The Chinese House: Before and after

Model of the Chinese House, made when its structure was being analysed and treated. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

I have previously related the strangely itinerant life of the Chinese House, as it moved from Stowe to Wotton, then to Ireland, and back again to Stowe. But its painted chinoiserie decoration is also worth a closer look.

The Chinese House when it was still in Ireland, before conservation. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

When the Chinese House returned to Stowe in 1993 it was in need of some attention. The roof could not be saved, but it was faithfully copied by Tankerdale Ltd, who also repaired the rest of the structure. As much of the original woodwork as possible was saved, since it was covered in a fascinating array of painted chinoiserie motifs.

Some of the painted surfaces before conservation. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

Paint expert Catherine Hassall was asked to analyse the paint layers, and she found that the original late 1730s decoration was refreshed at least twice during the eighteenth century. She also found that the next layer up, which was in a relatively good state of preservation, contains chrome yellow, which was introduced in 1818, and Prussian blue, which was generally replaced by French ultramarine after 1828.

The same panel after conservation. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The conservation team decided to focus on preserving and reinstating this 1820s layer. Painting conservators Alan Bush and Jonathan Berry of Bush & Berry Conservation Studio methodically consolidated the paint and restored missing areas. The paint on one side of the pavilion had been almost completely worn away by the prevailing wind and rain in its Irish location, so there Alan and Jonathan created new chinoiserie scenes in the style of the original ones.

Chinese mirror painting, 1750s, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Studying the Chinese House some years later, it seemed to me that the depictions of ladies in landscapes on the exterior must have been inspired by Chinese paintings on glass.  These colourful scenes sit like little frames pictures in the overall decorative scheme, and their composition corresponds to that of Chinese glass paintings. There is a Chinese mirror painting at Saltram that shows a lady poking in the water with a stick; one of the ladies on the Chinese House is doing the same thing, although the setting is somewhat different.

Detail of the exterior of one of the doors of the Chinese House. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The ‘planters’ painted on the doors of the Chinese House seem to be inspired by an illustration in William Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757), where he shows the Chinese equivalent of a bonsai tray. 

Detail of plate X in Chambers's book Designs of Chinese Buildings, 1757. The bonsai tray that seems to have inspired the planters on the Chinese House sits under the table.

The shading lines of the engraving were interpreted as lengths of bamboo by the painter who worked on the Chinese House, a nice example of ‘Chinese whispers’. 

Painted decoration on the interior walls of the Chinese House, below the ceiling. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

On the inside of the pavilion there are some panels beautifully painted in imitation of lacquer in the style of the eighteenth-century designer Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

Chinese deity riding a tiger, on one of the interior walls of the Chinese House. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The interior also has some equisitely painted figures of Chinese deities. The fact that they have been painted on a neutral background makes me think that they have been copied from the painted glass panels of Chinese lanterns. These were being imported in the Regency period, and a number of them survive at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

The interior of the Chinese House. The fretwork windows had to be replaced during the conservation treatment, but the other surfaces show the relatively well preserved 1820s scheme. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The decoration of the Chinese House as a whole is quite similar to that of the Royal Pavilion. The first Duke of Buckingham, who owned Wotton where the Chinese House then was, certainly knew George IV, and they may have used the same decorative painters – possibly through the Crace firm – although that remains to be confirmed.

My article on the painted decoration of the Chinese House was published in the June 2007 issue of Apollo.

11 Responses to “The Chinese House: Before and after”

  1. Tamasine Says:

    This is a great post Emile. Loving the pictures too!

  2. littleaugury Says:

    Emile, it is interesting to note the Chinese figure prior to restoration appears to be in the same style as the mirrored (1750) one- with more rounded softer facial features, while the restored figure is elongated-very different stylistically. So would the styles have changed with each artists’ hand- would each have brought his or her own interpretation to it? How does an expert determine what “layer” will be restored?(this is likely another post!)Gaye

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gaye. that is a very interesting point. The image of the lady before conservation shows the last ‘refresh’ of the decoration, which was done by the firm of Lenygon and Morant in 1937. This scheme did introduce some changes, as you cleverly spotted, but in general it was just a touching up of the Regency scheme.

    It was because the Regency layer was the earliest more or less complete and fully preserved scheme that the conservation team decided to consolidate that particular layer.

    The similarity between the 1937 lady and the mirror painting may be because the Lenygon and Morant painters also used such paintings or illustrations of them as reference material, or similar reference materials such as European illustrations or Chinese paintings of Chinese dress.

    We haven’t identified any mirror paintings that are an exact match for any of the ladies of the Chinese House, but their overall composition does seem to suggest that mirror paintings were used as the source.

    This continuing use of the same reference materials is also why it was almost impossible to date the different schemes on stylistic grounds, and we relied on the paint analysis to tell us which layer dated from when – hurrah for science!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Tamasine, thank you – all partly thanks to your support, of course!

  5. gordonchls Says:

    Great images. Thanks for posting.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I am very glad you found it interesting. Your tweets about this blog are much appreciated.

  7. columnist Says:

    Fascinating story, and thank you for sharing. I will post my tale about a Chinese temple or two that I visited earlier this week in Penang.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Columnist, I will look forward to that. One of the fascinating things about the Chinese House at Stowe is that it has Chinese elements, but that to a Chinese person it doesn’t look Chinese at all!

  9. Diehl Art Gallery Says:

    Great image and what a great house!

  10. Surface Fragments Says:

    Thank you Emile for pointing me towards this fascinating post, and for adding a scholarly voice to the popular appeal of Chinoiserie. If I may, could I direct those interested toward a recent post on my blog about Pillement, including a large gallery of his fabulous designs?

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Alan, thanks for your comment, and yes it is very useful to have the link to your Pillement images.

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