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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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 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.