The Chinese House

attributed to William Kent (Bridlington 1685 – London 1748)
National Trust Inventory Number 91820

Category Wooden objects
Date 1738 (by)
Materials Lead, Paint, Wood
Measurements
Place of origin
Collection Stowe, Buckinghamshire
On show at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, London and South East, National Trust

Summary description

Garden pavilion called the Chinese House, attributed to William Kent (c. 1685-1748), commissioned by Sir Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (1675-1748), by 1738. Enclosed wooden rectangular structure, painted with chinoiserie designs, with latticework windows and with a gabled roof with lead covering and two gilded fish finials.

Full description

The Chinese House at Stowe is the oldest surviving pseudo-Chinese (or chinoiserie) garden pavilion in Britain. It was originally situated on poles in the middle of a pond built into a pseudo-military 'bastion' east of the Elysian Fields at Stowe, where it is first mentioned as being in 1738. It may have been designed by William Kent, who was working at Stowe at that time. The pavilion was provided with painted chinoiserie decoration by Francesco Sleter (1685-1775), traces of which seem to survive underneath subsequent repaintings. Contemporary descriptions suggest that the interior may have been decorated with East Asian lacquer panels. Additional pseudo-Chinese touches included vases filled with flowers mounted on the balustrade of the bridge linking the pavilion to the bank, models of Chinese ducks floating in the pond, and a statue or mannequin of a sleeping Chinese woman inside (none of which survive).

The Chinese House was moved to nearby Wotton House, another Temple-Grenville seat, by Richard, 2nd Earl Temple (1711-1779) in about 1751, where it was initially sited on an island and subsequently on a spot closer to the house. The painted decoration of the Chinese House was refreshed at least twice during the eighteenth century. At some point in the 1820s it received its current decorative scheme, by an as yet unknown artist or artists, consisting of cartouches with Chinese characters, vases, planters and bowls with flowers, dragons, Budai figures and ladies in landscapes on the exterior, and cartouches with pseudo-lacquer decoration and depictions of Chinese deities on the interior.

In 1929 the Wotton estate was sold by the Temple-Grenville family to Major Michael Beaumont, MP for Aylesbury (and grandson the the international business tycoon Michael Grace). The painted decoration on the exterior was refreshed and slightly modified by Percy Willats of the decorating firm Lenygon and Morant in about 1937. In 1957 Major Beaumont shipped the Chinese House to his new residence, Harristown House in Brannockstown, Co. Kildare, Ireland.

Following the purchase of the Stowe landscape gardens by the National Trust a campaign for the repatriation of the Chinese House was initiated by the National Trust's then architectural adviser, the late Gervase Jackson-Stops, which resulted in its purchase and return in 1993. A campaign in memory of Gervase Jackson-Stops raised the funds required to conserve and restore the Chinese House. Its wooden structure was repaired by Tankerdale Ltd, Catherine Hassall carried out analysis on the historic paint, Bush and Berry Conservation Studio conserved and recreated the painted decoration and Ben Bacon recarved the finials. Following this work the Chinese House was unveiled to the public at Stowe in 1998. As the original location of the Chinese House had been extensively modified, it was resituated in a nearby location south-east of the Palladian Bridge.

The 1820s painted decoration of the Chinese House, as restored in the 1990s, is related in style to the chinoiserie decoration of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, by Frederick Crace and Robert Jones. The cartouches with ladies in landscapes are inspired by Chinese paintings on glass (one scene, with a lady sitting beside a stream dipping a stick into the water, is very similar in composition to a Chinese mirror painting at Saltram, inv. no. 872228.5). The Chinese characters and the planters with flowers are derived directly from plates in William Chamber's 1757 book 'Designs of Chinese Buildings' (plates XVIII and X respectively). The corpulent Budai figures are based on the Chinese ceramic statuettes depicting the semi-mythical Buddhist saint Budai Hoshang, which were popular import products in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. The dragons are similarly popular chinoiserie motifs, but they are stylistically particularly close to the painted and carved dragons incorporated into the Royal pavilion by Crace and Jones. The 'lacquer' panels on the interior depict Rococo-style chinoiserie landscape vignettes in the manner of Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1728-1808). The panels with Chinese deities are inspired by or copied from the decorated glass panels used in Chinese lanters, which were popular import products in the Regency period and of which similar examples survive in the collection of the Royal Pavilion.

Contemporary sources:

First mentioned by anonymous visitor in 1738 (see Clarke 1990, p. 74).

Mentioned by Defoe and Richardson, 1742: '...the Out-side of it painted very ingeniously, in the Chinese taste, by the celebrated Mr. Sleats. The inside of it is India Japan.' (see Clarke 1990, p. 88)

Marked on an anonymous plan of 1742, as 'An India House' (Clarke 1990, p. 112).

Mentioned in Benton Seeley's guidebook to Stowe of 1744: '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.' (Clarke 1990, p. 130)

Illustrated in Benton Seeley's Views of Temples, and other Ornamental Buildings in The Gardens at Stow, 1750 (see Clarke 1990, p. 153).

Sketch apparently of the Chinese House by Sir Roger Newdigate, 1748 (Clarke 1990, p. 179).

Mentioned by Jemima, Marchioness Grey, in her Letterbook, 1748: 'There is also a Chinese Room, the prettiest I have seen, and the Only One like the Drawings and Prints of their Houses. 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.' (Clarke 1990, pp. 183-184)

Provenance

Commissioned by Sir Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (1675-1748), possibly designed by William Kent (c. 1685-1748) and with painted decorations by Francesco Sleter (1685-1775), and at Stowe by 1738; by descent to Richard, 2nd Earl Temple (1711-1779), who moved it to Wotton House, Buckinghamshire, in around 1751, and thence by descent; sold as part of the Wotton estate to Major Michael Beaumont, 1929; moved by Major Beaumont to Harristown House, Brannockstown, Co. Kildare, Ireland, 1957, and thence by descent at Harristown House; purchased by the National Trust by private treaty with grants from the Monument Trust and the Pilgrim Trust and part of a bequest from the late Alec Clifton-Taylor, 1993.

Makers and roles

attributed to William Kent (Bridlington 1685 – London 1748), designer
Francesco Sleter (1685-1775), painter

References

Seeley 1744: Benton Seeley, Stow: the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham, 1744
Seeley 1750: Benton Seeley, Views of Temples, and other Ornamental Buildings in the Gardens at Stow, 1750
Whately, 1770: Thomas Whately. Observations on modern gardening, illustrated by descriptions. Dublin: Printed for James Williams, 1770.
Pococke, 1888-89: Richard Pococke. The travels through England of Dr. Richard Pococke, successively Bishop of Meath and of Ossory during 1750, 1751, and later years. Ed. James Joel Cartwright. London: Printed for the Camden Society, 1888-1889.
Nares 1949: Gordon Nares, ‘Wotton House, Aylesbury’, Country Life, 8 July 1949, pp. 112-113
Honour, Hugh. Chinoiserie. [1961.].
Croft-Murray 1962-1970: Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England, 1537 - 1837 (2 vols), 1962-1970
Conner 1979.1: Patrick Conner, 'Britain's First Chinoiserie Pavilion?', Country Life, 25 January 1979, pp. 236-237
Conner 1979.2: Patrick Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West, London, Thames & Hudson, 1979
Mott and Aall 1898: George Mott and Sally Sample Aall, Follies and Pleasure Pavilions, London, Pavilion, 1989
Clarke, 1990: Descriptions of Lord Cobham’s gardens at Stowe (1700-1750). Ed. George B. Clarke. Vol. 26. Buckinghamshire Record Society. Publications. [Aylesbury]: Buckinghamshire Record Society, 1990.
Cousins 1990: Michael Cousins, 'The First Chinese Building in England', Follies, no. 7 (autumn 1990), pp. 2-3
Jackson-Stops 1992: Gervase Jackson-Stops, 'Pavilion Restored', The World of Interiors, May 1992, pp. 92-97
Anonymous 1992: [No author listed, but possibly Gervase Jackson-Stops], 'Forgotten But Not Lost', Country Life, 13 August 1992, p. 67
Clarke, 1992: George B. Clarke. “The moving temples of Stowe: aesthetics of change in an English landscape over four generations.” Huntingdon Library Quarterly 55 (1992): pp.479-532.
Clarke et al. 1992: George Clarke, Peter Inskip and Richard Wheeler, English Arcadia: The Landscape and Buildings of Stowe, San Marino, The Henry E. Huntington Library, 1992
Jackson-Stops, 1993: Gervase Jackson-Stops. “Sharawadgi rediscovered: the Chinese House at Stowe.” Apollo 137.374 (1993): pp.217-222.
Parry (ed.) 1999: James Parry (ed.), Rooted in History: Studies in Garden Conservation, London, The National Trust, 1999
Knox et al. 2002: Tim Knox and David Oosterman. “National Trust projects and acquisitions: 2001-2002.” Apollo 155.482 (2002): pp.3-16.
Bruijn, de 2007: Emile de Bruijn. “Found in translation: the Chinese House at Stowe.” Apollo 165.544 (2007): pp.52-59.

Related items

Place of origin
Materials Lead (2242)
Paint (29646)
Wood (126357)
Category Wooden objects (14956)
Collection Stowe, Buckinghamshire (42)
Periods 18th century (85291)
Maker William Kent (Bridlington 1685 – London 1748) (57)
Francesco Sleter (1685-1775) (1)
Subjects
Object Type Garden building (1)

Record Status

Enhanced

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