Quex Park, Kent
By Alison Bennett
Please note that this case study was first published on blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah in August 2014. The case study was last checked by the project team on 20 August 2014. For citation advice, visit ‘Using the website’.
How did the meanings that were attributed to objects imported via the East India Company and placed in British country homes, change over time? To contribute to the wider research around this question, being led by the East India Company at Home 1757-1857 project, this case-study will analyse Quex House in Birchington, Kent.
This house has a rich colonial history that is around 200years old, though the Quex Estate is much older. It has been called ‘Quex’ since its ownership in the 1500s by the Quekes family who prospered from the extensive wool industry in Kent. The Powell-Cotton family connection with the house began when John Powell (1721-1783), Assistant to the First Lord Holland, purchased estates, including Quex, from Holland’s son, Charles James Fox, in the 1760s. These subsequently passed to Powell’s sister, nephew, and then niece, Harriot (1776-1837) who married Charles Bowland Cotton (1768- 1847) – hence the Cotton link.
The marriage to Charles Bowland Cotton also marked the beginning of Quex House’s links to the East India Company. Charles’s father, John Cotton (1735-1803) was a Commander in the East India Company’s Marine Service, and Charles himself was in charge of the East India Company ship, The Cufnells. Charles’s son, Henry Perry Cotton (1806-1881) who inherited the house after the death of his father and then uncle, became a Lieutenant in the Company army, and later, Aide-de-Camp to General Pine.
A number of decorative objects from India and China are believed to have been passed down from these generations to the individual who is the focus of this case-study, their descendent, Major Percy Powell-Cotton (1866- 1940). The significance of this inheritance for the East India Company at Home project lies with the fact that Major Powell-Cotton actively used this collection in the decoration of Quex house. He also added to the collection himself as his decorative tastes developed. Both of these points raise questions about the legacy of objects acquired by eighteenth-century East India Company officials, and invite an interrogation of processes of change in British country houses, especially the acquisition, use, and understanding of Asian luxury goods inside them.
This case-study will begin with a brief family history, followed by an analysis of evidence from the family and Museum archive at Quex to understand the makings of Percy’s decorative tastes, particularly how his artistic ideas of the Orient were constructed through these inherited objects. Percy later embarked on a period of extensive travelling and experienced other cultures for himself, and so the second part of this study will investigate him in his later life as a collector who added to his treasured family collection in ways influenced and informed by his own travels, and from wider cultural movements of his own time. The developments in Percy’s ideas are reflected in the extensive decorative schemes, renovation, preservation, and collecting that he carried out at Quex House.
This study is a reflection on one man and his collections, which seeks to uncover some of the meanings attributed to his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century East India Company possessions, and how such meanings were adapted to the Victorian and early Edwardian setting.
In the eighteenth century, the Cotton family sustained a series of connections to the East India Company and global flows of trade . John Cotton (1735-1803) was appointed a Commander of the East India Company Marine Service in 1762 and made six voyages to China between 1762 and 1781. His son, Charles Bowland Cotton (1768-1847) began his East India career as a captain’s servant before finally taking charge of the East Indiaman, The Cuffnells in 1795. These journeys and the objects acquired while on them shaped the lives of later generations.
The Makings of a Collector
Growing up in London,surrounded by Asian pottery, porcelain, furniture, and other objects of interest, the young Percy Powell-Cotton quickly developed a strong sense of material literacy as well as a good knowledge of the visual arts. These influences, along with a substantial world trip (1889-91), shaped his later projects of collecting and interior design.
Major Percy Powell-Cotton: The Collector
Soon after Percy returned from his world trip and inherited Quex Park, he began to make extensive changes. His travels renewed his love for a family collection deeply shaped by earlier connections to the East India Company and he soon discovered old objects from storage and placed them strategically around the house.
Through a reflection on one man and his family history, this case study sets out to uncover how the meanings of objects acquired from Asia in the eighteenth century changed over time, reflecting the changing socio-political relationship that Britain had with Asia. The trans-generational history of Quex house, its inhabitants, and its decorative art provide an interesting framework through which to interrogate the legacy of objects acquired by East India Company officials.
The research for this case study was primarily completed and authored by Alison Bennett. Alison would like to thank the wonderful staff at Quex Park for their generous assistance, great knowledge and helpful comments, particularly Hon. Research Associate, Christopher Date, and Museum Archivist, Hazel Basford. For further information on Quex House, see http://www.quexpark.co.uk/