The Chinese House at Stowe in Buckinghamshire is an amazing survival from the first generation of English chinoiserie garden pavilions. It was erected in the garden at Stowe in or just before 1738, placed on stilts in a little pond, by Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (a portrait bust of whom was previously shown in this post).
Around 1751 it was moved to another family estate, Wotton House, also in Buckinghamshire, where it remained for almost two hundred years. The Wotton estate was sold in 1929, and in 1957 the pavilion was shipped to Ireland.
After the Stowe landscape gardens had been taken on by the National Trust its architectural historian, Gervase Jackson-Stops, orchestrated an appeal to return the Chinese House to its original home. It was bought in 1993 and following extensive conservation work it was finally reinstated at Stowe in 1998.
The garden at Stowe is full of monuments and temples reflecting the political and philosophical ideals of Lord Cobham and his heirs. The Temple of British Worthies celebrates Cobham’s heroes, such as Alfred, king of the Saxons, King William III and the philosopher John Locke.
The Chinese House would originally have sat just to the east of the Temple of British Worthies, and it would probably have had a similar political resonance. China was seen as the epitome of a well-organised state with a stable government, something the opposition Whigs were keen to achieve in Britain.
Just beyond this spot stood the Gothic Temple. The Gothic style also had a political meaning, as it was associated with the supposedly freedom-loving and democratically-minded Saxons. The area around it was deliberately left somewhat unkempt, to show how spontaneous and natural the Saxons’ conception of liberty was.
The Chinese House sat in between these two monuments, as if to indicate that these ideals were being shared by the exotic and distinguished Chinese. Cobham’s political ally, Frederick, Prince of Wales, built a similar pavilion at Kew, called the House of Confucius. The ancient Chinese pilosopher Confucius was given iconic status as a socio-political sage on a par with English luminaries such as King Alfred and Locke.