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