The unread pavilion

The Chinese House at Stowe, Buckinghamshire (inv. no. 91820). ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The February 2012 issue of ABC Bulletin has just come out, with news about the historic houses and gardens of the National Trust. I wrote a short article for this issue on the hitherto hidden meaning of the garden pavilion at Stowe known as the Chinese House.

One of the trompe l'oeil panels with characters painted onto the Chinese House - this particular one was repainted in the mid-1990s on the basis of old photographs. A sequence of three characters derived from Chambers has been highlighted. ©Emile de Bruijn

The painted decoration on the Chinese house dates from the 1820s and includes a series of vertical trompe l’oeil  plaques with Chinese characters. Because these were difficult to read it had always been assumed that they were ‘faux‘ characters, made up by the Regency designer or painter as a playful, purely decorative imitation of Chinese writing.

Another plaque with characters, this one with more of the original, worn paint still remaining. A second sequence of four characters from Chambers has been highlighted. ©Emile de Bruijn

A little while ago I discovered that the characters were derived from an illustration in William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, published in 1757.

Plate XVIII from Chambers's 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings, with the sequences of characters that can be recognised on the Chinese House highlighted.

More recently one of my former tutors at university, Dr B.J. Mansvelt Beck, who is an expert in classical Chinese, spotted that the Chambers illustration incuded two quotes from the Zhuangzi, a collection of ancient philosophical writings that would become one of the classics of Daoism.

Canton enamel dish with a depiction of Xi Wang Mu, the the Daoist goddess of immortality, at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (inv. no. 107343). ©National Trust/Mike Kennedy

The chapter of the Zhuangzi to which these fragments refer is about man’s insignificance when compared to the hugeness of the universe and the limitlessness of time. So this frivolous-seeming little garden pavilion has a rather weighty subtext, albeit one that the original designer didn’t foresee – and that fact gives the whole thing a suitably paradoxical,  Daoist twist.

12 Responses to “The unread pavilion”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    Utterly fascinating research on that charming pavilion. The two characters above 松風竹 (song-feng-zhu) on that panel are 而虎 (er-hu, “and the tiger”). I did a quick check, and this sequence occurs twice in the Zhunag-zi.

    One refers to “tigers and leopards in cages”, meaning that great powers is useless once constrained. The other reference tells of a hermit who is eaten by a tiger, meaning that all the knowledge he stored up was useless because he separated himself from other people.

    Both of these parables do seem to have some applicability to a country estate. Of course, almost any allusion to the Zhuang-zi would probably be notable either for its fitness or its irony.

    Incidentally, the copying of Chinese text from a pattern book is reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs used as decoration–either the artist made up pseudo-hieroglyphs, or he copied out of a plate-book, sometimes using a wildly inappropriate original. Still, there is a chance that the Stowe quotations were selected intentionally, and this is worth checking out.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. Philip Wilkinson Says:

    What an interesting post and article. I’m wondering whether there are any other examples of this kind of use of Chinese characters. And whether, in the late-19th century, when the fashion for Japonisme came in, the same sort of thing happened. (I seem to remember there’s a Japanese garden building at Batsford Park in Gloucestershire that has quite a prominent inscription.)

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, thank you for your informed comment. I am sorry the characters you quote don’t come through – I have tried to fiddle around on the dashboard to make them appear properly, but it seems to be problematic – I will ask about that on the WordPress users forum.

    You may be right about the ‘tiger’ reference, but the interesting and complicating factor is that the only clearly recognisable source for the characters on the Chinese House is the Chambers illustration. The painter may have copied characters from other sources, or he may have mangled the Chambers characters to such an extent that they look like other characters or have become unreadable, but we cannot really be certain.

    And the Chambers illustration is mysterious too: only two lines in it are obviously quotes from the Zhuangzi, two more lines are readable without it being clear (as yet) where they derive from, and the rest of the text is indecipherable – it almost looks like the engraver got fed up halfway through and botched the second half of the job 🙂

    So we are talking here about a fragmented copy of an indifferently transcribed copy of a Chinese text that contains two brief out-of-context quotes from the Zhuangzi – which is why it is so amazing that Dr Mansvelt Beck was able to spot the Zhuangzi reference at all!

    And yes I agree that it is a similar sort of thing to the European interest in Egyptian writing and decoration. Both Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs were studied by those trying to identify the original universal language, such as the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher.

    Philip, yes it is worth investigating where else the ‘Chambers’ characters might pop up – especially in illustrations of French and other Continental chinoiserie garden pavilions of the late eighteenth century (mostly now lost), which were often heavily inspired by Chambers’s book.

    I seem to remember that the characters on plaques on that pavilion at Batsford are more accurately copied, or are originals – probably because by the late Victorian and Edwardian periods it was easier for British garden-makers have access to original Chinese and Japanese texts.

  4. HRH The Duchess of State Says:

    What a FAB post dahhling,, I love your post because they are always so informative & full of new discoveries I had not considered or would otherwise discover… Bravo!

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    HRH, thanks very much

  6. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    What a wonderful pavillion! In addition to being pleasant to look at, was it actually used for tea ceremonies?

  7. robert Says:

    Emile, You did a wonderful post about the Chinese House in November 2010, so good in fact that I saved it. The interior images are well worth your readers looking up, reading and enjoying the visuals. But then all your posts are truly interesting; that remains a favorite.

    Thank you as always! Robert

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Classicist, we don’t actually know much about how it was used – more research needed in the family papers, clearly. Initially, in the late 1730s, it had some kind of doll or figurine or mannequin inside of a Chinese lady, plus a few decoy mandarin ducks in the pond in which it sat, and vases with flowers (painted wood? painted tin?) on the balusters of the railing of its little bridge – all very theatrical (perhaps the work of William Kent, who may have originally designed the Chinese House) and presumably meant to heighten the exotic effect.

    Pavilions like this were indeed sometimes used as setting for the consumption of tea and snacks, including ice cream in the case of the Chinese House at Wroxton Abbey, Oxfordshire, and for garden parties as in the case of the Chinese tent at Montagu House, Whitehall.

    Robert, you are very kind. For those readers who are inspired by your praise, the post can be found here: (and also through the ‘Stowe’ link on the right). And I would agree with you that the interiors of the Chinese House are extraordinary.

  9. Liv Oustrup Says:

    Now, I have read this post a dozen times. And I would so much like to get in touch with someone who has worked with the Chinese House at Stowe…

    I am working as landscape architect in the Danish Royal Gardens. In Frederiksberg Garden we have a Chinese Pavilion and just recently we found out, that whoever decorated our building must have had the William Chambers Book: Designs of Chinese Buildings from 1757 at hand. The signs written on the walls are copies from the book as well as some of the sketches.

    My colleague, a building constructor, and I are going to the conference at Painshill on the and of October, and we have decided to visit Stowe on the day before the conference. We would like to meet with someone who knows about the restoration of the Pavilion at Stowe. Next year we are sending out applications to funds and trusts that might support the restoration of our pavilion at Frederiksberg. It would be splendid to know of some references and professionals that have done something similar.

    Do you know who we might talk to?

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Liv, how nice to hear from you. I suppose I could be the first point of contact regarding the Chinese House at Stowe, having done some research into it, and I could put you in touch with other relevant colleagues. How exciting that you are planning the restoration of the Chinese Pavilion of Frederiksberg. I have been making a list of Chambers-inspired garden pavilions, but for some reason I hadn’t spotted this wonderful example yet. I will contact you offline so we can perhaps arrange to meet at Stowe.

    • robert Says:

      Dear Liv and Emile, May I encourage Liv to meticulously document the process of restoration? How much so many of us, even designers, could learn from the process of restoration and perhaps the mechanics of the redesign. Thank you. Roberrt

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Sorry for the delay in responding Robert, I have been away. I completely agree, documenting the conservation process is vital for future conservators and also fascinating for a larger audience.

    I was at Mount Stewart the day before yesterday, where a huge conservation project is underway in the house, and I heard that Ulster Television (UTV) is regularly filming the various activities and broadcasting them, which is excellent.

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