The February 2012 issue of ABC Bulletin has just come out, with news about the historic houses and gardens of the National Trust. I wrote a short article for this issue on the hitherto hidden meaning of the garden pavilion at Stowe known as the Chinese House.
The painted decoration on the Chinese house dates from the 1820s and includes a series of vertical trompe l’oeil plaques with Chinese characters. Because these were difficult to read it had always been assumed that they were ‘faux‘ characters, made up by the Regency designer or painter as a playful, purely decorative imitation of Chinese writing.
A little while ago I discovered that the characters were derived from an illustration in William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, published in 1757.
More recently one of my former tutors at university, Dr B.J. Mansvelt Beck, who is an expert in classical Chinese, spotted that the Chambers illustration incuded two quotes from the Zhuangzi, a collection of ancient philosophical writings that would become one of the classics of Daoism.
The chapter of the Zhuangzi to which these fragments refer is about man’s insignificance when compared to the hugeness of the universe and the limitlessness of time. So this frivolous-seeming little garden pavilion has a rather weighty subtext, albeit one that the original designer didn’t foresee – and that fact gives the whole thing a suitably paradoxical, Daoist twist.