Shugborough Case Study: Conclusion – Reading Shugborough, Reading Chinoiserie


Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire. Image courtesy of Stephen McDowall.

Shugborough represents, in very tangible form, a fascinating example of the British engagement with China during the eighteenth century.  Admiral Anson despised the Chinese, thought them unparalleled ‘in artifice, falsehood, and an attachment to all kinds of lucre,’ and professed to consider their talents in the decorative arts to be ‘of a second rate kind.’[1]  Yet Shugborough itself seems to defy this Sinophobe stance.  Something of that ambivalence is captured in part of a lengthy anonymous poem on Shugborough in the Staffordshire Record Office, dated 1767, formerly attributed to Anna Seward:

Here mayst thou oft regale in Leric Bower,

Secure of Mandarins’ despotic power…

Safe from their servile yoke their arts command

And Grecian domes erect in Freedom’s Land.

Should we try to separate the ‘reality,’
however problematic, of the Admiral’s experiences in Canton,[3] from the deliberate fictions inherent in the chinoiserie style, in order fully to understand a place like Shugborough?  Porter argues that the majority of eighteenth-century chinoiserie collectors ‘were content simply to enjoy a delicious surrender to the unremitting exoticism of total illegibility,’[4] and yet, repeated references to the Chinese House as a genuine specimen of Chinese architecture suggest that at Shugborough, a type of legibility was valued.  Either way, we can only regret that amongst all the family journals and correspondence regarding the estate and its buildings, the only person who seems never to mention the Chinese House is Admiral Anson himself.

Previous / Return to Shugborough Case Study Menu

[1] Walter comp., Voyage Round the World, pp. 393, 411.

[2] Robinson, Shugborough, p. 21.  There does not seem to be any evidence to support Seward’s authorship of this poem.

[3] See Glyndwr Williams, ‘Anson at Canton, 1743: “A Little Secret History”,’ in Cecil H. Clough and P. E. H. Hair (eds.), The European Outthrust and Encounter: The First Phase c. 1400-c. 1700 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994), pp. 271-90.

[4] Porter, Ideographia, p. 134.