The wandering pavilion

The Chinese House, now returned to Stowe. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

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).

Illustration in Seeley's 1750 guidebook to Stowe

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 Elysian Fields at Stowe, with the Temple of British Worthies. ©NTPL/Jerry Harpur

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.

Bust of the Saxon King Alfred set into the Temple of British Worthies. ©NTPL/Jerry Harpur

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. 

The Gothic Temple, signifying Liberty, in the wilder Hawkwell Field. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

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.

Imaginary portrait of Confucius, illustrating the frontispiece of the book Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, a treatise on Chinese philosophy published in Paris in 1687

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. 

13 Responses to “The wandering pavilion”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Absolutely wonderful posting! Love this wandering pavilion…

  2. Janet Says:

    The Chinese House is amazing on so many fronts. It’s survival alone is a miracle. I hope some day to get to Stowe and see it myself.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, yes it is extraordinary. I am planning more posts on it, with more details about its painted decoration.

    Honeymoon trip for you and the gentleman, perhaps… 🙂

  4. Karena Says:

    Astounding images. The Gothic Temple is as interesting as the Chinese Pavillion!

    Art by Karena

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes Karena, and it is pretty sizeable too: it has been fitted out as a holiday cottage.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barbara, sorry for the delay in featuring your comment, but it somehow got into the spam queue! I am glad you like it.

  7. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    Slightly going off on a tangent, when touring the gardens at Stourhead I learned that Richard Colt-Hoare was said to have removed a Turkish tent from the gardens. Are there any images of it and did it survive dimantled in an outhouse somewhere?

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Visiting, I am not sure about what happened to the Turkish Tent at Stourhead (or indeed any Turkish Tent there, as I cannot immediately spot it in any of the guidebooks), but I will ask one of the colleagues there to enlighten us.

    If it was there, and was removed by Sir Richard Colt Hoare towards the end of the eighteenth century (he generally ‘tidied up’ and classcised what had been a quite diversely ornamented garden, which also for instance included a ‘Chinese Alcove’) then it may simply have decayed or been destroyed.

    I know of a few garden pavilions that did survive in storage: The Chinese Tent at Montagu House, Whitehall, which was taken out annually for the summer and then repaired and put away for the winter, and which still survives at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, the Duke of Buccleugh’s seat; and a chinoiserie pavilion at Nostell Priory, of which the walls survive, covered with canvas painted with fretwork, but not its roof. Both of those were temporary lightweight structures designed to be easily taken down.

    • Chi-ming Yang Says:

      Dear Emile,
      I came across the Montagu Chinese Tent recently as part of my umbrella/chinoiserie research. Do you know if the tent is, indeed, collapsible as I’ve seen it described? And was this type of collapsible design common for the time? I’ve seen this tent dated as early as 1745 and as late as “late C18.” Thanks much! Chi-ming

      • Emile de Bruijn Says:

        Chi-ming, I will check my files at home about whether the the Montagu House Chinese Tent is actually collapsible. Its lightweight, oilcloth on wood structure and the fact that it was moved on an annual basis would seem to suggest that, but I will double-check. The similar octagonal Nostell Priory pavilion, which I have seen in store, is certainly collapsible.

        The 1745 date is based on payments recorded in the accounts for Montagu House, Whitehall: of £73 18s 6d to Samuel Smith, tentmaker, ‘for an Indian House in full’, on 29 November 1745, and of £25 8s to Oliver Hill for ‘painting an Indian House in full.’ I will again check the exact citation for these references.

        The Chinese Tent/Indian House is also recorded in paintings of Montagu House by Canaletto, Joli and S. and N. Buck. In the 1747 Canaletto of the view of London from Richmond House (, for instance, you can see the Chinese Tent just peeping round the corner of neighbouring Montagu House on the left, with – a nice Canaletto picturesque touch – a servant sweeping the terrace on which it stands.

        The painted decoration on it is probably later overpainting or redecoration, in view of the fact that the pavilion lived outside for much of the time, but I will check if there are any more details available about that – the dragons look vaguely ‘Regency’ to me.

        I have recently read and was fascinated by your book ‘Performing China’, by the way 🙂

  9. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    Thank you. That is ever so interesting.

  10. Andrew Says:

    Here is a picture of Chinese tent in the grounds of Boughton House in c.1971 –

    Looks pretty collapsible (or at least de-constructable) to me.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    And doesn’t it look splendid! I also like those rather Victorian-looking buttoned-leather benches inside. One can just imagine various figures out of a Tissot painting striking poses inside and around the pavilion 🙂 Thanks Andrew.

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