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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.