Archive for the ‘Stowe’ Category

The Chinese House: Before and after

April 21, 2010

Model of the Chinese House, made when its structure was being analysed and treated. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

I have previously related the strangely itinerant life of the Chinese House, as it moved from Stowe to Wotton, then to Ireland, and back again to Stowe. But its painted chinoiserie decoration is also worth a closer look.

The Chinese House when it was still in Ireland, before conservation. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

When the Chinese House returned to Stowe in 1993 it was in need of some attention. The roof could not be saved, but it was faithfully copied by Tankerdale Ltd, who also repaired the rest of the structure. As much of the original woodwork as possible was saved, since it was covered in a fascinating array of painted chinoiserie motifs.

Some of the painted surfaces before conservation. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

Paint expert Catherine Hassall was asked to analyse the paint layers, and she found that the original late 1730s decoration was refreshed at least twice during the eighteenth century. She also found that the next layer up, which was in a relatively good state of preservation, contains chrome yellow, which was introduced in 1818, and Prussian blue, which was generally replaced by French ultramarine after 1828.

The same panel after conservation. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The conservation team decided to focus on preserving and reinstating this 1820s layer. Painting conservators Alan Bush and Jonathan Berry of Bush & Berry Conservation Studio methodically consolidated the paint and restored missing areas. The paint on one side of the pavilion had been almost completely worn away by the prevailing wind and rain in its Irish location, so there Alan and Jonathan created new chinoiserie scenes in the style of the original ones.

Chinese mirror painting, 1750s, at Saltram, Devon. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Studying the Chinese House some years later, it seemed to me that the depictions of ladies in landscapes on the exterior must have been inspired by Chinese paintings on glass.  These colourful scenes sit like little frames pictures in the overall decorative scheme, and their composition corresponds to that of Chinese glass paintings. There is a Chinese mirror painting at Saltram that shows a lady poking in the water with a stick; one of the ladies on the Chinese House is doing the same thing, although the setting is somewhat different.

Detail of the exterior of one of the doors of the Chinese House. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The ‘planters’ painted on the doors of the Chinese House seem to be inspired by an illustration in William Chambers’s Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757), where he shows the Chinese equivalent of a bonsai tray. 

Detail of plate X in Chambers's book Designs of Chinese Buildings, 1757. The bonsai tray that seems to have inspired the planters on the Chinese House sits under the table.

The shading lines of the engraving were interpreted as lengths of bamboo by the painter who worked on the Chinese House, a nice example of ‘Chinese whispers’. 

Painted decoration on the interior walls of the Chinese House, below the ceiling. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

On the inside of the pavilion there are some panels beautifully painted in imitation of lacquer in the style of the eighteenth-century designer Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

Chinese deity riding a tiger, on one of the interior walls of the Chinese House. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The interior also has some equisitely painted figures of Chinese deities. The fact that they have been painted on a neutral background makes me think that they have been copied from the painted glass panels of Chinese lanterns. These were being imported in the Regency period, and a number of them survive at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

The interior of the Chinese House. The fretwork windows had to be replaced during the conservation treatment, but the other surfaces show the relatively well preserved 1820s scheme. ©Emile de Bruijn/National Trust

The decoration of the Chinese House as a whole is quite similar to that of the Royal Pavilion. The first Duke of Buckingham, who owned Wotton where the Chinese House then was, certainly knew George IV, and they may have used the same decorative painters – possibly through the Crace firm – although that remains to be confirmed.

My article on the painted decoration of the Chinese House was published in the June 2007 issue of Apollo.

The wandering pavilion

April 16, 2010

The Chinese House, now returned to Stowe. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The Chinese House at Stowe in Buckinghamshire is an amazing survival from the first generation of English chinoiserie garden pavilions. It was erected in the garden at Stowe in or just before 1738, placed on stilts in a little pond, by Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (a portrait bust of whom was previously shown in this post).

Illustration in Seeley's 1750 guidebook to Stowe

Around 1751 it was moved to another family estate, Wotton House, also in Buckinghamshire, where it remained for almost two hundred years. The Wotton estate was sold in 1929, and in 1957 the pavilion was shipped to Ireland.

After the Stowe landscape gardens had been taken on by the National Trust its architectural historian, Gervase Jackson-Stops, orchestrated an appeal to return the Chinese House to its original home. It was bought in 1993 and following extensive conservation work it was finally reinstated at Stowe in 1998. 

The Elysian Fields at Stowe, with the Temple of British Worthies. ©NTPL/Jerry Harpur

The garden at Stowe is full of monuments and temples reflecting the political and philosophical ideals of Lord Cobham and his heirs. The Temple of British Worthies celebrates Cobham’s heroes, such as Alfred, king of the Saxons, King William III and the philosopher John Locke.

Bust of the Saxon King Alfred set into the Temple of British Worthies. ©NTPL/Jerry Harpur

The Chinese House would originally have sat just to the east of the Temple of British Worthies, and it would probably have had a similar political resonance. China was seen as the epitome of a well-organised state with a stable government, something the opposition Whigs were keen to achieve in Britain. 

The Gothic Temple, signifying Liberty, in the wilder Hawkwell Field. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Just beyond this spot stood the Gothic Temple. The Gothic style also had a political meaning, as it was associated with the supposedly freedom-loving and democratically-minded Saxons. The area around it was deliberately left somewhat unkempt, to show how spontaneous and natural the Saxons’ conception of liberty was.

Imaginary portrait of Confucius, illustrating the frontispiece of the book Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, a treatise on Chinese philosophy published in Paris in 1687

The Chinese House sat in between these two monuments, as if to indicate that these ideals were being shared by the exotic and distinguished Chinese. Cobham’s political ally, Frederick, Prince of Wales, built a similar pavilion at Kew, called the House of Confucius. The ancient Chinese pilosopher Confucius was given iconic status as a socio-political sage on a par with English luminaries such as King Alfred and Locke. 

Face to face with the Ancients

March 15, 2010

Plaster bust of a philosopher or poet, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe Park. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Classical antiquity looms large at West Wycombe Park. This Buckinghamshire country house was enriched with works of art brought back from Italy, Greece and Asia Minor by Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Baronet, in the middle of the eighteenth century. 

Sir Francis Dashwood, 2nd Bt, by Nathaniel Dance. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Dashwood was one of those Englishmen who went on the Grand Tour and became captivated by the beauty of the ancient world. By all accounts he enjoyed partying and high jinks (in a characteristically catty comment, Horace Walpole wrote that Sir Francis was constantly drunk when in Italy), but he also brought back many works of art, which are still on display at West Wycombe. 

The South Colonnade at West Wycombe, based on Palladio's Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The busts shown here, originally acquired by Dashwood and on display in the South Colonnade, are part of a group of objects accepted by the Government in lieu of inheritance tax in 2007 and allocated to the National Trust for display at West Wycombe. 

A plaster bust of Aratus (pseudo-Demosthenes), eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme allows for UK inheritance tax to be written off in exchange for objects of artistic and historical significance. These objects are then transferred to museums and similar institutions, allowing access and enjoyment by all.

A plaster bast of Laocoön, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The National Trust has benefited enormously from this scheme over the years. Some of the historic houses we look after are still lived in by the families historically associated with them. In a number of houses part (or even most) of the collection on display is owned by these families, and there is always a possibility that it might be offered for sale at some point. In many cases the cost of acquisition would be prohibitive for the National Trust, but the AIL scheme enables these objects to remain in situ. 

Plaster bust of a man in armour, eighteenth century, after the antique, at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Busts of Roman generals like the one above inspired the English to have Roman-style busts made of themselves, such as the one shown below of the successful general Viscount Cobham of Stowe

Terracotta bust of Richard, Viscount Cobham by Scheemakers in the Dining Room at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Cobham found himself in opposition to the government of the day, and Sir Francis Dashwood was one of his allies (as well as being a fellow Buckinghamshire landowner). The presence of this bust at West Wycombe celebrates that allegiance, as well as contributing to the Roman theme of the house. Opposition Whigs like Cobham and Dashwood tried to re-establish what they saw as Roman civic virtues in contemporary English political life.