This section of the case study focuses on three ‘Chinese’ staircases in north-west Wales: Tan-yr-Allt in Bangor, Caernarvonshire; Bishopsgate House in Beaumaris, Anglesey; and Trefeilir in Trefdraeth, Anglesey. Tan-yr-Allt and Trefeilir were both originally country houses built or occupied during the eighteenth century, while Bishopsgate House is a townhouse owned and used by the Bulkeley family based at Baron Hill, also in Anglesey. The houses are all within a seventeen-mile radius of one another, and have ‘Chinese’ staircases that survive to the present day, though in variable conditions. The case study will also consider a number of “missing” staircases in the area that were identified as ‘Chinese’ in the written record but that leave little or no material trace.
1. Tan-yr-Allt, Bangor
Tan-yr-Allt (in English ‘below the hill’) is a two storey, Grade II* house in Bangor, Caernarvonshire, built in 1755 for John Ellis, the Archdeacon of Merionedd on a portion of land belonging to his family. It was built in the Palladian style popularised at the time of its construction by Inigo Jones and his contemporaries, and is believed to have been planned by one such Master builder, though there is little remaining evidence to support this supposition.[i] The house was originally situated outside of Bangor, set within extensive formal gardens sloping downhill to the River Adda, with pathways connecting the property to Bangor Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace. However, the house and grounds were purchased by Bangor University in 1928 as part of its post-First World War expansion, along with adjacent land that the university required for its planned development. The house has since been encroached by university buildings, and more recently by the PONTIO Arts and Innovation in Bangor development, obscuring its original rurality (see Figure 2 left).
Tan-yr-Allt was visited by Royal Commission investigators in the early 1950s while preparing the Caernarvonshire Inventories, which were published in three volumes between 1956 and 1964. A plan of the property was made, and photographs were taken of what investigators considered to be key features of the house and its interior, which was by that time in use as Bangor University Student’s Union (see Figure 3 below).
Records at the Commission indicate that at the time of its initial survey the interior features of the building had survived well. They date the main staircase, windows, fireplaces, cornicing and ground floor panelling to the building’s original construction in 1755. Particular attention is given to the main staircase, which the final inventory notes is ‘a good example of the local Chinese Chippendale style’.[ii] It ascends from the main entrance of the property to the first floor in a single flight, with a railing on the landing and fluted reveals to the window at the head of the stairs (see Figure 6 below). It features a latticework design, with two contrasting patterns repeating in sequence to form the balustrade. The stair rail on the landing uses two different but equally contrasting patterns across the span of the landing (see Figure 7 below). In addition, the tread end of each step is carved with a stylised wave design (see Figure 4 above). Although the staircase is now painted white, the photographs from the initial 1950s investigation show the original staircase as being dark wood, though it is not possible to ascertain from the images whether its appearance is inherent in its materiality (i.e. whether it is made from mahogany or similar), or whether it is a result of wood staining (see Figure 5 below). This staircase is the earliest of all the surviving staircases examined in this case study, and at the time of writing, the earliest confirmed occurrence of a ‘Chinese’ staircases in north-west Wales.
2. Bishopsgate House, Beaumaris
Bishopsgate House in Beaumaris, Anglesey was built in the early eighteenth century by the Bulkeley family, who used the property as a dower house.[iii] The family’s main residence on Anglesey was at Baron Hill, about a mile from Beaumaris. In their report, Commission investigators noted that the house is substantially eighteenth-century in its fabric but with later alterations to the front room and façade of the property, probably dating to the nineteenth century. Unlike at Tan-yr-Allt, the ‘Chinese’ staircase in the house is not contemporary with the original construction of the building. Following a visit to the property in the 1930s, investigators suggested that the staircase was installed in the house in c. 1760. It was noted that the panelling in the ground floor rooms and the back stairs of the property are likely contemporary with the installation of the staircase and suggest a broader programme of interior change at the house in the 1760s. This home improvement work occurred following the death of its owner James, 6th Viscount Bulkeley (1717 – 1752) in 1752, and possibly in the same year that the Dowager Lady Bulkeley, née Emma Rowlands (d. 1770) married her second husband, Lt. Col. Hugh Williams (d. 1794) of Nant, Caernarvon and Caerau, Anglesey. The 6th Viscount Bulkeley was succeeded by his posthumous son Thomas James Bulkeley (1752 – 1822) who was born eight months after his father’s death, and who therefore had little influence on the interior design of the properties in his ownership at that time.
Just as at Tan-yr-Allt the staircase is the main stairway in the building, and ascends from the ground floor to the first floor in two flights. Again, the Royal Commission records make particular reference to the ‘Chinese’ staircase at the property.[iv] The staircase rail is the same design as at Tan-yr-Allt, and the repeating pattern of alternating and contrasting latticework designs is almost identical with only slight adjustments needed to better fit the space allocated to them, and to accommodate the slightly steeper pitch of the staircase (see Figure 8 above). The pattern for the first flight of stairs is the same as that at Tan-yr-Allt, while the second flight and landing use the same patterns that appear on the landing at Tan-yr-Allt (see Figure 9 below). In addition, the tread ends are decorated with the same carved stylised wave design. The staircase is also constructed from dark wood, though it too has been painted white since the Commission’s investigations. Further work would be needed to identify the specific wood used in construction.
3. Trefeilir, Anglesey
Trefeilir is an eighteenth-century house near Trefdraeth, Anglesey. The majority of the extant structure of the building was constructed in 1735, incorporating the remains of a sixteenth-century house, representing all that remains of an earlier building, into one wing of the property. In a photographic survey of the house, possibly conducted in the 1930s in preparation for the Commission’s Anglesey Inventory (published in 1937), the exterior was photographed extensively (see Figure 10 below). Inside, key architectural features were photographed: two sixteenth century fireplaces and the main staircase. In the notes that accompany the survey the field investigator describes this as a ‘Chinese’ staircase, and suggests it was added to the house in c. 1760, broadly the same date as the staircase at Bishopsgate House about seventeen miles away. It is possible that the new staircase was added to the house in preparation for the marriage of owner Charles Evans (1726 – 1802) to Elizabeth Lewis (1740 – 1805) in 1761. The site file notes that ‘other’ contemporary renovations to the interior of the building, in addition to later modernisation work, were so extensive as to completely obscure the original sixteenth-century floor plan.
As at Tan-yr-Allt and Bishopsgate House, the staircase appears to be made from dark wood, and has a reasonably plain handrail, newel and newel cap. The tread ends are also carved with a stylised wave design, though this is slightly more ornate than at the other two properties (see Figure 11 above). The staircase ascends from the central hall to the first floor in two flights, with different sequences of patterns used for each flight and the landing. However, while the latticework patterns utilised at Tan-yr-Allt and Bishopsgate House and their sequence of use are very similar to each other, the designs used at Trefeilir are only broadly similar. Elements of the designs on individual panels are visible though they are configured differently. The designs appear less complex, with the interlocking lozenge shapes of the patterns at Tan-yr-Allt and Bishopsgate House being largely omitted.
[i] http://www.bangorcivicsociety.org.uk/files/Tanrallt_report.pdf, accessed 17 June 2013.
[ii] An Inventory on the Ancient Monuments in Caernarvonshire: II Central: the Cantref of Arfon and the Commote of Eifionydd (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1958) p. 61.
[iii] NMR Site Files: Anglesey Domestic SH67NW (Bishopsgate House).
[iv] An Inventory on the Ancient Monuments in Caernarvonshire: II Central: the Cantref of Arfon and the Commote of Eifionydd (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1958).