Shugborough Case Study: China in the Eighteenth-Century British Landscape


Plate. Jingdezhen, China. Wanli reign (1573-1620). Porcelain decorated in underglaze cobalt blue. London: Victoria and Albert Museum. C.588-1922.

Chinese decorative objects such as porcelain had been known in Britain long before Commodore Anson’s unhappy stay at Canton in 1743.  The Venetian painter Bellini had portrayed as divine eating ware several Chinese blue-and-white vessels in his Feast of the Gods (1514), but by the mid-seventeenth century, such dishes were already becoming commonplace in Europe, thanks in the British case largely to the activities of the EIC.  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.  Sir William Temple’s classic essay of 1685, in which he contrasted the regular forms of European gardens with the designed irregularity of their Chinese counterparts, ‘where the Beauty shall be great, and strike the Eye, but without any Order or Disposition of Parts, that shall be commonly or easily observ’d,’ was to a generation of British intellectuals highly influential.[1]  Addison’s Spectator essay of 1712 echoed Temple’s account of the Chinese, who chose ‘to shew a Genius in Works of this Nature, and therefore always conceal the Art by which they direct themselves,’ adding that ‘I would rather look upon a Tree in all its Luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is…cut and trimmed into a Mathematical Figure.’[2]

In 1743, coincidentally as Commodore Anson was attempting to refit his ship in Canton, Jean-Denis Attiret, a French Jesuit employed at the court of the young Qianlong 乾隆 Emperor (r. 1736-1795), described in a long letter the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan 圓明園) outside of Beijing.  The widely-read letter, which was published in Paris in 1749, and soon translated into English by Joseph Spence, stressed above all the ‘beautiful Disorder’ of the emperor’s gardens, although he too was perceptive enough to note that the natural features he admired had in fact been carefully ‘placed with so much Art.’[3]

Chinese house exterior2 SDC10539

Chinese House, Shugborough, Staffordshire. Image courtesy of Stephen McDowall.

The fashion in Britain for architectural garden features in the Chinese taste was intense, but much shorter lived, dating only from the late 1730s, and may, as some scholars have suggested, have been sparked in part by the publication in 1735 of Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s (1674-1743) La Description de la Chine.[4]  Tim Richardson links the fashion to domestic politics, describing as ‘one of the wonderful eccentricities of the age’ the fact that Chinese decoration was used in the service of British patriotism.[5]  Several such structures existed in Britain prior to the construction of the Chinese House at Shugborough, although it is not entirely clear which was the earliest.  In a letter of 1753, Horace Walpole claims that the ‘several paltry Chinese buildings and bridges’ at Wroxton were ‘of the very first’ to appear in Britain, but does not provide a date of construction.[6]  The Chinese House at Stowe in Buckinghamshire (‘a house built on piles, after the manner of the Chinese, odd & Pretty enough…’) is recorded in a visitor’s record of 1738.[7]  The Chinese House at Woburn, Bedfordshire appears on a 1738 estate map.[8]  A set of anonymous paintings of Old Windsor in Berkshire show that several chinoiserie architectural features, including a slightly bizarre-looking farmhouse, were in place there by 1741.[9]

By the 1750s it was possible to consult a manual such as William & John Halfpenny’s Chinese and Gothic Architecture Properly Ornamented (1752) for one’s chinoiserie design needs, but by the end of that decade it had already become all too clichéd, as Robert Lloyd’s poetic send-up of 1757 suggests:

Now bricklay’rs, carpenters, and joiners,
With Chinese artists, and designers,
Produce their schemes of alteration,
To work this wond’rous reformation.
The useful dome, which secret stood,
Embosom’d in the yew-tree’s wood,
The trav’ler with amazement sees
A temple, Gothic, or Chinese,
With many a bell, and tawdry rag on,
And crested with a sprawling dragon;
A wooden arch is bent astride
A ditch of water, four foot wide,
With angles, curves, and zigzag lines,
From Halfpenny’s exact designs.[10]


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[1] William Temple, ‘Upon the Gardens of Epicurus; or, of Gardening, in the Year 1685’ in The Works of Sir William Temple, Bart. in Two Volumes (London, 1720), vol. 1, pp. 170-90 (p. 186).

[2] Joseph Addison, ‘On the Pleasures of the Imagination,’ The Spectator, no. 414 (25 June 1712), reprinted in Donald F. Bond ed., The Spectator (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) vol. 3, pp. 548-53.

[3] Sir Harry Beaumont [Joseph Spence] trans., A Particular Account of the Emperor of China’s Gardens near Pekin (London: R. Dodsley, 1752), pp. 9-10, 38.  On interest in, and borrowings from, the botanical aspects of Chinese gardens during this period, see Jane Kilpatrick, Gifts from the Gardens of China: The Introduction of Traditional Chinese Garden Plants to Britain, 1698-1862 (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007).

[4] Patrick Conner, Oriental Architecture in the West (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979), p. 49; Emile de Bruijn, ‘Found in Translation: The Chinese House at Stowe,’ Apollo (June 2007): 53-9 (p. 53).  Du Halde’s vast compendium was published in English the following year under the title The General History of China (London, 1736).

[5] Tim Richardson, The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden (London: Bantam Press, 2007), pp. 368-71, argues that the choice of theme ‘was certainly a political act, because the reputed virtue of Confucius was intended to throw into sharp relief the venality of Walpole, as well as the King and Queen’s unseemly obeisance to him.’

[6] Walpole to John Chute, 4 August 1753.  See W. S. Lewis ed., The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Volume 35 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973) p. 74.

[7] Conner, Oriental Architecture, p. 45.

[8] Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service (R1/237), cited in Patrick Conner, ‘Chinese Themes in 18th Century Gardens’ in David Beevers ed., Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain, 1650-1930 (Brighton: The Royal Pavilion & Museums, 2008), pp. 55-63 (p. 56).

[9] John Harris, ‘A Pioneer in Gardening: Dickie Bateman Re-assessed,’ Apollo (October 1993): 227-33.  The farmhouse (see Harris’ figure 2) hardly appears ‘Chinese’ to modern eyes, but a contemporary observer, Richard Pococke, considered the house and surrounds to be ‘in the Chinese taste.’  See The Travels throughout England of Dr. Richard Pococke, ed. James Joel Cartwright (Westminster: Camden Society, 1888-89), vol. 2, pp. 64-5.

[10] Robert Lloyd, ‘The Cit’s Country Box’ in The Poetical Works of Robert Lloyd, A.M. (London: T. Evans, 1774), vol. 1, pp. 41-6.