The natural history of the pagoda

Tapestry including Chinese and Indian motifs produced by John Vanderbank, c. 1700, at Nunnington Hall, North Yorkshire. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The Linnell cabinet at Kedleston mentioned in the previous post, topped with its neat row of miniature chinoiserie pavilions, reminded me how the motif of the ‘pagoda’ or Chinese-style pavilion spread through the various decorative arts, in a process almost resembling natural selection.

English cabinet incorporating pietra dura panels, ivory plaques after the Antique, Chinese lacquer and miniature pagodas, late 1750s, in the Little Parlour at Uppark, West Sussex. ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

Pagoda-style buildings were originally copied from illustrations in books on China and from Chinese porcelain and lacquer, and were adapted for European tapestries, japanning, ceramics and silver. The original models were soon forgotten as the ‘chinoiserie’ style took on a life of its own.

Doorcase in the Chinese Room at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire, created by Luke Lightfoot in the 1760s. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Then from the 1730s English garden pavilions, too, began to take on Chinese shapes.

Pier glass made by Thomas Chippendale, early 1770s, in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Furniture soon followed suit, with the mid-eighteenth-century seeing a proliferation of pagodas in variety of shapes and media.

One of a pair of Regency-period chinoiserie cabinets (originally used as bookcases) at Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

In true Darwinian style the pagoda adapted itself to the different circumstances of the Regency and Victorian periods.

The Pagoda at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, purchased by Viscount Astor in 1900 from the estate of the Marquess of Hertford, who had previously installed it in the garden of his Paris villa, Bagatelle. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

But occasionally natural selection in the arts goes into reverse, as in the case of the pagoda at Cliveden. This is an 1860s copy of a pavilion that was originally erected in in the early 1780s in the park of the Château de Romainville, on the outskirts of Paris, and which was in turn based on an illustration in William Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings of 1757.

More about a snuffbox that depicts Romainville and its anglo-chinois gardens can be seen on the Wallace Collection website.

11 Responses to “The natural history of the pagoda”

  1. Mary Tindukasiri Says:

    This post leaves me speechless, especially the door surround. The photos leave me wanting more. Thank you. Mary

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Mary – from your website I can see that you are a present-day exponent of the pagoda design tradition🙂

  3. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    What do you make of the lanterns with pagoda tops at Nostell Priory? (one of the pair shown here having been taken down for cleanning) I’ve asked a couple of times whether anyone knows who designed them or where they come from but no one at the property seems to know…

  4. Parnassus Says:

    I noticed something amusing in these photos–many of these pagodas sport ostensibly working bells that would never ring because objects such as bookcases were not moved, shaken, or placed in the path of breezes.

    The pagoda influence was also felt in the world of actual musical instruments, not only in painted Chinoiserie decorations, but also in the forms of the instruments themselves. One example is the jingling Johnny (Turkish crescent), which I posted some pictures of here:

    –Road to Parnassus

  5. Jack Plane Says:

    Great post, thanks. The doorcase in the Chinese Room at Claydon House is quite exceptional.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Karen, than you very much for that image. Yes they are rather wonderful, aren’t they – I must try to do a separate post on them or on wall lanterns more generally.

    I don’t think it is known for certain who designed and made them, and the guidebook simply describes But they obviously fit in with the various chinoiserie items of furniture that Chippendale was supplying for the house at that time.

    The walls of an octagonal chinoiserie garden pavilion also survive at Nostell – made of wood and covered with canvas. That pavilion, too, may originally have been constructed during the second half of the eighteenth century (although it was repainted a number of times subsequently).

    Parnassus, how fascinating, thank you for that link. François Boucher also depicted Chinese musicians with various real or imagined ‘jingly’ Chinese instruments in his drawings and prints.

    It would be interesting to find out if the bells recorded as hanging from the eaves of some chinoiserie garden pavilions were jingly or mute. It might be quite pleasant to have a jingly soundtrack to one’s sojourn in one’s pavilion – or alternatively it might very quickly drive you round the bend🙂

    Jack, glad you like the Claydon door-surround – the chinoiserie at Claydon is by far the most extreme and exuberant in any house owned by the National Trust.

  7. HRH The Duchess of State Says:

    What a wonderous post dahhling! Enjoyed it every much & the examples you chose are magnificient.

  8. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    A wonderful post – I especially like that first photograph of the tapestry — whether or not the background is purposefully uneven in color (perhaps it’s just age), it has the rich feel of tortoise shell.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    HRH, thank you.

    Mark, yes those ‘Vanderbank’ tapestries are wonderful, aren’t they, really conveying the sense of wonder people had about ‘the east’. The mottled colours are indeed partly the result of selective fading, but as you say that has a certain charm in itself.

  10. style court Says:

    Emile, I thought of this post, and your theory of decorative natural selection, the other day when I came across a fairly ‘evolved’ cabinet with pagoda-inspired top at an antiques shop🙂 The profile was more subtle than the Uppark cabinet but unmistakably pagoda-influenced.

    Now, whenever I spy a pagoda-like piece, I’ll be contemplating its place in the furniture chain.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes, pagoda-spotting is a great game to play🙂 Perhaps I should start a Pagoda Recognition Service, whereby people could email me images of pagodas they have seen and I could give a quick diagnosis… Or better still, there could be a We *Hart* Pagodas Facebook group, where all the pagodistas could upload images of pagodas and discuss them🙂

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