The East India Company at Home project has been harnessing debate and research into the influence of the Asian trade on life in Britain. As part of its online archive of case studies, Stephen McDowall has just published a paper on Shugborough Hall’s Chinese connections.
Stephen demonstrates how Shugborough epitomises the paradoxes inherent in the use of Chinese objects and styles in Britain.
In about 1747 the owner of the Shugborough estate, Thomas Anson, added a Chinese House to the garden, probably inspired by the recent visits to China of his younger brother, Commodore (later Admiral and Baron) George Anson. Its design is said to have been based on a drawing of a Chinese building made by one of George’s officers. Moreover, it was George’s fortune, the result of the capture of a Spanish silver galleon, that enabled the embellishment and expansion of Shugborough from the mid-1740s onwards.
George Anson himself, however, is on record as condemning Chinese art and design as imitative, and he was generally rather rude about Chinese culture and society. How do we reconcile his negative stance with the evidence of Chinese and Chinese-inspired decoration at the house?
The Chinese House was said at the time to be an authentic facsimile of Chinese architectural forms, but with the benefit of hindsight it looks more like a classic rococo chinoiserie folly. Moreover, the Chinese House was situated close to other garden pavilions and structures in classical and antiquarian styles, illustrating how flexible the concepts of authenticity and identity could be in mid-18th-century Britain.
Stephen has also found a reference to George Anson’s wife Elizabeth being involved in the finishing of the Chinese House, which may be significant as ‘China’ – in its various meanings – was often associated with femininity in 18th-century Britain.
There are a number of Chinese objects at Shugborough, including an armorial dinner service and several mirror paintings, which were traditionally thought to have been brought back by George Anson. But there is not much actual evidence for that, and it is not clear whether ‘Chinese Shugborough’ was the creation of Thomas, George, or Elizabeth – or indeed all three. Shugborough appears to be a fascinating case study of the ambiguity of the idea of ‘China’ in Britain in the 18th century.