Confucius: British hero

The Ruined Arch at Kew, an allusion to ancient Rome as the examplar for the emerging British empire. ©Emile de Bruijn

I am still reeling from the experience of seeing so many wonderful gardens on the Ashridge Garden History Summer School. One of the places we went to was Kew, which we were looking at from a historical, rather than the usual botanical, perspective.

The Pagoda at Kew, built by William Chambers in 1762 for Princess Augusta. ©Emile de Bruijn

The respected garden historian Dr Patrick Eyres took us round and pointed out the remnants of the original layout of the garden as designed by William Chambers for Princess Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The House of Confucius at Kew. It had painted decoration inside showing 'Confucius and his doctrines'.

Before his early death in 1751, Frederick had commissioned a garden pavilion called the House of Confucius for Kew. The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius had become known in Europe throught the writings of Jesuit missionaries in China. The Jesuits were keen to talk up their China mission and to present the Chinese as ‘almost Christian’.

Frontispiece of the book Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (Confucius, philosopher of the Chinese), published by the Jesuit Philippe Couplet and others in 1687. Image Wikimedia Commons

As a result Confucius – and China in general – became something of a symbol of public virtue and sound government in England. In about 1738 Viscount Cobham added a Chinese House to his garden at Stowe, which was already full of political allusions and metaphors.

The Chinese House at Stowe. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The Prince of Wales and Cobham knew each other and were both associated with the opposition Whig faction, so the House of Confucius at Kew seems to have been at least partly inspired by the Chinese House at Stowe. Chinoiserie pavilions were popping up all over England at this time, an interesting convergence of politics and fashion.

5 Responses to “Confucius: British hero”

  1. Barbara Says:

    I wish I had been in your shirt pocket, while you were on these garden tours, so that I could just peek out to see all the wonders you were seeing.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I will try to feature some of the other visits here too!

  3. Edward Says:

    Would it be possible for you to provide a source on the information given about the political allusions and metaphors at the Chinese house at stowe? Many thanks in advance.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Edward, as far as I know there is no overt linkage between the Chinese House and political messages, but there are some suggestive associations.

    One is that the garden at Stowe was very political at that time, and the Chinese House was surrounded by structures and pavilions with political messages. It is hard to believe that the Chinese House was ‘just’ decorative.

    Another is that Chinese images and stories were occasionally used as political anti-Walpole satire in the British pres, especially in the 1730s. These are mentioned in William W. Appleton, A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centruries, New York, Columbia University Press, 1951, see in particular pp. 125-7.

    And of course this is related to what chinoiserie actually meant to people in the mid eighteenth century, which is a huge subject.

    Do let me know what your views on this are, too. Are you researching a particular aspect of this?

    • Edward Says:

      Thank you for your reply, and sorry for my late one! Yes, I’m researching the Chinese House, in fact I believe I emailed you a couple of days ago about it in more detail, but I’m not sure if I got the correct address. I very much appreciate your message however, it is indeed very useful! Do let me know if you haven’t received my email as I would love to talk to you further about this topic. All the best, Edward.

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