Once the Japanese bridge had been built and installed the making of the custom oriental style finials to fit on each bridge post could begin. The post trim on decorative garden bridges (if any) are usually round wooden finials from a local hardware store. These are great for a Victorian staircase bannister but are not an exciting option for a Japanese bridge. With this in mind we decided to design our own oriental style finials that would enhance the Japanese flavour of the bridge.
A common finial shape on Japanese bridges is an onion-like sphere mounted on round bridge posts. Our bridge had square posts so the onion shape was combined with traditional Japanese roof design so it would fit to the posts. The final result compliments the Japanese style of the rest of the bridge. To keep costs to a minimum it was decided to cast the finials in plaster. Hessian was used around the edges where it was thinner to add reinforcement to the plaster. Several “drop tests” were made which proved the plaster cast to be very robust and suitable for dressing the bridge. The finials were sealed with shellac and finished in gold enamel paint. The bright gold dulled over a period of weeks to leave a nice metallic bronze finish on the finials.
The completed oriental style finials will now be fitted to the posts of the Japanese bridge.
Oriental style finial ready for making its latex mould
Completed latex mould of the finial ready for casting
The completed finial mould ready for casting
Completed plaster casts of the finials ready for sanding
The Chinese have been making Cloisonne enamelware since the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The name comes from the French “cloison” meaning “partition” or “dividing band”. A pattern is made from wire or thin copper strips which is attached to a metal base. The resulting partitions, or cloisons, are filled with enamel and then fired in a kiln. This process is repeated until the cloisons are filled and then the surface is polished smooth. The object is then plated with gold which stops the exposed metal from tarnishing.
Beijing cloisonne enamelware factory
No trip to Beijing is complete without visiting the Beijing Enamel Factory which is the largest producer of cloisonne enamelware in China. You are taken on a fascinating guided tour of the processes involved in creating cloisonne enamelware. After being educated in the finer points of the process you are led (surprise surprise!) to the vast showroom of cloisonne enamelware which is simply breathtaking. I resisted buying but feasted on the beauty of the merchandise.
Step 1 – Making the pattern Firstly small copper strips are cut and bent into shapes according to the particular design. These strips are then glued to the copper vase with gum. You can see the gum in the closeup photo of part of the design. After the design has been laid out flux is applied and when the vase is heated solder flows around all the joins and fastens the pattern to the vase surface.
Cutting and shaping copper strips
Glueing the copper pattern
Detail of glued copper strips
Step 2 – Applying the pigments Next artists fill each cloison with coloured pigments according the the design. These come in a multitude of colours and shades. The vase on the right is ready for firing with its first application of enamel pigments.
Pattern after soldering
Lots of pigments for the pattern
Vase with first pigment layer
Step 3 – Firing the vase The objects to be fired are placed in a kiln and heated until red hot. The pigments melt and are drawn into the cloisons by capillary action and meld with the metal. The left photo shows the red hot vases when removed from the kiln. When they have cooled (right) the colours of the pigments can be seen.
Glowing red hot just out of the kiln
Colours become apparent as the vase cools
Step 4- Filling the cloisons Steps 2 and 3 are repeated several times until the cloisons have been filled with enamel.
Adding more pigment to the cloisons
Applying pigments finished
Step 5 – Polishing The vase is held firmly in a special lathe and various grades of abrasive blocks are used to smooth the surface. Once the operator is happy with the finish the vase is removed revealing the brilliant finish.
Polishing the vase
Finished vase ready for gilding
The last step, which our guide said we couldn’t see because it was a secret process (duh?), was to gild the vase with gold to stop the exposed copper from tarnishing. Electroplating would be expensive and messy so, knowing that the Chinese are masters of mass production, I would say they use the electroless process of gold plating which simply involves immersing the object to be plated in a chemical (albeit toxic) solution for a few minutes. The gold adds the finishing touch to the completed item.
Bamboo grows extensively throughout China and South East Asia so it is no wonder it has found many uses in everyday life. Scaffolding for buildings is just one example of the many applications of this versatile material. This example in the photo below was found in the Chinese city of Shanghai.
Cultural aspects of bamboo
Bamboo has deep artistic and cultural roots in the Chinese psyche so it is little wonder that it must possess some remarkable qualities. It features prominently in Chinese painting and decoration. Versatile, light, strong and (more importantly) cheap it is still used as building scaffolding in some of the world’s largest cities today.
The bus trip from Mount Huangshan to Hangzhou is a great way to see the Chinese countryside. The one thing that I found curious was the stainless steel spires atop many of the houses we passed by. They consist of two or three stainless steel spheres of different sizes mounted on a spire. Some fancier versions sported rings around the larger sphere like an armillary sphere. They remind me of the space-age Oriental Pearl TV tower in Shanghai.
I asked our guide if they represented anything and he told me they were just decoration for the houses. They are such a striking addition to an already striking house design (to Western eyes!) I am curious if there is some other meaning attached to them rather than just decorative.
The photo above shows a spire on a house which is typical of many of the modern houses that abound in the Chinese countryside.
I recently discovered similar decoration used in Morocco on the minaret towers adjacent mosques. The spires are called jamours. I think it likely this was the inspiration for the decoration and that the owners are Muslim. I would be interested to hear what others think. Better still would be to hear from someone who has one installed on their home.
While walking down the street towards the old town of Xidi I saw many buildings with fine examples of Chinese lattice decoration. The shops in the picture on the right are a nice group. Extensive use of lattice in the windows is immediately evident while the overhead grilles in the two buildings on the right compliment the overall look.
The over zealous addition of lattice decoration can result in a slightly “over the top” commercial look as is well illustrated in the shop shown below. The overhead grilles don’t work well against a flat wall. They need space behind them to work effectively. Generally the whole look is too busy.
Even modern tubular steel construction can benefit from the addition of lattice work. Here is an example of decoration on the otherwise bland cable car entrance walkway atop Mount Huang in Anhui Province in China. Also known as Mount Huangshan (or literally “yellow mountain”) it is known as “the loveliest mountain in China”. Though a little on the simple side (cost restraints?) it still adds interest and a sense of detail to an otherwise utilitarian structure.
Hongcun village is located near the southwest slope of Mount Huangshan, in China. It is famous for its ingenious water system where water runs in ditches to every household and is finally gathered in a small lake in the front of the village. It is also famous for the exquisite carvings on the beams and columns of its houses. Chengzhi Hall is the most representative and is praised as the “Folk Imperial Palace”. Numerous varieties of gilded figures and patterns are carved on the columns, beams and door frames.
The picturesque bridge leading into Hongcun was used in the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
At 900 years old, the township of Zhouzhuang is China’s best preserved water town. It is located 30km southeast of Suzhou in Kunshan city. Dubbed the “Venice of the East” the rivers and streams are spanned by 14 stone bridges constructed in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.
There are many wonderful examples of original Chinese lattice work throughout the picturesque town. The main road leading from the new to the old town has many buildings which have lattice decoration and balustrades.
Here is another example of lattice decoration in Zhouzhuang. It’s unfortunate that the balustrade in this case is made from very Western looking turned wood staircase spindles. It spoils an otherwise charming scene.