The Paradises thumbnail 1
The Paradises thumbnail 2
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at Young V&A
Imagine Gallery, Adventure, Case 6

The Paradises

1790-1800 (made)
Place of origin

A carved model of a mountain scene. The model is a collage of various materials: wood (probably sandalwood), ivory, mother-of-pearl, and metals, probably copper, painted over in colour. The model is set on a wooden stand with inlaid ivory carving. The scene includes buildings, flora, fauna and human activity. One of the most distinctive features is a mother-of-pearl ‘river’ with three boats.

Object details

Object type
TitleThe Paradises (popular title)
Materials and techniques
Wood (probably sandalwood), ivory, copper and mother of pearl, painted
Brief description
A model scene carved from wood, ivory and mother of pearl, set on a wooden stand, made in Canton, China, about 1790-1800
Physical description
A carved model of a mountain scene. The model is a collage of various materials: wood (probably sandalwood), ivory, mother-of-pearl, and metals, probably copper, painted over in colour. The model is set on a wooden stand with inlaid ivory carving. The scene includes buildings, flora, fauna and human activity. One of the most distinctive features is a mother-of-pearl ‘river’ with three boats.
  • Height: 880mm
  • Width: 830mm
  • Depth: 705mm
  • Weight: 98kg (Note: Crated object weight)
  • Weight: 68kg (Note: Object estimate weight - estimated weight of the object alone assuming the crate weighs 30kg.)
Production typeUnique
Object history
The Paradises are a set of three, large, carved Chinese models. They are thought to be a triptych due to the shape of the mountain scene; 9346(IS) is tallest on the left side. No primary record for the commissioning, gifting, or acquisition of the models by the East India Company has been discovered. There is an unsubstantiated story that they were originally meant as a gift to the Empress Josephine from the Emperor Chia Ch’ing, or Jiaqing, but were instead captured en route to Europe by a British warship from the French.

The likelihood is that there is little truth in the tale, as such direct gift-giving was very rare between the Chinese Emperor and outside powers. As the only port open to foreign trade, Canton was a limbo zone under the watchful eye of the Chinese Co-Hong, thirteen Chinese merchants who were responsible to the Emperor. The Emperor in Beijing communicated with Canton through messengers between the cities. Canton was famous for its ivory carving, and it is known that Canton carvers were summoned to court to work in the Imperial Workshop. However, the assumption of Imperial provenance in such objects is more likely a romantic Orientalisation attributed to them later.

On closer inspection of the quality of carving, treatment of materials, and subject of the carving, it is much more likely that the models were commissioned by a wealthy East India Company merchant. The quality of carving (i.e. the intricacies, shapes used, and the amount of negative space) in The Paradises, even in comparison to other souvenirs, is less refined. This is further supported by the painting over of precious materials, where in many cases the ivory is left bare to highlight the whiteness of the material.

The Paradises first record in Britain is in the India Library Daybook of January 1810, described as ‘Received in last December…three carved landscapes from China intended as a present to the Chief Consul of the French Republic or rather to the Empress Josephine the whole of which have lain in the baggage warehouse several months.’ This is the only document that states their provenance, and so far any file from the East India Company attached to the models have not been found. They were then displayed in the India Museum and Library on Leadenhall Street, recorded in a print in Charles Knight’s London of 1843 as amongst the books in the library, next to Tipu’s Tiger (see mus. no. 2545(IS)). It is very likely that it was in this time that the story of the models' capture first appeared, the legend further supported by their public display in an place of learning. However, the India Museum was known to be a destination for spectacles, and displayed these objects in an attempt to domesticate the ‘other’.

The India Museum dissolved in 1879, and their collection was largely divided between the British Museum, The South Kensington Museum, Kew Gardens and other museums across Britain. It appears from a minute paper from the India Office Statistics and Commerce records for 1881 that The Paradises ‘were found by the special assistant at the stores when the transfer of the India collections to South Kensington was commenced last year, without labels or directions of any kind on them, and so clotted with filth that it was impossible to tell their value.’ This document does not repeat the Empress Josephine story. However, it does value them at this point as no less than £3000, which deemed them a place on display in the South Kensington Museum. The Paradises were moved the Eastern Galleries, which contained the Indian Section and the Saracenic, Persian, Chinese and Japanese Section.

The Paradises were moved from the India Section to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1930. It is not clear whether they were moved because there was not enough room or interest in the main museum, or because there was an intentional purpose for The Paradises in The Bethnal Green Museum. When in 1970 the Far Eastern Department was formed and many Chinese objects were finally transferred to the same department, The Paradises stayed at Bethnal Green. This was partially because they were not greatly important to the Far Eastern Department, but also they had become exceedingly popular at Bethnal Green Museum.

The Bethnal Green Museum was reformatted as the Museum of Childhood in 1974, and The Paradises remained there, displayed in the 1980s as part of a case of ‘Ethnic Toys and Dolls’. In 1984, after being chosen by the British Museum to be part of an exhibition as an example of Qing carving, the model of a Daoist Temple (9347(IS)) was transferred to the Far Eastern department after the exhibition, where it was displayed alone in the V&A’s gallery of Chinese export porcelain. This model was then placed on long-term loan to Sunderland Museum in 2014.
Probably made in Canton and thought to be a gift to Josephine, wife of Napoleon, from Chia Ch'ing, Emperor of China (1796-1820).
Subjects depicted
Associated objects
Bibliographic references
  • Vivien Chan, ‘The Paradises: Agents of Storytelling’, V&A/RCA History of Design First Term Essay, (Unpublished paper, V&A/RCA MA History of Design, 2016)
  • Ray Desmond, and Great Britain: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The India Museum, 1801-79 (London: Stationery Office Books, 1982)
  • Kate Hay, ‘Empress Josephine’s Chinese Garden’ Apollo Magazine, vol CXXV (1987) pp350-355.
  • Thad Logan, ‘An empire of things: objects in the parlour’ in The Victorian Parlour: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) pp105- 201
  • William Watson, Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing: An Exhibition Organised by the Oriental Ceramic Society Jointly with the British Museum (London: Distributed by Sotheby Publications, 1985)
Accession number

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Record createdAugust 2, 2004
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