Quex Park Case Study: The Makings of a Collector

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Figure 9. Chinese embroidery hanging at Percy Powell-Cotton’s 21st birthday. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

The makings of a collector

The young Percy Powell-Cotton spent the majority of his childhood and teenage years living in the family homes in Regents Park Road, London, Grove House in Garlinge, and then 29 Cornwall Gardens in South Kensington. Sir Henry Thring (1818-1907), a British lawyer and civil servant, once jestingly referred to this part of South Kensington as‘Maine’s Village Community’, a reference to the anthropological-legal essays about the close-knit structure of North Indian life, entitled Village Communities, published in 1871 by Sir Henry Maine.[1]

Indeed, early inhabitants of standing in, or close to Cornwall Gardens included many ‘Indian’ men and their families: Herman Merivale, Under-Secretary for India, 1866–74; Sir George Campbell, M.P., Indian administrator, member of the Council of India, and ethnologist, 1876–81; Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, jurist, Indian administrator, member of the Council of India, and essayist, 1868–80; and Sir John Strachey, Indian administrator and member of the Council of India, 1884–95.[2] The Powell-Cottons’ immediate neighbour here was Harry Lumsden, Lieutenant General of the Bengal Army. Growing up in this particular social setting must have established particular early ideas, or posed questions about Asia in the young Percy’s mind, a position further encouraged by his home.

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Figure 10. Detail of hanging. Image courtesy of Alison Bennett.

Photographs of Grove House and Cornwall Gardens tell us that Percy grew up surrounded by Asian pottery, porcelain, furniture, and other objects of interest.[3] As a result, the young Percy was materially literate and had a good knowledge of the visual arts. Evidence from his archive shows that even as a teenager living in South Kensington, he had already devised ideas for his future Quex house. He drew plans in 1882[4] and had chosen tiles by the age of seventeen.[5] His close proximity to the South Kensington Museum and its Oriental Courts, which opened at its current spot in 1857, may have also influenced Percy. Highlighted by the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, [6] and added to by the Aesthetic Movement,[7] Indian design became epitomised in the South Kensington Museum’s Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, the year before Percy’s 21st birthday. Percy grew up therefore, not only in a house filled with cultural symbolism relating to Asia, but also in a local community shaped by Asian wealth and goods, and during a time of wider cultural thought which were all entrenched in ideas of the ‘Orient’.

The photographs taken by Percy at his twenty-first birthday (held in 1887 at Quex House- four years after his parents moved in), show how the inherited Asian objects that he had grown up with had begun to conjure ideas of other cultures in Percy’s imagination, long before he embarked on any travels of his own.[8] An early/mid-nineteenth-century family Chinese hanging served as inspiration for the party (see figures 9 and 10), and the ‘Oriental Drawing Room’ as it was named by the family, was transformed into an exotic tent of lanterns, parasols, and fans (see figure 11). This would also have pleased Percy as a follower of the craze for Japonism.

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Figure 11. Photograph of Percy Powell-Cotton’s 21st birthday held at Quex House in 1887. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

A newspaper report following the event describes the décor:

‘Mr & Mrs Powell Cotton gave a successful fancy dress ball at Quex Park, Isle of Thanet, on 20thult to celebrate the coming of age of their eldest son, Percy Gordon Cotton. The new ballroom was picturesquely decorated in Japanese style, the walls and ceiling being draped with salmon pink and light blue Liberty muslin, ornamented with handsome portières of Eastern Embroidery. The dado was especially admired, being entirely composed of palm-leaf fans. The hall and entrance to the ballroom were profusely decorated with palms and hothouse plants.'[9]

This was clearly an important social event for the family, with the family collections used in a central, if whimsical way to celebrate the occasion, and much admired by society. Percy’s worldly ideas were clearly developing at this stage of his life, and the photos provide a snapshot of how he was using his family collections to form an identity for himself, as a cultured man with particular tastes. As a keen family historian, the objects may have also helped Percy to feel connected to his ancestors, and to a wider world unknown to him.

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Figure 12. Photograph of carved Indian chair. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

In addition to the hanging, Percy also inherited pieces of carved Indian furniture including chairs, a table, and a corner cupboard (see figure 12). These pieces have been described in successive handbooks at Quex House as padouk wood, sometimes also loosely referred to as part of the rosewood family which was imported by the East India Company from 1720 onwards, either as a raw material or as manufactured furniture.[10] The pieces also resemble Bombay Blackwood (also known as Indian Rosewood). This type of wood was recorded in the customs returns from 1759 onwards and was made predominantly in the Bombay presidency.[11] It was typically based on English furniture forms from about 1850-1880, and followed the conventions of Rococo Revival.[12] Bombay Blackwood furniture featured a range of standard forms, often with common elements of decoration. It was made in great quantities and shown in numerous exhibitions in Europe and North America from 1851 onwards. Quex is also home to a pair of library tables which have been been categorised by valuers in the past as Anglo Indian, rosewood, c.1830.[13]

All of these pieces display richly carved motifs of flowers, foliage, and animals, and are featured in Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museumby Amin Jaffer, who writes that‘Carving was deeply rooted in implicitly held notions about the value of furniture: in the general mind, carving still meant expense, and being able to afford a highly carved piece gave an air of affluence to the owners.’[14] These pieces must therefore have been highly treasured at their time of acquisition. The fact that Percy retained them and also kept them on display suggests that this continued through the generations.

A four day sale of Quex House’s contents in 1849,[15] resulting from circumstances that included the death settlements of both Henry Perry Cotton’s uncle (John Powell-Powell) and his first wife (Georgina Pine),[16] would have left the house very empty. It is likely therefore, that the carved furniture arrived with Henry Perry Cotton, who had served in the Bengal cavalry and moved in to a rather empty house in need of furnishing after the death of his uncle and wife. When Percy inherited the estate, the chairs were kept in a room named the ‘Indian Room’ which was already in place. Although the attribution is difficult to confirm, it is thought by current staff at Quex Park that the Indian Room may have also derived from Henry Perry Cotton’s time as a nod to the family’s East India Company connections.

Percy took photographs in 1884, one year after he moved in, and again in 1887, when he was aged 21, of the position of the table and chair in the Indian Room. Precisely why he photographed this scene is unknown, but Percy was a keen family historian, and may have done so to provide evidence of former life in the house, which had a rich history of links to the East India Company. There is the strong possibility that the scene had been carefully choreographed by Percy himself, deliberately using these pieces to hint to others about his lineage. Many of the sources used in Deborah Cohen’s study of Victorian interiors also show that photographing domestic interiors was a conventional nineteenth-century practice. For example, Colonel Harold Esdaile Malet (1841-1918) was an enthusiastic watercolourist, and made a habit of photographing the interiors of houses in which he lived.[17] Similarly, Major Joicey of 59 Cadogan Square commissioned Bedford Lemere to photograph his flat in 1890,[18] as did W.D James for his hall at West Dean Park, Chichester which was decorated with oriental furnishings in 1895.[19] Perhaps this was a way of circulating information about one’s self, and one’s status and tastes, to the rest of society.

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Figure 13. Photograph of The India Room c.1887. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

Similarly, Jane Hamlett’s 2006 essay, ‘Nicely Feminine, Yet Learned: Student Rooms at Royal Holloway and the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain’ studies photographs of student rooms taken by individuals who ‘wished to preserve some record’ of their everyday life at the institutions. [20] It questions the way students expressed their identities through material culture, with many taking on the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement. The photographs show that these ideals were taken up by men as well as women, with the author suggesting that this form of expression could signify an ‘alternative masculinity to differentiate from more athletic fellows’ at the colleges. She concludes by arguing that for both genders, aesthetic, or ‘artistic’ decoration was adopted as a ‘strategy for differentiation.’[21]

In Percy’s photograph of the Indian Room (see figure 13), a comfortable armchair can be seen next to the carved Indian chair, suggesting that the latter was only used for deliberate display. The fact that the young Percy deliberately photographed the Indian furniture and the Chinese hanging suggest that they were of some significant importance to him, and had an important place in the house.

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Figure 14. The India Room c.1884. Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1. Courtesy of the Powell-Cotton Museum Trustees.

A family library of history and travel books that had been accumulated over generations must have also been a powerful influence on his enquiring teenage imagination. But it was a world trip (1889-91) that broadened his ideas and cemented his own passion for collecting.

During his trip, Percy visited Kashmir, India, China and Japanamongst many other countries.[22]Whilst on his travels, he accumulated goods with which to furnish Quex House, and from this point, he would become an avid collector of material culture.[23] On his African travels especially, Percy often lived with the communities he visited, and alongside the development of his artistic and collecting tastes, this also cemented his lifetime commitment to Natural History and Anthropology which coincided with its emergence as a valid discipline for study.

Given his now varied experiences abroad, Percy’s understanding of world arts, and especially the meanings of his inherited pieces, must have evolved. He would now add his own pieces to the same collection that had formed his early colonial imagination, thereby maintaining his link to his ancestors and continuing their family collecting heritage, but now adding his own identity to its legacy. The following section will study some of these pieces, and their place within the established family collection, to understand how Percy’s thoughts may have evolved.

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[1]George Feaver, From Status to Contract, A Biography of Sir Henry Maine 1822–1888, 1969, p. 122.See British History online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=50315#n21


[3] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive Doc 2.8 Leases & Title Deeds.

[4] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive   Doc 2.7 Estate Maps and Plans.

[5] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive   Doc 2.9.4 Family Journals – Percy Cotton.

[6] Highlighted by the fact that the ‘Indian Court’ had covered 30,000 square feet of the exhibition. See Tim Barringer and Tom Flynn (eds). Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (Routledge: 1998), p. 12.

[7] During this movement, it was generally believed that an individual’s choice of art became an act of self-definition, and art from the East was increasingly becoming the art of choice. See for example, Jane Hamlett (2006) ‘Nicely Feminine, Yet Learned: Student Rooms at Royal Holloway and the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Women’s History Review, 15:1, p. 137- 161.

[8] Powell-Cotton Museum Archives Pic 4.1.

[9] ‘Entertainments, Balls, Etc’. The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper & Court Chronicle. 1 October, 1887.

[10] Adam Bowett, Woods in British Furniture Making: 1400-1900: an illustrated historical dictionary. (Oblong Creative Ltd, in association with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: 2012), p. 206.

[11]Ibid., p. 201.

[12]Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum (V&A Publications: 2001), p. 330.

[13] Sotheby’s 2003.

[14]Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, p. 330; See also R. W. Symonds and B. B. Whineroy, Victorian Furniture (Studio Editions: 1987), p. 58.

[15]Sale catalogues in the Quex archives show that a proportion of the family’s decorative objects had been sold at auction in both 1849 and 1873.

[16]His later remarriage was also a probable factor in the sale of goods which possessed memories of his former wife.

[17] Deborah Cohen. Household Gods: the British and their possessions. (Yale University Press: 2006), p. 98.. Figure77 Colonel Harold Esdaile Malet (1841-1918), Interior at Cox Hoe,1867-8.

[18] Cohen, Household Gods, p. 103. Figure 80. Major Joicey, 59 Cadogan Square drawing room.

[19] Ibid., p. 129. Figure 100. W. D James’s Hall at West Dean Park, Singleton, Chichester, Sussex.

[20] Hamlett, ‘Nicely Feminine’,p. 139.

[21] Ibid, pp 137, 157, 138.

[22] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive   Doc 2.9.4 Family Journals – Percy Cotton – [World Trip].

[23] Powell-Cotton Museum Archive   Doc 2.9.4 Family Journals – Percy Cotton – [World Trip].