This image of the chinoiserie staircase in a garden pavilion at Bodnant in Conwy throws up all sorts of questions. Why install a Chinese-style staircase? Who installed it at Bodnant and when? What does ‘China’ mean in the context of an Edwardian-style Welsh garden?
The present garden at Bodnant was created by Henry Davis Pochin and his descendants, the McLaren family, Lords Aberconway. Pochin was a Victorian industrial chemist who made his fortune by clarifying rosin, a component of soap, and by producing alum cake, then used in the manufacture of paper. He purchased the Bodant estate in 1874.
Pochin’s daughter Laura married Charles McLaren, a barrister and politician who was created Lord Aberconway in 1911. She was a keen gardener and passed her passion on to her son Henry, the 2nd Lord Aberconway.
During the time of the 2nd Lord Aberconway the garden was enlarged, a series of terraces was created and numerous plants were added, either through exchange with fellow garden owners or by subscription to plant-hunting expeditions.
In the late 1930s Lord Aberconway bought a derelict garden pavilion from the Woodchester Park estate in Gloucestershire and had it dismanled and re-erected as a focal point on one of the terraces at Bondnant. The pavilion was originally built in about 1740 but had latterly been used as a pin factory and a tannery. For that reason it is still has the slightly incongruous (but no doubt consciously chosen) name of Pin Mill.
Originally there had simply been a ladder to get to the top storey, but Lord Aberconway commissioned the architect J.Murray Easton to design a chinoiserie staircase for it. It was made in the joinery shop of the shipbuilders John Brown of Clydebank, of which Aberconway was chairman.
It is revealing that the chinoiserie style was thought to be sympathetic to a Palladian pavilion – presumably Aberconway and Murray were aware that the Chinese style was popular in England in the middle of the eighteenth century and was often used in conjunction with the Palladian style.
A chinoiserie staircase of about 1740 survives at Boughton House, Northamptonshire, possibly designed by Henry Flitcroft for John, 2nd Duke of Montagu. Also, as part of the East India Company at Home project, Rachael Barnwell is currently researching a group of town houses on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales, which feature similar eighteenth-century ‘Chinese’ staircases. As Bodnant is relatively close to Anglesey, one wonders whether Lord Aberconway was aware of those local precedents.
The Pin Mill is also an interesting example of the activities of wealthy connoisseurs in the Edwardian and inter-war years, who would purchase and reassemble historic furnishings and even whole buildings according to their taste. This was often done with great sensitivity, but also with a freedom that seems surprising nowadays. Henry Francis Dupont’s Winterthur, in Wilmington, Delaware, is probably the prime example of this kind of idealised historic country house and garden.
So the Chinese staircase at Bodnant is not what it seems, but is all the more fascinating for it.