Shugborough’s heterogeneous landscape

July 26, 2012

Copy of the Arch of Hadrian at Athens, 1761-1764, at Shugborough, based on an illustration in James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s ‘The Antiquities of Athens (1762). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

These recent images of Shugborough illustrate the surprising diversity in a mid-eighteenth-century British landscape garden. The Chinese style coexisted with the Greek and finished buildings were juxtaposed with deliberately contrived ruins.

The Chinese House at Shugborough, 1747. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Cattle roamed among the monuments to balance culture and learning with some refreshing rusticity.

The Tower of the Winds at Shugborough, completed about 1765, a copy of the Horlogium of Andronikos Cyrrhestes illustrated in Stuart’s ‘Antiquities of Athens’. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Thomas Anson developed the garden and park at Shugborough between the 1740s and the early 1770s.

The Ruins at Shugborough, with the remains of a statue of a Druid. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

He based many of the garden structures on designs by Thomas Wright and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The Chinese House, Chinese boathouse and the Pagoda (the last two no longer extant) may have been influenced by his brother Admiral Lord Anson’s visits to China in 1742 and 1743.

The Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, partly after a design by Thomas Wright and with a relief based on an engraving after Nicolas Poussin’s painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Shugborough represents the ‘rococo’ moment in the English landscape garden, when cows roamed among Classical allusions and a Pagoda could tower over a Druidic ruin.

Cattle on the Shugborough estate. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The historian Dr Stephen McDowall is currently doing research into the development and meaning of the Chinese elements in the house and the garden at Shugborough, which will eventually be published as part of the East India Company at Home project.

The preconditioned eye

July 19, 2012

Eminent individual, c. 1890, from the Bowrac collection featured by Visualising China

Last week I showed a few early twentieth-century photographs from the exciting Visualising China site which were taken or collected by the Chinese Nationalist politician Fu Bingchang. Here, by contrast are a few images taken by or for foreign visitors to China in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Nodding mandarin figure, c.1820, in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

It is remarkable how much continuity they show with the earlier, ‘chinoiserie’ view of China. One gets the sense that westerners went to China expecting to see certain things, or only noticed things that they had been preconditioned to see.

Manchu woman in fine traditional dress, c. 1905, from the Ruxton collection featured by Visualising China

The images include ‘documentary’ shots of Chinese in traditional upper class garb.

Chinese mirror painting showing a lady leaning against a balustrade in a garden setting, mid eighteenth century, at Saltram, Devon. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

They appear to be accurate records of dress and accoutrements, but they are also uncannily reminiscent of the statuettes and pictures of ‘mandarins’ and ‘long Elizas’ which had adorned European interiors for centuries.

Porcelain shop, Xiangtan, 1900-1920, from the Banister collection featured by Visualising China

Westerners also collected photographs of shops, including those selling that iconic Chinese product, porcelain.

Lage Chinese blue and white porcelain lidded vase, Kangxi period (1662-1723), at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

It is interesting that Fu Bingchang’s photograph collection did not include images of such humble commercial sites, which would have been well below his radar as a cultivated man of state.

Huxinting, the Willow Pattern tea house, Shanghai, 1890-1900, from the Book Illustrations collection featured by Visualising China

Fu had himself photographed surrounded by his classical landscape paintings, a traditional signifier of good taste. Western visitors and officials, by contrast, were interested in more quirky and ‘exotic’ scenery.

Glazed earthenware plate decorated with the Willow Pattern, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 1800-1820, in the Victoria & Albert Museum. © V&A Images

It is telling that they associated a landmark tea house in Shanghai with the ‘Willow Pattern’, the Staffordshire pseudo-Chinese decorative pattern – fiction was clearly more poweful than reality.

It is one of the beneficial side-effects of Visualising China that we can now make these comparisons, between different photographic collections, between photographs and other images of China, and between different levels of fiction and reality.

Bed, books, bath and beyond

July 17, 2012

For the seventeenth year in succession the National Trust has joined forces with Apollo magazine to produce the National Trust Historic Houses and Collections Annual.

The 2012 issue can be accessed free through the Apollo website. Hard copies can be purchased through the National Trust online bookshop, priced at £5 plus p&p.

This issue features:

  • Jamie Mulherron on the Elements and Humours tapestries at Hardwick Hall
  • Tessa Wild on the interior decoration at William Morris’s Red House
  • Christopher Rowell on the maker of the state bed at Osterley Park
  • David Adshead on the Egyptian obelisk at Kingston Lacy
  • Mark Purcell on library discoveries at Lacock Abbey
  • Michael Trapp on the origins of a ‘Roman bath’ in London
  • Richard Hewlings on the Long Gallery at Chirk Castle
  • Karen Fielder on Lord Burlington and Coleshill House.

There is also a section on recent acquisitions, some of which the readers of this blog will recognise.

The lost world of Fu Bingchang

July 13, 2012

Min Chin with a camera, Northern Hot Springs, February 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.

Fu Bingchang and Sun Ke, 1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.

Woman sitting in a cane chair, 1910s-1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.

Fu Bingchang with two women, 1930s – early 1940s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.

Fu Bingchang and Wang Chonghui standing in front of a motor car on a country road, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.

Jiang Fangling with round window, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.

Fu Bingchang in the dormitory of the Legislative Yuan, Sichuan, 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.

A slideshow of images from Visualising China with audio commentary is available on the BBC website, and a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the project can be accessed through the BBC iPlayer.

Retouching the floor

July 11, 2012

The new lime mortar grouting between the flagstones in the Great Hall at Knole being painted. ©National Trust

The Knole conservation blog keeps providing fascinating insights into the reality of looking after a large and complex historic house.

The Great Hall at Knole. Both the floor and the carved screen date from the remodelling of the house in 1605-1608. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A recent post included images of the bright new lime mortar grouting of the stone floor in the Great Hall being painted to make it blend in – a wonderful example of the artifice required to preserve the aesthetic balance in a historic interior.

The floor in raking light, showing the difference in wear between the dark and the light flagstones. ©National Trust

As the Knole conservation blog tells us, the Great Hall was part of the original palace built by Archbishop Bourchier in about 1460, but the Purbeck marble floor probably dates from the extensive remodelling of the building by Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, in 1605-1608.

Conservator from Cliveden Conservation working on the survey of the floor. ©National Trust

Over time the black flagstones have been worn away more than the white ones, due to their slightly different physical properties.

Completed map of the condition of the floor before remdial work. Red indicates 70% surface damage, green 10-70% damage, orange 0-10% damage. ©National Trust

Cliveden Conservation recently carried out a survey of the floor in preparation for doing some remedial work.

Conservator from Cliveden Conservation injecting runny mortar into a crack in a flagstone. ©National Trust

The subsequent programme of work included removal of surface dirt, consolidation of flaking areas of stone, injecting of cracks with runny mortar and repointing between the flagstones with lime mortar – and some artful retouching with mortar colour.

Peeling back history

July 6, 2012

Selection of some of the wallpapers found at the Back to Backs. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

An exhibition at Back to Backs, a courtyard of preserved working-class houses in Birmingham literally built back-to-back, shows the layers and layers of wallpaper salvaged from the walls when the houses were restored after being acquired by the National Trust in 2004.

The houses and shops built back to back around a courtyard off Hurst Street and Inge Street, Birmingham. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Collections management trainee Husnara Bibi co-ordinated a project to conserve, catalogue and research the wallpaper fragments, which have now gone on display at Back to Backs.

One of the laminates of wallpaper from the Back to Backs. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

142 different designs were found in 11 different houses. The densest ‘sediment’ consisted of 28 layers, the earliest of which dates from about 1850.

Wallpaper conservator Graeme Storey treating one of the rescued papers. ©National Trust

In some cases we know who lived with particular papers. A series of Victorian floral patterns belonged to a Police Constable, and a set of Arts and Crafts-style papers was found in the house where a brass bedstead caster lived.

One of the preserved sections ©Newman University College/Sarah Bagshaw, Hannah James, Taz Lovejoy

As part of this project, oral history material was collected from people who have worked in wallpaper manufacture and  retail and from decorators, and this is featured on a dedicated blog called Uncovering the Past.

Reconstruction of the original design by James Orton. ©Newman University College/James Orton

Students and staff at Newman University College, Birmingham, have also participated in the project by creating reconstructions of the wallpaper designs and by producing backdrop designs for the exhibition and art photography of the wallpapers and the conservation processes.

Small section of wallpaper. ©Newman University College/Sarah Bagshaw, Hannah James, Taz Lovejoy

The results of their work can be seen on the Splitting the Pattern website.

Reconstruction of the original design by Jenny Woodhouse. ©Newman University College/Jenny Woodhouse

Wallpaper afficionados may also be interested to know of the existence of the Wallpaper History Society, which for the last twenty-five years has been promoting awareness and understanding of wallpapers.

Enchanting commodities

July 3, 2012

Still from Wallpaper 1 by Ed Pien ©Ed Pien

Courtney Barnes has just done a post on Ed Pien’s beautiful and subtly disturbing video works Wallpaper 1 and Wallpaper 2, part of the Sinopticon programme of exhibitions and events in Plymouth exploring responses to China by contemporary artists.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the State Dressing Room at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©National Trust Images/J. Whitaker

Looking at Wallpaper 1 and 2 (which I hadn’t seen yet), it occurred to me that Pien seems to be revisiting the sense of enchantment that eighteenth-century viewers must have experienced when confronted by Chinese wallpapers in their original fresh state, with vivid colours and beautifully detailed foliage and figures.

WESSIELING, National-Dress (installation view at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London). ©WESSIELING

At a talk at Saltram last week, one of the other artists participating in Sinopticon, WESSIELING, described the surprisingly recent origin and continuing transformation of the cheongsam dress. Based on a male style of dress from the Qing period (1644-1911), the cheongsam was adopted by Chinese women in the 1920s and 1930s as a modern, no-nonsense, almost feminist type of apparel.

Stock figures showing different types of Chinese costume, in Sir William Chamber’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils (1757). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

During the subsequent decades of the twentieth century, however, the cheongsam acquired connotations of exoticism and eroticism, especially in the west – think The World of Suzy Wong. It is still a powerful fashion motif today, occasionally revisited by international couturiers. After being banned by the Comunist Party it has now been adopted as a kind of national dress by the new, post-Maoist China.

Detail from High Priestess Cape, by Grayson Perry, rayon embroidered on satin, 2007. ©Grayson Perry

In her talk WESSIELING discussed the process of commodification whereby cultural motifs such as the cheongsam are marketed to western audiences, are changed and rebranded, and are then sometimes re-adopted by the Chinese with a whole new set of signifiers attached.

Detail from Chinese embroidered silk hangings, early eighteenth century, on the state bed at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

It seems to me that many of the works being shown as part of Sinopticon embody the apparently conflicting processes of enchantment and commodification. Grayson Perry, for instance, highlights the connections between elegance and desire, materialism and sexuality. His works are shown in direct juxtaposition with objects from the core collections of both Saltram and the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Still from Sensing Obscurity I by Erika Tan. ©Erika Tan

Erika Tan’s evocative film Sensing Obscurity I, set at Saltram (but shown at the Plymouth College of Art), includes scenes where a group of male Chinese performers carries out various conservation cleaning tasks, as if the house is a Chinese museum explaining that exotic western phenomenon, the British country house. In other scenes the Chinese wallpaper seems to come alive as female performers in traditional Chinese dress are glimpsed in the darkened rooms of the house.

Conservator handling one of the drawers of the Chippendale-attributed secretaire veneered with Chinese lacquer at Osterley Park, west London. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Hugh Grant makes a cameo appearance in Sensing Obscurity I, in the form of a ghostly image of him playing Edward Ferrars in Ang Lee’s 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  Fiction and reality, past and present, east and west, drama and stillness all seem to interact and coalesce.

The last opportunity to see these exhibitions in Plymouth is 7 July.

A retro-gendered room at Saltram

June 29, 2012

The Study at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

When I was at Saltram to give the tour I mentioned in the previous post, I was struck by the delicious contradictions inherent in the Chinese wallpaper in the room called the Study. This room had been decorated in the mid eighteenth century as a bedroom or sitting room for one of the ladies of the house. Chinese wallaper and other ‘chinoiserie’ decorations were at this time increasingly associated with the private, ‘feminine’ spaces.

Portrait of Albert Parker, 3rd Earl of Morley, by Ellis Roberts. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

During the later nineteenth century, however, the 3rd Earl of Morley used the room as his study. Presumably the deccration was by then old fashioned and antiquarian enough to be congenial to a high-minded Victorian patriarch.

Old reference image of the fireplace wall in the Study. ©National Trust Collections

This is a great example of how the associations of certain styles and motifs are never fixed for long, and can turn into their opposites after a generation or two.

Even the original installation of the wallpaper represented a shift in meaning, of course, as entirely unrelated Chinese pictures and sections of wallpaper were slotted together into a kaleidoscopic collage, a realistic and yet surreal mosaic of elegant figures and evocative vistas, an eighteenth-century Pinterest board.

Reflections of China

June 25, 2012

The Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram, with its Chinese wallpaper, mirror paintings and ceramics. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

On Tuesday 26 June I will be taking a group on a tour of Saltram, near Plymouth, looking at the Chinese and Chinese-inspired collections in the house. The tour begins at 6.30 pm, and to book a (free) place you can call 01752 333500. It is part of Sinopticon, a programme of exhibitions and events exploring what chinoiserie means in a contemporary context.

While preparing the tour I noticed the similarities and differences between Saltram, Osterley Park, in west London, and Nostell Priory, in West Yorkshire, all houses with important eighteenth-century chinoiserie decoration.

One of the Chinese mirror paintings, in English Rococo frames and with Chinese porcelain leaping carp figurines on the mantelpiece below, in the Mirror Room at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

Saltram has a great collection of Chinese wallpapers complemented by Chinese mirror paintings, east Asian ceramics and sets of chinoiserie chairs. The Parkers of Saltram were wealthy and fashion-conscious, but they rebuilt and redecorated the house in a piecemeal manner.

Chinese mirror painting inserted into a neo-classical frame designed by Robert Adam, c. 1760, in the Yellow Taffeta Bedchamber at Osterley Park. ©National Trust Collections

The Childs of Osterley, by contrast, were among the super-rich and could really splurge on chinoiserie decoration. The decoration of Osterley included lacquer furniture, Chinese wallpaper, mirror paintings, Indian fabrics, east Asian ceramics, carved ivory objects, live exotic birds in the menagerie, a multi-room and fully furnished chinoiserie pavilion in the garden and a Chinese-style boat on the lake.

Chinoiserie pier glass by Chippendale, with matching japanned commode below, in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The chinoiserie taste of Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, of Nostell was slightly different again, as he concentrated on commissioning several sets of beautiful chinoiserie furniture from Thomas Chippendale, set against the backdrop of Chinese wallpaper. There was a chinoiserie garden pavilion at Nostell too, but it was a relatively small, portable affair.

I find it fascinating how the different ‘ingredients’ of the chinoiserie style were combined in different quantities and configurations at these three houses in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the tour tomorrow I hope to be able to bring out the uniqueness of Saltram by contrasting it with what the other ‘Joneses’ were doing at about the same time.

Chinese visitors

June 22, 2012

Portrait thought to be of Tan Che Qua, by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1770-1. ©The Royal College of Surgeons of England, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

I have just heard that another large group of paintings from the National Trust’s collections in the West Midlands, the North West and Northern Ireland have been added to the nationwide Your Paintings database. They include works by old masters such as Canaletto, Van Dyck, Chardin and Hogarth, as well as modern artists including Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson. More paintings from other National Trust properties will be added by the end of 2012.

Your Paintings is a remarkable database that aims to provide access (eventually) to almost all publicly owned paintings in the UK. On doing a search for ‘Chinese’ I found the above portrait of Tan Che Qua by John Hamilton Mortimer, which is in the Hunterian Museum, London. Simon Chaplin originally alerted us to this picture in a comment on my first post about the contemporary portrait of Huang Ya Dong at Knole, but it is great to now have a decent image of it readily available.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Tan Che Qua arrived in London in 1769 and established himself as a portrait modeller in clay, charging ten guineas for a bust and fifteen for a whole-length statuette. He exhibited work at the Royal Academy in 1770 and he is included in Johann Zoffany’s 1771-2 group portrait of Royal Academicians (third from the left at the back). Tan is thought to have returned to China in 1772, and his accounts of England and the English inspired Huang Ya Dong to make the same journey in 1774.

Another portrayal of a Chinese person in an English eighteenth-century painting that I found on Your Paintings is the group portrait by John Hoppner of Lady Staunton with her son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese servant, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on loan from HSBC.

Portrait of Lady Staunton and her son George Thomas Staunton with a Chinese servant, by John Hoppner, 1794, ©School of Oriental and African Studies, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

As a young boy George Thomas Staunton accompanied his father on Earl Macartney’s diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1792-4. He learned Chinese on the way there and impressed the Qianlong Emperor with his grasp of the language (he can be seen in a sketch by William Alexander of Lord Macartney’s presentation to the Emperor). In view of the date of the picture (1794) it seems to have been painted shortly after the return of father and son Staunton to Britain, possibly bringing the Chinese servant with them.

Later in life Staunton had a career in the East India Company based at Guangzhou, and he was a member of another diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1816. He assembled a library of 3,000 Chinese books and a collection of Chinese works of art and artefacts. He stocked the garden of his country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, with Chinese plants interspersed with chinoiserie pavilions. Staunton may have known James Bateman, the owner of Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire (both were members of the Royal Society at about the same time), and the example of Leigh Park may have influenced the garden at Biddulph, which similarly included Chinese plants and pseudo-Chinese structures and pavilions. Staunton’s own garden has, sadly, disappeared.


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