Ascending in the Chinese manner

The chinoiserie staircase in the Pin Mill at Bodnant. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

This image of the chinoiserie staircase in a garden pavilion at Bodnant in Conwy throws up all sorts of questions. Why install a Chinese-style staircase? Who installed it at Bodnant and when? What does ‘China’ mean in the context of an Edwardian-style Welsh garden?

The present garden at Bodnant was created by Henry Davis Pochin and his descendants, the McLaren family, Lords Aberconway. Pochin was a Victorian industrial chemist who made his fortune by clarifying rosin, a component of soap, and by producing alum cake, then used in the manufacture of paper. He purchased the Bodant estate in 1874.

The Pin Mill at the end of the Canal Terrace. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Pochin’s daughter Laura married Charles McLaren, a barrister and politician who was created Lord Aberconway in 1911. She was a keen gardener and passed her passion on to her son Henry, the 2nd Lord Aberconway. 

During the time of the 2nd Lord Aberconway the garden was enlarged, a series of terraces was created and numerous plants were added, either through exchange with fellow garden owners or by subscription to plant-hunting expeditions.

Detail of the chinoiserie staircase at the Pin Mill. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

In the late 1930s Lord Aberconway bought a derelict garden pavilion from the Woodchester Park estate in Gloucestershire and had it dismanled and re-erected as a focal point on one of the terraces at Bondnant. The pavilion was originally built in about 1740 but had latterly been used as a pin factory and a tannery. For that reason it is still has the slightly incongruous (but no doubt consciously chosen) name of Pin Mill.

Originally there had simply been a ladder to get to the top storey, but Lord Aberconway commissioned the architect J.Murray Easton to design a chinoiserie staircase for it. It was made in the joinery shop of the shipbuilders John Brown of Clydebank, of which Aberconway was chairman.

Statue of a sphinx on the edge of the canal near the Pin Mill. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

It is revealing that the chinoiserie style was thought to be sympathetic to a Palladian pavilion – presumably Aberconway and Murray were aware that the Chinese style was popular in England in the middle of the eighteenth century and was often used in conjunction with the Palladian style.

A chinoiserie staircase of about 1740 survives at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, possibly designed by Henry Flitcroft for John, 2nd Duke of Montagu. Also, as part of the East India Company at Home project, Rachael Barnwell is currently researching a group of town houses on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, which feature similar eighteenth-century ‘Chinese’ staircases. As Bodnant is relatively close to Anglesey, one wonders whether Lord Aberconway was aware of those local precedents.

View from the Lily Terrace to the Pin Mill and the wider landscape beyond. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The Pin Mill is also an interesting example of the activities of wealthy connoisseurs in the Edwardian and inter-war years, who would purchase and reassemble historic furnishings and even whole buildings according to their taste. This was often done with great sensitivity, but also with a freedom that seems surprising nowadays. Henry Francis Dupont’s Winterthur, in Wilmington, Delaware, is probably the prime example of this kind of idealised historic country house and garden.

So the Chinese staircase at Bodnant is not what it seems, but is all the more fascinating for it.

12 Responses to “Ascending in the Chinese manner”

  1. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    Yes, what a curious design choice. Considering the open though protected location, I might have thought about iron instead of fitted wood. But the fretwork pattern is very attractive.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, but iron might have been considered too ‘industrial’ or ‘Victorian’ for such an eighteenth-century pavilion.

    Aberconway and Murray also carried out other restorations and ‘improvements’ to the Pin Mill, such as bringing back the original ogee profile of the tower roof (which had been straightened subsequently for ease of maintenance) and adding the pairs of arches to the wings, so visual harmony and stylistic appropriatenes were clearly considered more important than the practicalities of maintenance :)

    That aesthetic perfectionism also makes me think that there must have been a sense of irony in the name given to the pavilion, a self-conscious but detached reference to the industrial episode in its history – a bit like the Gilded Age mansions in Newport, Rhode Island being called ‘cottages’ and being given names like ‘Rough Point’ :)

  3. style court Says:

    We tend to think of the age we live in now as the era of irony — the fashion for wearing certain things ironically or listening to some kinds of music ironically, etc. — but the Pin Mill name does seem to suggest a past generation’s flair for the ironic. Or it could be the preference for calling things by the most basic name possible (cottage or house vs. estate or mansion). You know, the idea that anything too formal smacks of trying too hard and so on.

    Anyway, the staircase is fantastic and yet another wonderful example of chinoiserie in Britain.

  4. downeastdilettante Says:

    The Pin Mill is one of my favorite buildings, any time, any place. It hits all the right notes—and elements of fantasy.

    Natually, I can’t find them now, but somewhere I have two photographs I tucked aside—an 18th century staircase that seems the clear inspiration for this one—-and a staircase by American architect David Adler that also seems to reference this one. I’ll send on if they appear.

  5. Rosemary Says:

    It would be lovely if that little Pin Mill was still in my location. However, I realise that it would probably have been knocked down if it had not been removed to Bodnant.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes and of course there is delicious irony (from our perspective) in the attempt not to be seen to be trying too hard while moving a lage pavilion brick by brick from Gloucestershire to Conwy :)

    Dilettante, how interesting, do let me know when you find that reference. And fascinating that David Adler used chinoiserie staircases too – it all seems to be part of the revivial of chinoiserie during the first half of the twentieth century as part of smart plutocratic decor, as also seen in the use by Syrie Maugham of Chinese wallpaper and furniture – used selectively, but noteable nonetheless.

    Rosemary, yes indeed, and perhaps a facsimile of the Pin Mill might one day be re-erected at Woodchester Park.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    By the way, the lively Chinoiserie Chic blog (http://chinoiseriechic.blogspot.co.uk/) has some interesting examples of chinoiserie staircases – search for ‘staircase’. I love the glitzy brass one :)

  8. robert Says:

    I wish I had photographs of my grandparent’s house in japan in the late 1940s. My grandfather was involved in the postwar government of Gen. Macarthur and this house had been confiscated by the Japanese government from German Jewish business people who thought they would be safe leaving Germany for Japan. Sadly they were in error though they survived the war as I understand it.
    The exterior was a duplicate of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and the living room possessed Moorish spiral columns with floors that mimicked jade. My grandmother’s description of the staircase was very much reminiscent of the one posted here, except that their own was lacquered and in red. She said she was always a bit wary about walking downstairs because of the slick lacquer finish on the steps.
    I’m aware that this combination might sound a bit garish but in my youth I was an intern and later a designer with the late Tony Duquette, and Tony was in raptures over this description of the house.
    I hope the house is extant. It was in a then suburb of Yokohama. My grandparent’s later moved to Kyoto though spent much time in Nara and over in Shanghai at the close of the Chinese Civil War. I hope the original family had an opportunity to reclaim their home as well.
    I don’t suppose anyone among your followers may be aware of this building?
    Your posts are always wonderful Emile. Thank you – Robert

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, that sounds like an amazing house – Monticello with Moorish with East Asian. And perhaps created at around the same time as the Pin Mill, and with a similar sense of stylistic freedom. And thank you for your kind words.

  10. Andrew Says:

    As understand it, the US consulate in Yokahama was constructed in 1932 as a replica of the White House – picture here: http://aboutusa.japan.usembassy.gov/e/jusa-usj-embassy.html – but that was in central Yokohama and I fear it has been demolished. In any event, it does not seem to be the place mentioned by Robert.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Andrew, very interesting. Also interesting to read that the very first consulates in the 1850s were based in temples – perhaps seens as suitably politically neutral sites.

    There was a great boom of building in western styles in Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly in Tokyo, but many were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake and ensuing fire of 1923.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Just to add that Rachael Barnwell has published a post about her chinoiserie staircases project (http://bit.ly/N3DEoo) – she will be adding updates as her research progresses.

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