Mary II and Asian luxury goods

By Amy Lim

For a few short years in the 1690s, Mary II’s Water Gallery at Hampton Court was the most sophisticated and influential interior in England. Created from a Tudor water gate on the banks of the river Thames, the queen used it as a retreat from the dust and noise of Sir Christopher Wren’s building works on the main palace.

Here, she could indulge her passion for interiors, filling the rooms with flowers, mirrors, rich textiles, and sumptuous furniture.  The most striking space was the porcelain-themed Long Gallery, where the queen’s collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain vases, plates, cups, and bottles was displayed on mantelpieces and wall brackets. The picture frames and furniture were painted blue and white, and upholstered in sky blue satin and damask with blue silk fringing. When Daniel Defoe visited the Water Gallery, he marvelled at the queen’s ‘vast Stock of fine China Ware, the like whereof was not then to be seen in England’.[i] Yet incredibly, Mary displayed even more porcelain in her apartments at Kensington House, where a total of 918 pieces were stacked on mantelpieces, door lintels, shelves, brackets, and specially-carved wooden pedestals.[ii] 

Design for a porcelain room from Daniel Marot, Oeuvres (The Hague, 1703).

Mary’s interior design choices were not without political significance. The luxury goods with which she surrounded herself helped to construct her royal image. This was especially important as Mary occupied an unusual and rather precarious place on the throne. In 1677, the teenage Princess Mary had married her Dutch cousin William, Prince of Orange, and the couple had spent eleven happy years in the Netherlands. However, by 1688, Mary’s father James II had alienated large sections of English society through his open Catholicism and excessive use of royal prerogative. A group of noblemen and high clergy invited William to intervene and, in the Glorious Revolution, James II was forced to abdicate.[iii] William and Mary accepted the throne as co-monarchs, although in practice it was William who wielded executive power. This arrangement was generally agreed by the specially-assembled parliamentary convention to be the most acceptable option but William was never popular, even among those who supported him politically. Consequently, the couple’s position on their thrones was continually contested. Mary, however, was virtuous, sociable, and held a more direct claim to the throne than her husband, which endeared her to courtiers and the common people alike.  In the five short years between her accession in 1689 and her tragic early death from smallpox in December 1694, Mary’s actions were crucial in stabilising the new Stuart-Orange monarchy.[iv]    

The queen used East Asian luxury goods extensively in her palace interiors not only because she appreciated these beautiful objects, but because they helped to create an image of Anglo-Dutch queenship. Paradoxically, Chinese and Japanese porcelain and lacquer were closely associated with the Dutch Republic. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) dominated European trade with Asia. Imported goods that had been scarce luxuries became available on the Dutch market in large quantities; it is estimated that at the end of the century, Dutch merchants traded a million pieces of porcelain with China.[v] Porcelain had long been prized among the European elite for its rarity as well as its beauty, but now the fashion moved from quality to quantity.  Porcelain wares were displayed in their hundreds, with the decorative effects created through symmetry, pattern and colour.  By showing off these coveted goods in such abundance, the Dutch demonstrated their nation’s mercantile power. 

Painted fan leaf with the interior of a Chinese shop, Dutch, 1680-1700. V & A Museum, London.

The fashion for massed displays of porcelain and lacquer was spearheaded by the women of the Dutch ruling House of Orange-Nassau, into which Mary had married. Her husband’s grandmother, Amalia van Solms-Braunfel, created the first porcelain and lacquer rooms in her palaces at Noordeinde and Huis ten Bosch in the 1630s and 1640s.[vi] These ‘porcelain cabinets’ were imitated by Amalia’s four daughters, each of whom married German princes and created similar porcelain and lacquer rooms in their new marital homes. Mary absorbed this taste for oriental display during her eleven formative years in the Dutch Republic. When she became Queen in 1689, she took her taste for porcelain and lacquer across the Channel with her, as well as the extensive porcelain collection she had amassed. The abundant display of Asian imports in her English palaces was not simply a decorative choice but highlighted the cultural and economic power of the House of Orange-Nassau. That power was now allied with the Stuart dynasty on the English and Scottish thrones. 

Amalia van Solms Braunfel by Anthony van Dyck, 1629. Wikimedia Commons.
Display from the porcelain room at Schloss Oranienburg, Germany. Image: Thomas Quine, Creative Commons 2.0.  

Mary’s personal popularity and sophisticated tastes meant that her interiors were imitated by the elite, which in turn influenced the homes of people lower down the social scale. While only the wealthiest could afford a lacquer-panelled closet (the first duke of Devonshire had one at Chatsworth), many more people could afford to buy porcelain. From the 1690s, the English East India Company began to compete more fiercely with the VOC, and porcelain was increasingly available through London retailers. The relatively low price of individual pieces meant that the fashion percolated even into gentry families. By 1734, Daniel Defoe bemoaned the growing, and in his view excessive, consumption of Asian textiles and porcelain, which he attributed directly to Mary II’s introduction of such tastes to England.[vii] Defoe was driven by a protectionist agenda and a fear that luxury imports were draining England of bullion.

Lacquer-panelled room from the apartment of Princess Albertine Agnes of Orange-Nassau, consort of the stadholder of Friesland, Leeuwarden (before 1695). Rijksmuseum.

Whether or not his concerns were justified, the increasing consumption of Asian luxury goods, as well as commodities such as tea (served in porcelain) was inextricably linked to a trade, finance, and foreign policy that over the course of the eighteenth century would fuel exploitative colonial expansion. Mary II’s oriental interiors successfully created an image of Anglo-Dutch monarchy, but she is unlikely to have anticipated their longer-term contribution to the global political and economic landscape. 

Further Reading

Berg, Maxine. ‘Asian Luxuries and the Making of the European Consumer Revolution’. In Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 228-44.

Bischoff, Cordula. ‘Women Collectors and the Rise of the Porcelain Cabinet’. In Chinese and Japanese porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age, edited by Jan van Campen  and Titus Eliëens. Waanders, 2014. 171-89.

Farguson, Julie. Visualising Protestant Monarchy: Ceremony, Art and Politics after the Glorious Revolution (1689-1714). Boydell, 2021.

Thurley, Simon. Hampton Court: a Social and Architectural History. Yale University Press, 2003.

Watanabe-O’Kelly, Helen and Andrew Morton (eds.), Queens consort, cultural transfer and European politics c. 1500-1800. Routledge, 2017.

Cover Image: Mary II (1662-94) when Princess of Orange by Willem Wissing, c.1686-87, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022 RCIN 405643

For more on Amy’s work, follow her on Twitter: @amyplusthree

[i] Defoe, Daniel. A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, III. London, 1727. 7.

[ii] The 1693 inventory is transcribed by Joanna Marschner in Kensington Palace and the Porcelain of Queen Mary II, edited by Mark Hinton and Oliver Impey. Christie’s, 1998. 85-99. 

[iii] William came to England with a military force, and historians continue to debate whether or not this constituted an invasion, and the extent of popular support for the Revolution. For a summary of the debates, see Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720.  Allen Lane, 2006. 309

[iv] Julie Farguson. Visualising Protestant Monarchy: Ceremony, Art and Politics after the Glorious Revolution (1689-1714). Boydell, 2021. 99.

[v] Maxine Berg. ‘Asian Luxuries and the Making of the European Consumer Revolution’. In Luxury in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 234.

[vi] Cordula Bischoff. ‘Women Collectors and the Rise of the Porcelain Cabinet’. In Chinese and Japanese porcelain for the Dutch Golden Age, edited by Jan van Campen  and Titus Eliëens. Waanders, 2014. 173.

[vii] Daniel Defoe. Curious and diverting journies, Thro’ the whole Island of Great-Britain. London, 1734. 101. 

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