If in doubt, add pagoda

Design by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel for a bridge spanning Clifton Gorge, 1829. ©Toovey’s

Toovey’s auctioneers recently sold an archive belonging to descendants of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), the Victorian engineer. The archive included this extraordinary 1829 design by Brunel’s father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), for a bridge supported by a pagoda.

Brunel junior was grappling with the difficulties of building a bridge over the Clifton Gorge on the outskirts of Bristol. His father thought that a single-span bridge would be technically impossible and suggested adding a supporting pier in the middle.

Watercolour by William Alexander (1767-1816) of Pingze Men, the Western Gate of Beijing, 1799. Alexander accompanied Lord Macartney on his embassy to the Chinese Emperor. © Trustees of the British Museum

Brunel junior’s single-span design was eventually realised, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge stands to this day. But his father’s design is remarkable in that it shows how chinoiserie was so mainstream in the late Georgian and early Victorian periods that even no-nonsense engineers would consider using it.

The pagoda bridge constructed in St James’s Park, London, in 1814.

Chinoiserie is often associated with the eighteenth-century Rococo style, but it was also surprisingly popular in the nineteenth century. Lord Macartney’s diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1792-4 brought China into the public eye again, and a number of illustrated books about China and novels featuring Chinese subjects were published in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Fishing Temple at Virginia Water, in an aquatint after Wiliam Daniell, 1829.

The Prince Regent, later George IV, adopted chinoiserie in his customarily lavish way. He was  instrumental in the construction of a pagoda bridge in St James’s Park as part of the centenary celebrations of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1814, but this burned down almost immediately when it was used as the support for a fireworks display.

The Prince Regent also employed chinoiserie for some of the interiors at his London residence, Carlton House (1780s-90s), at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1810s-20s), and for a Fishing Temple at Virginia Water, Surrey (c. 1825).

The Chinese House formerly at Wotton, Buckinghamshire, which received its current painted decoration in the 1820s. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

But the style wasn’t restricted to royal circles. The Chinese House at Wotton, Buckinghamshire (now at Stowe), was repainted in Regency chinoiserie style in the 1820s, and at nearby Dropmore a chinoiserie garden room was created at around the same time.

The pagoda-like bandstand at Cremorne Gardens, London.

At Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, a Chinese Dairy was created in 1789, and a further chinoiserie pavilion was added in 1833. Cremorne Gardens in London, a mixture between a public park and a funfair, had a chinoiserie bandstand by 1836.

The Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, created in the 1830s, with its Chinese wallpaper. ©NTPL/Michael Caldwell

Chinese wallpaper was also popular at this time, as can still be seen in Regency-period rooms at, for instance,  Temple Newsam, Burton Constable, Chatsworth, Belvoir Castle, Middleton Park, Endsleigh Cottage, Tregothnan, Penrhyn Castle and Belton House.

The Pagoda Fountain at Alton Towers, completed in the early 1830s. ©Gardenvisit.com

At Alton Towers, Staffordshire, the 15th and 16th Earls of Shrewsbury built an amazing pagoda fountain in the late 1820s and early 1830s (image kindly provided by Gardenvisit.com). Perhaps it was the publication of a design for this cast-iron structure in John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1828) that gave Brunel senior the idea for a pagoda-as-bridge-pier.

The China garden at Biddulph Grange, 1840s. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

Chinoiserie persisted in the early Victorian period. Queen Victoria resurrected some of the Royal Pavilion interiors at Buckingham Palace, and in the 1840s a remarkable ‘China’ garden was created at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire.

8 Responses to “If in doubt, add pagoda”

  1. Kristin Mullen Says:


    This is sublime! Thank you so much for sharing….

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Kristin – some inspiration for your planned chinoiserie Xmas dining room, perhaps 🙂

  3. Rosie West Says:

    Would that Brunel senior had gone ahead with his pagoda solution to Clifton Gorge! I can never get enough of pagodas so thank you for this delightful post.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, and another ‘might-have-been’ is at Prior Park (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-priorpark/), where there were plans in the early 1750s to erect a pagoda fountain. A rather exquisite Palladian Bridge was built there instead, but just imagine a pagoda in that panoramic setting setting 🙂

  5. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    I just found my picture of the Chinese influence at Woburn so have added it to my blog on visiting Woburn – http://visitinghousesandgardens.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/woburn-abbey-ive-found-where-id-like-to-have-breakfast-every-day/

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Great images, thank you – and interesting that you think Woburn manages to combine its roles as a family home and a visitor attraction.

  7. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    I got a picture of the maze at Woburn with the Chinese pagoda! Thanks to you I keep my eyes peeled when in their garden – http://visitinghousesandgardens.com/2013/08/10/my-maze-craze-woburn-abbey-bedfordshire/

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    What a great picture. It is a new, exciting sport: China spotting in the garden 🙂 There was lots of Chinese wallpaper at Woburn too, and some of it is still there.

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