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History of the Chinese Folding Screen

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Folding screens are documented as originating in China. The earliest existing Chinese folding screens date back to the 8th Century AD, however they are depicted even earlier, with evidence found in Han Dynasty tombs from as early as 200 BC.

Chinese folding screens were made of wood and generally painted with beautiful scenes of nature, palace life or mythology. Elaborately adorned, they were used as a room divider as well as being an object of desire, displayed in the homes of the wealthy. Overtime they also came to be painted on paper and silk, including painted scenes as well as calligraphy.

The most famous Chinese folding screens are finished in a black lacquer with landscape imagery incised into the wood and date back to the Song Dynasty from 960 AD. Decorated with layers of coloured lacquer and oil paints as well as putty or gesso, a binding mixture, the technique was used to build up the surface and create a shallow relief or sculptured scene. Increasingly popular were mother of pearl inlays.

The 16 Century saw a revival of the lacquered and inlay technique where they started to also use other materials such as tortoise shell, ivory, metal and gold inlays. This more expensive technique was developed for the courts.

By the 17th and 18th Centuries the elaborate screens started to be produced for export. Shipped to European markets via the Coromandel Coast in South East India, they famously became known in the West as ‘Coromandel Screens’. Coromandel screens were also associated with Coco Chanel who was an avid collector.

Folding screens have a history steeped in China and have inspired designs throughout the world over many centuries. Image 1: Eight Drinking Hermits - Momoyama Period 1602 Ink on paper - 6 panel screen Kaiho Yusho - Kyoto National Musuem Image 2: Folding Screen with Figures in a Landscape - 19th Century Carved from Soapstone and glued on silk The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image 3: Chinese Coromandel Screen - Mid 19th Century / circa 1850 Lacquer on Wood with Inlays

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