Shugborough: Seat of the Earl of Lichfield
by Stephen McDowall
This case study is an examination of Shugborough, Staffordshire, the seat of the Earl of Lichfield, which touches on some aspects of a larger research project on the property that I hope to publish more extensively elsewhere. Shugborough differs from some of the other properties on which case studies are being produced under the auspices of the ‘East India Company at Home’ project, most obviously in its primary links to the Royal Navy, rather than the East India Company (EIC). In this regard I hope that the story of Shugborough, its connection with the Anson family, its ‘Chinese House’ and its armorial porcelain might provide a useful comparison, against which the project team and associates can view the EIC properties that are the more central focus of their research. My own particular interest in Shugborough lies in the Chinese and Chinese-style objects and structures that adorn the estate, and this case study is deliberately focussed on this single aspect of this fascinating property.
The story of Shugborough as we now know it is essentially that of two brothers: Thomas Anson (1695-1773) and his younger brother George (1697-1762). The Shugborough estate, far smaller than the one we know today, had originally been purchased in 1624 by William Anson (d.1644) of Dunston, Staffordshire. Thomas Anson inherited the estate on the death of his father William (1656-1720), and from the late 1730s onwards, began slowly to acquire the surrounding properties. In 1744 the the return of his brother from abroad allowed improvements to the estate to begin in earnest.
Chinese decorative objects such as porcelain had been known and desired in Britain long before Commodore Anson’s unhappy stay at Canton in 1743. Interest in Chinese gardens was slower to take hold, but began by the end of the seventeenth century with an initial focus on the art of garden layout. The fashion for architectural garden features in the Chinese taste came later, dating only from the late 1730s.
A Chinese House, complete with boathouse, was erected on an island in an artificial canal to the north of Shugborough estate in 1747. Approached by a pair of bridges, also of Chinese design, the exterior of the house was originally painted pale blue and white with fret patterns. Shugborough also boasted a pagoda, c.1752, which stood on the other side of the Mansion House, and seems to have been washed away in the floods of 1795.
The most signficant, and in many respects disastrous, event in Shugborough’s nineteenth-century history was the great sale of 1842, held to repay the considerable debts accumulated by Thomas, 1st Earl of Lichfield (1795-1854). Remarkably, the majority of Shugborough’s important Chinese objects survived, and were removed to the Mansion House for safe keeping in 1885.
Shugborough represents, in very tangible form, a fascinating example of the British engagement with China during the eighteenth century. Admiral Anson despised the Chinese, yet Shugborough itself seems to defy this Sinophobe stance.
To read the Shugborough Estate Case Study in PDF format, click here.
The text and research for this case study was primarily authored by Stephen McDowall who is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh.
 The best single treatment of Shugborough more generally is probably still John Martin Robinson’s Shugborough (London: The National Trust, 1989).