garden.

It’s been made out of various natural materials. There are hard stones and coral, and then some pieces of ivory that have been individually splinted to make the individual needles of the pine tree and the fronds of the bamboo. So the level of skill is quite extraordinary.

The Garden’s English Home Exchange

The owner would have had a direct connection to China. It could’ve been an East India Company captain.

Captains in the East India Company had a section of the ship’s hold that they were allowed to use for their private trade. So they could export European materials and take back items that they wanted either for themselves or to sell. It’s possible that this belonged to, or was traded by, a captain as a sort of sideline to the regular trade.

Alternatively, of course, it could be one of a number of high-end gifts of exchange. At this time, various Western embassies were being sent to China, principally to negotiate the opening up of the Chinese market for Western goods. As part of the negotiating process, Europeans would often send out high-end clocks and clockwork devices that might have a moving puppet or some other moving element.

There was a sort of Western notion that this type of clockwork object represented the high point of European mechanical craftsmanship, and that would surely impress the Chinese.

On the whole, it seems the Chinese were little impressed with a lot of the objects that were sent out by Europeans.

We know, for example, from the Macartney Embassy, which was a very big British embassy that went out in the 1790s, that a significant number of gifts were given, and that Emperor Qianlong essentially declared that he didn’t really care for any of the items.

And then, of course, gifts were received in exchange. So this may have been a gift of exchange from the Chinese to whichever European embassy or official they were talking to, and it came back to Europe that way.

There is a third possibility, of course, assuming it wasn’t just made automatically for export. It might have arrived as a result of some form of British military action in China during the Opium Wars, and it could have been taken as a sort of war trophy.

Showcasing China

The miniature garden is doing two things: It’s demonstrating the range of materials in China, the access to corals and certain precious materials or stones that could be polished. And then, of course, it was signaling the skills of the craftsman in being able to work with these materials to produce something that was fairly naturalistic.

In China, the garden had a different significance. The materials are imbued with qualities that relate to longevity and good luck, and things like that. The values and significance it would’ve had in China probably didn’t translate over to Europe.

I think in Europe these things were looked at as being almost idealized forms of China. It may well be that someone was told what it represented, but I think over time it’s just become a sort of curiosity here that was valued for its aesthetic and craft quality.

It would almost certainly have been a talking point, so it could’ve been a focus in a drawing room. It may alternatively have been what’s called a cabinet piece. It wouldn’t have been on immediate public display, but the gentleman would have opened his cabinet of curiosities at a moment’s notice to show his fellow guests.

Essentially, it remains something of a slight mystery to us here. There’s no doubt it would’ve been an expensive object. And you do have to wonder how on earth it would’ve been packed to get here. The garden would’ve had to have traveled from wherever it was made in China, to the coast, and then be loaded into a British East India Company ship, which then traveled back via southern Africa. The museum today would have to think very long and hard about how to transport it over a similar distance, let alone putting it into a sailing ship.

Visit the Miniature Chinese Garden at the National Maritime Museum in London.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.