Quex Park Case Study: Major Percy Powell-Cotton: The Collector

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Figure 15. An early 19th-century Chinese lacquer cabinet currently held in the Museum’s reserve collections. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

Major Percy Powell-Cotton: The collector

On his return from his world trip in 1894, Percy inherited and moved into Quex and began to make extensive changes. His travels renewed his love for his family collection and he discovered old objects from storage and began to place them strategically around the house. He made a list of furniture at Quex in 1909, referencing items that he had inherited including the Bombay carved furniture (previously mentioned), Japanese vases, and Korean candlesticks.[1] He also valued greatly a lacquered sea chest brought back from China in 1796 by Charles Bowland Cotton (now displayed in the Armoury). A letter from his Aunt describes her pleasure at his interest in his family history:

‘…I am so pleased to hear that both you and Percy are so interested in All the dear old things about the place, there were three dear old carved large chairs of the time of Charles 1st out of the old Manor House, our dear Mother had restored and new seated in crimson colored velvet, are they to be seen? Poor Quex was so shamefully treated before dear Horace [Percy’s father] got there, it is impossible to say what disappeared. I hope this will not weary you, with our kind love…. ‘[2]

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Figure 16. Photograph showing breakfront cabinet in the ‘Boudoir’. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

It is interesting that Percy’s Aunt only refers to the English pieces here. She is referring to the very early pieces in the family collection, and the old mansion house. At this point, Percy and Hannah were creating a family home, and transforming the entrance hall into a fashionable baronial style hall furnished with mainly 17th-century pieces. Percy also continued to collect English ‘antique’ furniture to help dress the house. A William III state Chair in the Armoury (King William stayed at Old Quex whilst waiting for a ‘fair wind’ to Holland), was one of the ‘old dear things’ & still had pride of place. It is clear that Percy valued his inheritance, but it is possible that he was building something different to that valued by the wider family group. He used his experiences abroad to buy wisely, and to add to the Quex collections. It has been mentioned that a large proportion of the family’s decorative objects had been sold at auction in 1849 and 1873. Percy would now also try to recreate what was missing, complement what was left, and also add his own personality through new objects. At a sale in 1910, for example, he purchased an early nineteenth-century Chinese lacquer cabinet filled with carved netsuke that was likely to have been brought to England on an East India Company ship (see figure 15).

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Figure 17. Porcelain bowl belonging to Charles Bowland Cotton. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

Percy also inherited many pieces of Chinese export ware through his family connections with the East India Company, including a porcelain bowl and guglet bottle belonging to Charles Bowland Cotton (see figures 17 and 18).[3] He housed these objects in a breakfront cabinet in the newly created boudoir (see figure 16) alongside Chinese Imperial Ware that he was inspired to purchase at auction in 1910 in a show of his own decorative tastes, as well as that of his ancestry. [4]

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Figure 18. Guglet bottle belonging to Charles Bowland Cotton. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

Percy and Hannah created the boudoir in 1907 from the original Indian Room, and also created a new library. These became rooms to receive guests, and through this, the couple were able to make their individual mark on the house whilst upgrading it, perhaps to maintain their reputation as a landed family with good taste. The rooms were made much lighter, and more in line with the Georgian style. This move might be regarded as rather unfashionable for the period, but Deborah Cohen has argued that for many people at the end of the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century was hailed as a golden age of craftsmanship, especially given the new craze for antiques during this period, possession of which represented hierarchies of value and worth, given their rarity.[5] Percy’s actions suggest therefore that he was knowledgeable about what his home and possessions would say to others about him, and that he was actually seeking to mark out an image for himself. His material heritage of Company goods combined with his own exotic travels—a leisured lifestyle underpinned by his family’s Company wealth—allowed him to fashion a distinctive global identity predicated on past familial imperial service.

The carved wood furniture was now moved downstairs into the newly created ‘Oriental Drawing Room’ (see figure 19) which still remained impressive, and would have been very much on show to visitors. Percy was therefore still able to maintain a show of his worldly inheritance, respecting the form of deliberate display that the furniture had upstairs under his father and grandfather, and to display his inherited antiques which were now highly prized.

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Figure 19. Photograph of The Oriental Drawing Room in 1913. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1.Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

The photographs taken by Percy in 1913picture the rather hybrid Oriental Drawing Room theatrically styled with inherited items including the Chinese lacquer, and carved Indian furniture, alongside newly acquired objects including highly ornate carved panelling (which look similar in style to the carved Indian furniture), porcelain, and Kashmir rugs. Many of these items were acquired on his world trip, where he visited workshops and bazaars, collecting examples of ancient and modern art and crafts. The Persian style ceiling (see figures 20 and 22) was fitted by Italian plasterers. There is also a Persian style carved over-mantle which holds a Buddha and is placed above a tiled fireplace which has a shrine-like feeling about it. The room also contains a Japanese domestic moon shrine.

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Figure 20. The Oriental Drawing Room, 1913, from opposite angle. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

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Figure 21. Chinese lacquer chair purchased by Percy Powell-Cotton. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

This room certainly stood in stark contrast to the Georgian styled rooms upstairs, but the images of both show the culmination of influences from his upbringing and family history, as well as the cultural and decorative influences of his own generation. Percy was proud of his heritage and the inherited objects which personified this. He was also keen to present himself as an experienced collector and man of taste, and to keep up with current fashions.

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Figure 22. Detail of Italian plasterwork ceiling in Persian style. Image courtesy of Alison Bennett.

Quex House displayed Percy’s individual tastes and reflected his own personal history, but this style was also common in other English houses in around the same period. Photographs featured in Deborah Cohen’s Household Gods include Sir Frederick Leighton’s Moorish inspired home in Kensington which was famous for its decor,[6] as was Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s drawing room at Townsend House- filled with exotic textiles, furnishings, and ceiling decoration,[7] and Mrs Wallace Carpenter’s “Moorish Fantasy” at 28 Ashley Place in London.[8]

A similar example of globalised domestic furnishing is provided by Elveden Hall in Suffolk, which was purchased by Duleep Singh in 1863.[9] Singh was the deposed Maharaja of Punjab, established by the British government as a landed gentleman after his removal from power. After his death, the property was sold in 1894 to Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh who largely retained Duleep Singh’s Indian furnishings and décor, and commissioned Caspar Purdon Clarke, Curator of the Indian collections at the V&A to complete it. Purdon Clarke had also been the designer of the 1886 Colonial and Indian exhibition, which is described by Driver and Ashmore as ‘unashamedly hybrid’. They also note that many objects in this exhibition ‘generally bore no relation to their original purpose’ and were used mainly for ‘dramatic effect’.[10] This description bares a close resemblance to the images of Percy’s Oriental Drawing Room, but places him in an interesting position, given that as well as collecting decorative arts from Asia, his other interests included the anthropological and ethnographical study of objects from Africa. Such actions do reflect the general thought of this period- that African objects were considered worthy of ethnographical study, but not of artistic study, but in doing so, Percy was attempting to synthesise his family legacy and continue its artistic traditions and heritage, with new ideas about the study of objects and other cultures.

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[1] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive Doc 2.6. Auction Catalogues Pope sale, 1910.

[2] Powell- Cotton Museum Archive Doc 2.3.9.

[3] Powell-Cotton Museum Chinese Ceramics P/O 254 & P/O 255.

[4] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive Doc 2.6. Auction Catalogues Pope sale, 1910.

[5] Cohen, Household Gods, p. 155.

[6] Cohen, Household Gods, p. 72.

[7] Cohen, Household Gods, p. 73. Figure 63. Anna Alma Tadema, The Drawing Room, Townshend House, 1885.

[8] Cohen, Household Gods, p. 128. Figure 98. Mrs Wallace Cooper’s Moorish Fantasy at 28 Ashley Place, London, 1893.

[9]Ruler of the kingdom of Lahore, but lost his throne to the British at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49)

[10] Felix Driver and Sonia Ashmore, ‘The Mobile Museum: Collecting and Circulating Indian Textiles in Victorian Britain’, Victorian   Studies, 52:3 (2010), p. 377.