‘Chinese’ Staircase Case Study: The ‘China Craze’

The ‘China Craze’

From the start of this case study the staircases under consideration have been identified as having a ‘Chinese’ or ‘Chinese Chippendale’ design. This is primarily because they are identified in the record as such, but also in order to make a distinction between authentic Chinese material culture and design concepts and a constructed idea of Chinese style known as ‘chinoiserie’, a mixture of Eastern and Western stylistic elements in design ideas. To best understand the genesis of the staircases in this case study, it is first necessary to understand both Chinese and ‘Chinese’ material culture and design in its historical context.

The eighteenth-century fashion for ‘Chinese’ material culture in Britain peaked between 1750 and 1760. The staircases at the three properties in this study were built at the height of the trend between 1755 and c. 1760, when Britain was consumed by a craze for all things Chinese. The Empire of China had long been an object of curiosity to Europeans. Travel accounts published in sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, highlighted China’s architecture, landscapes, material culture and customs to European audiences.[i]  Many of these accounts arose from travel undertaken through business, much of which was on behalf of the East India Company. In 1673 an English-language translation of Johan Nieuhof’s (1618 – 1672) An Embassy from the East India Company of the United Provinces was published. It recounted an account of Nieuhof’s travels from Canton (present day Guangzhou) to Peking (present day Beijing) between 1655 and 1657 when he was appointed steward for a 1,500-mile mission to China by the Dutch East India Company. His book, dedicated to the contemporary administrators of both the East and West India Companies, features 150 illustrations and was disseminated widely. French, German and Latin translations were made available, each of which were published in at least two editions (see Figure 17 below). By the 1730s other influential works on China were also circulating. The most famous of these is Jean-Baptise Du Halde’s The General History of China published in four volumes in France in 1735, with an English translation available from 1741. The extensive and detailed text, again accompanied by hundreds of illustrations of contemporary Chinese civilisation, ignited a deeper curiosity about the country and its culture across European society, and kindled a craze for China in architecture and design.[ii]

Figure 13

Figure 17: Illustration from Nieuhof’s Embassy, showing a Chinese pagoda.

However, there was more to the trend for Chinese goods and ideas than colourful travel writings and striking drawings. By the mid-eighteenth century, the East India Company was regularly importing goods from China into Britain. The English East India Company had established a trading post in Taiwan in 1672 and had immediately engaged in frequent, direct trade with the Chinese, making regular voyages to Amoy, Chusan and Canton. By 1700, the Company had transferred its trading base from Taiwan to its ‘factory’ (trading post) in Canton, and was granted a monopoly on trade with China, which lasted until 1833. While tea fast became the largest trade item in Britain’s trading account, the Company also imported Chinese porcelain and silk.

Some of the products of this global trade are still on show at Plas Newydd in Anglesey, and illustrate how the East India Company’s trade with China had a direct affect on the material culture of British homes. The State Bed in Lord Anglesey’s bedroom has a flying tester covered with Chinese silk, painted with flowers that match Chinese wallpaper that was at the family’s ancestral residence at Beaudesert where the tester was originally displayed until the 1920s. At this time, the 6th Marquess of Anglesey, struggling financially, abandoned the Staffordshire residence and transferred much of its contents to Plas Newydd. Both the tester and the wallpaper are dated to c. 1720. The tester silk suffered water damage following a fire at Beaudesert in 1909, so when the bed was moved to Plas Newydd it was in a reduced form, minus its curtains, which were repurposed as matching window pelmets.[iii] The wallpaper was possibly sold between 1921 and 1924, making its way to a private owner in Pennsylvania before being passed on or sold again to a series of private owners in New York.[iv] 

The influx of Chinese material goods, such as the silk tester, and the popularity of well-illustrated books about the country from the likes of Nieuhof and Du Halde, together provided inspiration for eighteenth-century artisans and architects, who were constantly seeking new aesthetics and designs to tempt the increasingly affluent citizens of a fledging consumer economy to part with their money.[v] It has also been argued that the growing inventiveness of British interior design was partly a rebellion against the constraints imposed by the strict classical vocabulary utilised on building exteriors; the ‘Chinese’ style, undisciplined by the five orders that so meticulously  structured classical architecture, offered an eclecticism and freedom of form that more conventional designs lacked.[vi]

However, such artistic innovation was not always welcome. Elizabeth Montagu, the ‘bluestocking’, wrote to the Revd Mr Friend in 1749 in despair of the new Chinese trend: 

Thus is happened in furniture; sick of Grecian elegance and symmetry, or Gothic grandeur and magnificence, we must all seek the barbarous gaudy goût of the Chinese; and fat-headed Pagods, and shaking Mandarins, bear the prize from the finest works of antiquity; and Apollo and Venus must give way to a fat idol with a sconce on his head.[vii]

Despite Mrs. Montagu’s disparagement of the style, a report from The World in 1753 states that the Chinese was ‘the prevailing whim […] everything… is Chinese, or in the Chinese taste, or as it is more modestly expressed, “partly after the Chinese manner”[…] chairs, tables, chimney pieces are all reduced to this new-fangled standard’.[viii]

Though widely disparaged by contemporary critics as inferior to classical styles, by the 1750s – when the first ‘Chinese’ staircase appeared at Tan-yr-Allt, in Bangor – interior decoration “partly after the Chinese manner” was clearly popular with wealthy home owners. Just one year after Elizabeth Montagu wrote her letter, an entrepreneurial designer and cabinet-maker based in London capitalised on the enthusiasm for home decoration by publishing a book of furniture designs, including a set of patterns in the Chinese taste likely inspired by the publications and goods disseminating among craftsmen and designers, and the vogue for Chinese style. The book was Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754), and it is the most renowned of a series of publications that are likely to have influenced the installation of ‘Chinese’ staircases in north-east Wales.

‘In the Chinese Taste’

Margaret Jourdain notes that ‘[f]urniture in the Chinese taste owes a debt both in structure and ornamental detail to Chinese originals’, particularly ‘[t]he use of lattice work in the arm panels of seat furniture [which] is of Chinese origin,’ and that very likely inspired the ‘vogue [for] the use of frets, or card-cut lattices’ in contemporary Western designs, including the designs for ‘Chinese’ staircases.[ix]

Figure 14

Figure 18: Railing designs as depicted in Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, p. 206.

The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director was published in 1754, and revised in 1755 and 1762. The Director was both a pattern book and a concise set of ‘how to’ instructions or ‘Orders’ intended for use by cabinet makers, and featured designs in the Gothic, Chinese and contemporary ‘modern’ taste. Chippendale included designs for dressers, cabinets, chairs, fire screens and railings in the ‘Chinese’ taste, and though staircases do not feature explicitly, geometric shapes and latticework patterns proliferate throughout his drawings, sharing strong similarities with the staircases at Tan-yr-Allt, Bishopsgate House and Trefeilir (see Figure 18 above and Figures 19 and 20 below). Indeed, the Commission’s own inventories attribute the ‘Chinese’ staircases at each property to Chippendale, referring to them as ‘Chinese Chippendale’ or ‘Chippendale’ staircases in both the site files and the official Inventory descriptions. Given that the Director was the first popular catalogue of its kind with a widespread circulation across Britain, this suggested provenance is perhaps persuasive. However, it is not clear what evidence led investigators to this specific conclusion. It is possible that the Directors publication in 1754, which predates the erection of Tan-yr-Allt, and its 1755 revision, which is contemporary with Tan-yr-Allt’s construction, suggested that the Director was the most likely source for the ‘Chinese’ staircase designs. In addition, the Caernarvonshire Inventories record a number of other items of ‘Chippendale’ furniture broadly contemporary with the installation of the three staircases in this study. At the Parish Church of St. Mary in Trefriw, near Llanrwst, records show that there was an upholstered Chippendale chair in the chancel.[x] There is also a record of four matching Chippendale chairs in the ‘country’ style in Bangor Cathedral, which was connected to Tan-yr-Allt by a series of tree-lined pathways: we can only hypothesis that the Commission’s investigators envisaged a connection in design between the two properties as well.[xi] The appearance of this furniture alongside the ‘Chinese’ staircases may have hinted further at Chippendale’s suspected influence in home owners’ style choices.

Figure 15

Figure 19: ‘Chinese’ chair designs as depicted in Thomas Chippendale’s. The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, p. 72.

Figure 16

Figure 20: Railing designs as depicted in Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, p. 208.

The variance between Chippendale’s designs and the actual staircases may be accounted for by Chippendale himself: he did not intend the designs in the Director to be used rigidly. In his conclusion to the preface he explicitly encourages innovation among his fellow cabinet makers, stating that the publication is ‘calculated to assist the one in the choice, the other in the execution of the designs; which are so contrived, that if no one drawing should singly answer the Gentleman’s taste, there will yet be found a variety of hints sufficient to construct a new one’.[xii] Chippendale was not ‘a lone craftsman, turning out fine furniture in a workshop, but a successful entrepreneur’, but part of a thriving furniture industry which, by 1750, could supply an amazing diversity of types to consumers across Britain who were ravenous for innovation and choice in interior design.[xiii] Although the list of subscribers in the Director lists no persons or businesses in Wales, there were many located in London or in wealthy English households that Welsh home owners would have been able to access.

Figure 17

Figure 21: Railing design from William Halfpenny’s Rural Architecture in the Chinese Taste, showing similarities with staircase designs at Tan-yr-Allt, Bishopsgate House and Trefeilir.

However, a revised edition of the Director was not the only publication available in 1755 to feature ‘Chinese’ designs: between 1750 and 1752, William Halfpenny published Rural Architecture in the Chinese Taste in four volumes. The book featured sixty copperplates of designs ‘for the Decoration of Gardens, Parks, Forrests, Insides of Houses & C.’, and included – crucially – a design for a ‘Chinese’ staircase. Halfpenny’s work is not as renowned today as the work of Thomas Chippendale or his contemporary Sir William Chambers, but arguably his designs had a greater impact on the installation of ‘Chinese’ staircases in north-west Wales, providing a pattern for staircase designs that bears much greater similarity to all three staircases in this study than anything in the Director (see Figure 22 below). The designs are less complex, with fewer pattern variations and wider frets, and feature the lozenge motif that occurs in all three examples of the staircases in north-west Wales. Importantly, Halfpenny’s design also features a stylised wave motif on the risers of each step, which appears on all three staircases in this study. Halfpenny’s wave motif features more classical design elements than the ones at Tan-yr-Allt, Bishopsgate House and Trefeilir but is significant nonetheless, as the motif does not appear in any of Chippendale’s designs. Halfpenny’s inspiration was very likely drawn from the same material as Chippendale: the products of travel and trade enabled through the enterprise of the East India Company.

Figure 18 rotated 2

Figure 22: ‘Chinese’ staircase design from William Halfpenny’s Rural Architecture in the Chinese Taste.

Other works after 1755 only furthered the fashion for Chinese designs among the elite. In 1757, Sir William Chambers published Designs for Chinese Buildings, furniture, dress etc. Chambers had served as a merchant in the Swedish East India Company, twice travelling to Canton in 1743 and 1748 as a ‘supercargo’ on the ship Hoppet. A supercargo was a person employed on a vessel by the owner of the cargo it carried, and was responsible for managing the cargo owner’s trade throughout a voyage. Four years later in 1761, Chambers started to build the Great Pagoda at Kew for the Princess Augusta. The pagoda was completed in 1762 and has been viewed as the most structurally ambitious chinoiserie building in eighteenth-century Europe. As such, it quickly achieved far-reaching fame. As Aldous Bertram argues, ‘[t]hat England’s most celebrated royal garden should have been a Chinese building serves to remind us that chinoiserie was a fashion of great power and durability’.[xiv] The erection of the Great Pagoda coincides broadly with the approximate dates of the installation of ‘Chinese’ staircases at Bishopsgate House and Trefeilir as the trend for Chinese interior decoration was coming to an end, and perhaps lends further credence to Bertram’s claim, and weight to the suggestion that wealthy households in Wales were following English trends in fashion at this time.

‘Along English Lines’

Domestic interiors of the wealthy and elite in eighteenth-century Britain have been the subject of academic interest throughout the last sixty years, with publications and articles exploring every aspect of the home from wall decoration to furnishing, upholstery, soft-furnishings, ceramics and everything in between.[xv] However, the vast majority of studies assessing domestic interiors in Britain focus on English homes. Furthermore, Margaret Ponsonby notes that ‘the emphasis in many books about historic interiors has been on wealthy homes and the leaders and innovators of fashion’[xvi] which has ‘resulted in London housing and consumption receiving more attention than in other parts of England’.[xvii] Additionally, the majority of the few detailed studies on non-English British interiors focus more on vernacular architecture and interior architectural features than interior design or the material culture of the home. In Wales, recent scholarship has examined Welsh vernacular architecture and regional decoration, and the Welsh cottage in particular.[xviii]

While the current dearth of detailed scholarship on the eighteenth-century Welsh interior may at first suggest that Wales was untouched by these developments, it may be argued that in the 1700s the Welsh elite were modelling their homes along English lines, and following fashions for architecture and interior decoration that were popular with the upper class across Britain rather than being influenced by, or limited to, geographical location and trends. Lord Uxbridge’s decision to task well-known architect James Wyatt with the renovation of both his ancestral home in Staffordshire and the family’s summer residence in Anglesey may support this interpretation. In addition, at all three properties in this study the installation of a ‘Chinese’ staircase was part of a scheme to create fashionable houses that could compete with the houses of wealthy contemporaries and peers: Tan-yr-Allt was constructed in the popular Palladian style and was likely designed by a master builder, while renovation work was undertaken in the mid-eighteenth century at both Trefeilir and Bishopsgate House to modernise the interiors, including the installation of staircases in the ‘Chinese’ taste, that were likely influenced by books published in London, and distributed widely across England.

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[i] Margaret Jourdain, English Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750 – 1830) (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953), p. 26.

[ii] Johan Nieuhof, An Embassy from the East India Company of the United Provinces (London, 1673), trans. John Ogilby.

[iii] Oliver Garrett, Plas Newydd: Isle of Anglesey (London: National Trust, 2010), p. 16.

[v] Charles Saumarez Smith, Eighteenth-Century Decoration: Design and the Domestic Interior in England (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993), p. 132.

[vi] Charles Saumarez Smith, Eighteenth-Century Decoration: Design and the Domestic Interior in England (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993), p. 143.

[vii] Charles Saumarez Smith, Eighteenth-Century Decoration: Design and the Domestic Interior in England (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993), p. 143.

[viii] The World, 22 March 1753 in Margaret Jourdain, English Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750 – 1830) (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953), p. 27.

[ix] Margaret Jourdain, English Furniture: The Georgian Period (1750 – 1830) (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1953), p. 27.

[x] An Inventory on the Ancient Monuments in Caernarvonshire: I East: the Cantref of Arllechwedd and the Commote of Creuddyn (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1956) p. 252.

[xi] 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. 286.

[xii] Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (London, 1754).

[xiii] Charles Saumarez Smith, Eighteent-Century Decoration: Design and the Domestic Interior in England (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993), p. 132.

[xiv] Aldous Bertram, ‘Cantonese Models for the Great Pagoda at Kew’ in The Georgian Group Journal, Volume XXI (2013), pp. 47 – 57.

[xv] James Ayres, Domestic Interiors: The British Tradition 1500 – 1850 (New Haven, Connecticut; London: Yale University Press, 2003); Irene Cieraad, At Home: An Anthropology of Domestic Space (Space, Place and Society) (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999); Lesley Hoskins (ed.), The Papered Wall: History, Pattern, Technique (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994); Margaret Ponsonby, Stories From Home: English Domestic Interiors 1750 – 1850 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); Lorna Weatherhill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660 – 1760 (London: Routledge, 1988).

[xvi] Margaret Ponsonby, Stories from Home: English Domestic Interiors from 1750 – 1850 (London: Ashgate, 2007) p. 4.

[xvii] Margaret Ponsonby, Stories from Home: English Domestic Interiors from 1750 – 1850 (London: Ashgate, 2007) p. 4.

[xviii] Richard Bebb, Welsh Furniture 1250 – 1950 : A Cultural History of Craftsmanship and Design (Kidwelly: Saer Books, 2007); Kathryn Davies, Artisan Art: Vernacular wall paintings in the Welsh Marches 1550 – 1650 (Herefordshire: Logaston Press, 2008); Charles Kightly, Living Rooms: Interior Decoration in Wales 400 – 1960 (Cardiff: Cadw, 2005); Eurwyn Wiliam, The Welsh Cottage (Aberystwyth: The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 2010).

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