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 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.
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’.
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 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.