Dr Johnson wrote in 1738 : “There are few nations in the world more talked of, or less known than the Chinese.” He was reflecting on the latest book about China to be published, one which Patrick Conner in Oriental Architecture in the West suggests that inspired the first “Chinese” building in Britain.
This was a massive 4 volume work by the Jesuit priest Father Jean-Baptiste Du Halde who had not visited China himself but collated the unpublished reports of 17 of his fellow priests. It first appeared in France in 1735, but was translated into English as The General History of China the following year, and went into its 3rd edition by 1741.
Unlike Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch Embassy which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago there are very few illustrations. However the artist, Antoin Humblot, crucially shifted the emphasis of his Chinese sources, from reality to something rather more playful and elegant, and in the process he made China appear almost to be rococo. Such books helped feed the growing fascination for all things “Chinese” including gardens and architecture, which Tim Richardson has called “one of the wonderful eccentricities of the age.”
The first effect of Du Halde’s work seems to have been the Chinese House at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, which already had a reputation as one of the most innovative gardens in the country. It was built in 1738 and an early visitor noted: “in the middle of an old pond (which is to be enlarged) is a house built on piles, after the manner of the Chinese, odd and pretty enough, but as the form of their building is so well known from prints and other descriptions, there is no occasion to say more of it.”
Stowe was also the first house in the country to have a published guidebook, just six years after the Chinese house was completed, and of course it merits an entry. ‘The Chinese House is situated in a Pond, and you enter it by a Bridge adorn’d with Chinese Vases, with Flowers in them. It is a square Building with four Lattices, and cover’d with Sail-cloth to preserve the Lustre of the Paintings; in it is a Chinese Lady as if asleep, her Hands covered by her Gown. In the Pond are the Figures of two Chinese Birds about the Size of a Duck, which move with the Wind as if alive. The Outside of the House is painted in the Taste of that Nation, by Mr. Slater; the Inside is India japann’d Work.’
This is a good example of how easy and common it was to conflate all things Asian and use descriptive terms almost interchangeably.
Another early mention of the building was by Jemima, Marchioness Grey, of Wrest Park. She visited Stowe in 1748 and noted: “There is also a Chinese Room, the prettiest I have seen, and the Only One like the Drawings and Prints of their Houses.” The implication of this of course is that in the ten-year interval others had been built, and indeed it was not long before she herself added to the tally. “It stands in a little dirty Piece of Water with Steps Like a Bridge to the Shore, and a Gallery and Rail round the room which you may suppose is very small. It has four Latticed Windows, the Wall quite wainscotted with Japan: a great many Old Screens have been cut to pieces (I fancy) to make it, but it is Fine and Pretty.”
The Chinese house did not survive on site very long after the death of Lord Cobham and had gone by 1751, probably because his heir, Lord Temple wished the grounds at Stowe to follow the classical themes that were adopted throughout most of the rest of the landscape there. Luckily it wasn’t destroyed but simply taken apart and then rebuilt at another family seat, Wotton, just 20 miles down the road. There it was refurbished in 1779 when accounts record that two painters spent three days each working on the structure.
When Wotton was sold out of the family in the 1920s the Chinese House, then standing on China Island, was left behind. But it was not its final move because when the new owner sold up in his turn the Chinese House was moved to his new property, Harristown House, in Ireland. In 1993 the National Trust managed to buy it back. There was an extensive restoration programme and it has now been returned to Stowe, although not in the same place as where it once stood.
Given the unorthodox nature of many of the other contemporary features at Stowe – including an Egyptian pyramid, Dido’s Cave and the Saxon Temple (sadly all long gone) perhaps the Chinese house would not have been as unusual as one might think. There were certainly others within a very short space of time, and indeed one at Woburn which appears on an estate map in 1738 maybe even earlier, although little else is known about it.
Closer to Stowe, at Wroxton Abbey, Lord North also began building in the Chinese style in the 1740s as well, with the work probably supervised by Sanderson Miller. Horace Walpole thought these were earlier than Stowe, writing in 1753 that “there are several paltry Chinese buildings and bridges which have the merit or demerit of being the bridge and letters of a very numerous race over the kingdom: at least they were of the very first”.
Wroxton like Stowe and Shugborough [below] sported an eclectic mix of buildings in the landscape, including a Roman obelisk, a Moorish temple, and a gothic dove house. Some can be seen in a series of drawings by Mary Delany. As can be seen from the plan it had a series of long walks leading away from the garden front of the house, almost all culminating in a Chinese building.
At the furthest extremity out of sight of the house, stood three Chinese houses and two Chinese bridges. One of them served as the gamekeeper’s lodge, while another had upturned eaves and long vertical windows. There was also a Chinese seat under a tented roof, with bells.
[For more on Wroxton see Paul Edwards, The Gardens of Wroxton Abbey, Garden History, 1986]Jemima Grey must also have known another early “Chinese” building: the ‘temple’ built on the Studley Royal estate in Yorkshire. Her husband, the Earl of Hardwick, wrote after a visit in September 1744 “Mr Aislabie designs to erect a Chinese house of a pyramidal form, with a gallery encircling every story, upon the point of the ridge which encloses on each hand a valley finely wooded and washed by a rivulet. One side is formed into a number of small terraces interspersed with rocks, which make a Chinese landscape.” That sounds grand, rather like the Pagoda at Kew perhaps, but the reality turned out rather differently.
Instead what Aislabie eventually built was not a pagoda nor a temple but technically “a ting”: a more modest single-storey building. It had a concave red upswept roof with golden dragons on the endpoints and other gilded ornamenation and a bench seat running between an open circle of blue painted columns. It might have been smaller in scale but, perched on a ridge, and so brightly coloured it was definitely an eye-catcher and presumably showed that Aislabie was at the forefront of the contemporary taste. Sadly only the foundations remain today.
Aislabie’s ting is thought to have been based on a plate from another book by an Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ripa, first published in 1713. Interestingly the owners of Studley Royal were close friends of Lord Burlington and it is known that Father Ripa visited London in 1724 and left at least one set of his engravings of the Imperial Gardens and Palace at Jehol because the copy now in the British Library has the bookplate of Lord Burlington’s library at Chiswick. They show vast mountainous landscapes rather than the contrived wilderness as understood by Pope, Switzer, William Kent but nonetheless one can’t help wondering if such Chinese views influenced them, or the Aislabies, in any way.
Did it also influence what was happening at Shugborough too? It’s usually assumed that the Chinese House there which was built in 1747, and which still survives, was the first to be constructed on a design drawn from life. In 1744 Admiral George Anson returned to Britain following his circumnavigation of the world. During the voyage he had spent several months at Canton or along the Chinese coast where he had one of his officers make lots of sketches. Anson himself lived at Moor Park but the prize money he earned on the voyage had made Anson immensely wealthy and he and his older brother, Thomas, who was to inherit the admiral’s money, also spent huge amounts on the Shugborough Hall estate in Staffordshire.
The first thing they built was the Chinese House, complete with boathouse, on an island surrounded by an artificial canal. It was set amongst larches, often referred to by eighteenth-century observers as ‘Indian Trees’, and approached by a pair of Chinese style bridges. Eileen Harris attributes the landscaping to Thomas Wright [who has featured several times in previous posts]. The exterior of the house was originally painted pale blue and white with fret patterns, while the inside too was Chinese, mainly in light turquoise, with a separate alcove decorated with red lacquer fretwork and golden monkeys flying kites of birds.
However Emile de Bruijn in a chapter on “Chinoiserie and the Country House” in a recent book [Travel and the British country house: Cultures, critiques and consumption in the long eighteenth century, ed by John Stobart, OUP, 2017] belives that the Shugborough Chinese House bears many design similarities to the ones at Stowe and Wroxton, and was, like them based on the illustrations in Du Halde. Thomas Anson certainly had other Jesuit books on China in his library so perhaps the assumptions generally made are challengeable.
Certainly by 1752 Shugborough also boasted a pagoda, predating Kew by about 10 years. It is mentioned in another letter from Jemima Grey, who just happened to be Lady Anson’s sister-in-law. The only views as far as I am aware show the pagoda amidst a whole range of other eccentric buildings in Nicholas Dall’s paintings of the cluttered estate landscape. Unfortunately the pagoda was wooden and so probably did not last long. There is a visitors account from 1779 which doesn’t mention it and it was definitely gone by the great floods of 1795.
Earlier posts have mentioned a whole range of elite Gardens which show the spread of Chinese taste during the 1740s and 1750s. Thomas Robins painted several of them, notably Richard Bateman’s Grove House at Windsor, and Benjamin Hyett’s Marybone House at Gloucester.
More on Chinoiserie in the English garden soon.