Pagodas please

The park at Shugborough, with its pagoda (centre right) erected in the early 1750s. Watercolour by Nicholas Dall, at Shugborough. ©National Trust.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to join a panel discussion at Christie’s Education in London last week on the subject of chinoiserie. As I was assembling some images of chinoiserie decoration for that event I noticed how the motif of the pagoda kept coming back in different guises.

Satinwood writing and dressing table with 'pagoda' decoration, possibly made by the Chippendale workshop and originally at Longford Castle, now at Clandon Park (Gubbay collection). ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

One of the first images of a pagoda to appear in the west must be the one of the so-called Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing (named after the ceramic materials used to decorate it) included in Johan Nieuhof’s 1665 book about China.

Illustration of a pagoda seen by William Chambers, in his 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Pagodas became one of the motifs that exemplified the wondrous exoticism of China in western eyes.

Model of a pagoda made of mother-of-pearl by Betty Ratcliffe, a servant at Erddig, in 1767. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The distinction between Chinese pavilions, mansions and pagodas was generally rather vague in the western mind. European imitation-Chinese or chinoiserie pavilions often sprouted several stacked miniature roofs or turrets, as if they were poised to mutate into mature pagodas.

Doorcase of the Chinese Room at Claydon House, created by the craftsman Luke Lightfoot for the 2nd Earl Verney in the 1760s. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The motif was used right across the decorative arts and appeared in decorative wall surfaces and plasterwork as well as in furniture and as garden pavilions.

Regency cabinet with a 'pagoda' roof at Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The heyday of pagodas in England was the middle of the eighteenth century, when chinoiserie garden pavilions popped up everywhere and William Chambers, who had actually been to China, built his full-size (and still extant) pagoda at Kew.

The Chinese Temple at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, where a 'China' garden was created in the 1840s. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

The pagoda continued to be used as a decorative motif through the Regency and Victorian periods, and it is still popular in chinoiserie wallpapers and fabrics produced today. A few years ago I advised garden designer Todd-Longstaffe Gowan on the decoration of a splendid pagoda-roofed chicken run, and recently I spotted a similarly sumptuous chinoiserie dog bed. Pagodas seems to be an enduring symbol of China as a fairytale realm, a pleasant dream-world detached from the flow of history.

The Pagoda in the garden at Cliveden, originally made for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, a copy of a pavilion at Romainville, which was in turn based on an illustration in Chambers's book. It was acquired by the Marquess of Hertford for his Paris residence Bagatelle, and then bought by Viscount Astor and brought to Cliveden in 1900. ©National Trust

But now I see that the original Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing, which was destroyed in 1856 during the Taiping Rebellion, is to be rebuilt as a proud symbol of a newly resurgent China – perhaps opening a new chapter in the semantic history of the pagoda.

22 Responses to “Pagodas please”

  1. Susan Holloway Scott Says:

    Enjoyed this post, as I always do with your blog.
    Here’s another pagoda to add to your collection. This one sits incongruously on the crest of a Pennsylvania mountain, overlooking the industrial town of Reading. Though not quite as elegant as your examples, it is quite a landmark in the area:

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, what a wonderful example of a ‘japonisme’ pagoda. A shame it didn’t work as a hotel, but its use as a beacon was imaginative and poetic. I love the steady white light plus flickering red light signal meaning ‘error’, like saying ‘Oops, sorry’ without words 🙂

  3. Susan Walter Says:

    Do you know our local pagoda – the only remaining part of the chateau of Chanteloup? The story behind it is most romantic and a little bit sad, but it is a rather wonderful place.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, do you mean because the Chanteloup pagoda was built by the Duc de Choiseul after he was exiled from court? A wonderful structure, and surprising in that, apart from being a pagoda, it’s decoration is almost entirely classical. And Choiseul listed the names of those who had supported him in his exile on the walls inside, so it has an interesting political aspect to it.

  5. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I’m sorry I could not have heard your talk – I’m sure your remarks were illuminating. I particularly like the pagota doorway, and how the human body is incorporated into the frame. And it’s refreshing that chinoiserie needn’t always be red and black!

  6. Susan Walter Says:

    Emile: yes, the list of friends is long and his energy in exile was focused on all that building and partying (…err, I mean networtking…) I am rather fond of his wife too, an utter sweetie who allowed her fortune to be spent and behaved so honourably after his death, living in penury, supported financially by one of her faithful servants according a local history I read.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, yes it is fascinating how the chinoiserie ‘palette’ changed over time, and is still changing – I am hoping soon to do a post on Fromental’s new chinoiserie wallpapers, some of which are ‘traditional’ while others are very up-to-the-minute contemporary.

    Susan, so the Chanteloup pagoda is a monument in stone to the Duc de Choiseul’s ‘liquid network’ 🙂 – see this earlier post about that trendy subject:

  8. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    I recently visited Woburn and stumbled upon this Pagoda – – yes, they do pop up in all their red glory against all sorts of backdrops!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes isn’t it wonderful: the Chinese Dairy, created by Henry Holland for the 5th Duke of Bedford in 1789. The interior was decorated by the Crace firm and is stylistically close to that of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. There are a number of visual quotes, both inside and out, from the illustrations in Chambers’s book.

    There is another, open chinoiserie pavilion at Woburn as well, in the middle of a maze, built slightly later but again inspired by Chambers (

    And there is yet another chinoiserie pavilion at Woburn, quite a bit older I believe (late 1730s?), on an island in Drakeloe Pond (it can be glimpsed here, in the image with the fishing rods: Woburn really is a chinoiserie hot-spot 🙂

  10. CherryPie Says:

    There is an interesting example at Alton Towers, not a place you would expect to find a pagoda. But there is one within the restored gardens which are well worth a visit.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    It is such an imaginative idea, to combine a pagoda with a fountain. There was a design for a pagoda fountain to be built in the lake at Prior Park Bath, in the eighteenth century, but that was never realised – the exquisite Palladian bridge was put there instead. Presumably it was only with the development of cast iron technology that the idea could actually be realised at Alton Towers.

    An early design for the Alton Towers pagoda was published by Loudon in his Encyclopaedia of Gardening of 1828, and that may have inspired the proposal, a year later, to build a bridge across the Avon at Clifton, on the outskirts of Bristol, with a huge pagoda acting as a pier in the middle: I almost wish they had used that design rather than the revolutionary single-span bridge that was actually built – who cares about technological improvement if you can have wacky elegance 🙂

  12. CherryPie Says:

    I like the picture you linked to of the Alton Towers pagoda, it displays the structure well.

    I am still frustrated that I can’t find more history about it and the gardens and other garden structures in general.

    Abraham Darby and Coalbrookdale are home from home for me, but there is still so much I do not know.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    The pagoda at Alton Towers and some of the other garden structures there are mentioned in Patrick Conner’s still useful reference book Chinese Architecture in the West (1979). I wonder if a full-scale study of the gardens exists – they certainly deserve one.

  14. ldm Says:

    The mother of pearl pagoda made by Betty Ratcliffe at Erdigg is an incredible piece of craftsmanship and quite beautiful.

    How on earth did she do it? (That is not meant condescendingly.) And does she have any other surviving work?

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it isn’t quite clear how she came to be so skilled, apart from presumably a high degree of natural aptitude. There is also a small model of some classical ruins by her at Erddig.

  16. ldm Says:

    Is there a photo of the classical ruins that you could post?

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes I’ll see if I can do a post on Betty Ratcliffe.

  18. ldm Says:

    Thanks. That would be great.

  19. James Says:

    That door is a real treasure. The people either side are very well done. Every time I look at it I see another feature.

  20. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    James, yes Luke Lightfoot was a craftsman with a really personal style. Apparently he was quite difficult too – a real ‘artist’ 🙂

  21. B. Hignite Says:

    I have a miniature about 11″ tall replica of a pagoda made of pearls, can some one tell me anything about it, I know it has been in the family a while.

  22. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Do send me an image of it via – I don’t know if I can say anything sensible about it, but it sounds interesting.

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