Archive for the ‘Gwynedd’ Category

A Chinese garden at Penrhyn Castle

September 1, 2017
Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110

Detail from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The autumn issue of National Trust Magazine, which is about to come out, has this image on the cover. It is the Chinese wallpaper in the State bedroom at Penrhyn Castle, depicting a garden scene. We were able to commission these new photographs for my forthcoming book on Chinese wallpapers, which will come out in October.

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110

Section of the bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. NT 1422110. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

We can see luxuriantly flowering trees and shrubs, some growing from decorative jardinières, with various birds and insects flitting between the branches. The picturesque rocks, prized for their sculptural qualities, are a long-standing feature of Chinese gardens.

The scenery has been painted in great detail and looks quite realistic. But in fact most of these birds and flowers have traditionally had strong symbolic associations in Chinese art. A pheasant, for instance, stands for ‘beauty’ and a peony indicates ‘rank’.

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but apparently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

The State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle. The architecture and much of the furniture, created in about 1830, is in the Neo-Norman style, but evidently this was not considered incompatible with Chinese wallpaper. ©National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

Bird-and-flower imagery has long been used in Chinese fine and decorative art to create an uplifting, auspicious atmosphere, much like classical decoration has in the west.

And if we look at this wallpaper at Penrhyn in that light, we can recognise the sophisticated decorative harmony of the scheme. The painters used lively and yet balanced palette of colours including purples and pinks, reds, oranges and yellows, various green tints and some blues and greys.

Different types of leaves have been given various smooth textures, while the ruggedness of the rocks and tree trunks is rendered in a more expressionistic manner. One can tell that the artists were confident of their skill and judgement in creating these wallpapers. As yet we don’t know who they were, just that they most likely worked in the port city of Guangzhou (or Canton).

Life below stairs

September 26, 2011


Cultural historian Siân Evans has just published a book entitled Life Below Stairs, about the lives of the cooks, butlers, housekeepers, footmen, ladies’ maids and governesses who kept country houses running smoothly in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

The Servants Hall at Penrhyn Castle. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

A wide social chasm separated servants from their employers, but a clear place in the hierarchy and a certain degree of security could make being ‘in service’ an attractive proposition.

The Brushing Room at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The book describes how the different servant roles were defined and how the work was divided up, so that the mechanism of the country house could provide a seemingly effortless way of life.

A royal visit: King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visiting the Treasurer's House, York. ©NTPL

For special events, such as royal visits, the system would be stretched to the limit. In July 1894, for instance, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, together with 35 other house guests, who all brought their own servants with them.

Part of the kitchen at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Over the four days of the house party, over 1,150 meals were provided, including 89 dishes for the Prince of Wales – a known gourmand – and the other main guests.

Copper jelly moulds in the kitchen at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The whole occasion seems to have been a triumph, testament to the specialised skills and organisational capacity of the staff – although there must have been a few sighs of relief – and perhaps even the odd nervous breakdown – afterwards.

Your pictures – no, really

July 19, 2011

Landscape with arched gateway, by Adam Pynacker (c. 1620-1673), at Penrhyn Castle. ©NTPL/National Museums and Galleries of Wales

The BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) have teamed up to make all the oil paintings in Britain’s public collections available online. The PCF has already been working for several years to record and produce catalogues of all paintings in public ownership, and the fruits of that work are now also being made accessible through a BBC website called Your Paintings.

Moonlit landscape, by Aert van der Neer (1603/4-1677), at Penrhyn Castle. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The National Trust is collaborating with the PCF to include all its paintings in the survey. The first National Trust picture collection available through Your Paintings is Penrhyn Castle, in Gwynedd (which can be found by searching for ‘National Trust’ on the Your Paintings site).

Penrhyn slate quarry, by Henry Hawkins (1822-1880), at Penrhyn Castle. Accepted in lieu of inheritance tax by HM Government and allocated to the National Trust, 1951. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Shown side by side as thumbnails, the images throw up unexpected insights. Seeing the array of Dutch old master paintings collected by the Douglas-Pennants of Penrhyn, you suddenly understand why they would choose to commission a painting of their own slate quarry (one of the sources of their wealth) in the ‘picturesque’ style of a Ruisdael, a Pynacker or a Van der Neer.

The library at Penrhyn

July 23, 2010

The library at Penrhyn Castle. The billiard table is made of slate from the nearby quarries. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Mark Purcell, the National Trust’s libraries curator, has just produced an article in The Book Collector about the library at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, which has now been fully catalogued. The books at Penrhyn were allocated to the National Trust in lieu of inheritance tax in 2002.

The exterior of the library and the passage to the keep at Penrhyn Castle. ©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

Like the rest of the house (some of which has been shown in previous posts), the library was designed by the architect Thomas Hopper (1776-1856) in the neo-Norman style. This particular room was inspired by the Norman architecture of the church of St Peter, Tickencote, Rutland. The library still contains a book by John Carter of 1796, Ancient Architecture of England, which illustrates the church.

One of the neo-Norman bookcases in the library. ©NTPL/Michael Caldwell

The house was built for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant (1764-1840), whose wealth came from slaves, sugar and slate. As Mark has found, however, his taste in books, and that of his immediate family and descendants, was not particularly nouveau riche. It is an attractive nineteenth-century gentleman’s library, with a mixture of grand and ordinary books that reflect the family’s interest at the time. 

©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The books reflect a number of themes that Mark characterises as: ‘power politics, and high finance; art collecting; geology; a controversial inheritance, based on slaves and slate and on money which some even at the time thought to be tainted; self-sufficiency in reading matter in a remote and mostly Welsh-speaking district.’

The mysteries of Chinese wallpaper

May 12, 2010

The Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle. The Chinese wallpaper probably dates from about 1800, but the room was put together in the 1830s. ©NTPL/Michael Caldwell

A little while ago we were speculating about the similarities between different panels of Chinese wallpaper, and wondering whether they might have come from the same workshop. Ming Wilson, senior curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has now told me that hardly anything at all is known about the workshops that made these wallpapers. So far no records about them have been identified in China. The only available documentation relates to their importation and use in Europe.

Eighteenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet in the Lower India Room. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Chinese art historians are certainly interested in these wallpapers, so hopefully they will discover some sources sooner or later. But until then the best thing we can do is conserve and study the surviving examples, so that we can at least identify what they were made of and how they were made.

Late eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

On that point, my colleague Andrew Bush (paper conservation adviser for the National Trust) has just told me that some of the decorative elements on these wallpapers were in fact printed onto the paper, with wooden blocks. This may account for some of the similarities between different papers. The designs would then be filled out and finished by hand. 

Penrhyn Castle, with the Cambrian Mountains in the distance. ©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

The examples shown here are from Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, Wales. This extraordinary fantasy castle was built by Thomas Hopper in the 1820s and 1830s for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who had inherited the extensive Penrhyn estate from a cousin. He also inherited West Indian sugar plantations, and the income from those, as well as from a nearby slate quarry, allowed him to build the castle. 

Detail of the State Bedroom showing a Louis XIV desk and an English Rococo mirror hanging against the Chinese wallpaper. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Hopper designed the castle in Norman style, using examples surviving  elsewhere in Britain as his models. He designed the furniture and fittings in the same style, and these were combined with antiques and works of art to create a dramatic and rich ensemble.