Shugborough Case Study: The Chinese House, c.1747

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

Such was the domestic context in which a Chinese House, complete with boathouse, was erected on an island in an artificial canal to the north of Shugborough estate in 1747.  Approached by a pair of bridges, also of Chinese design, the exterior of the house was originally painted pale blue and white with fret patterns (this is clearly shown in a watercolour (c. 1780) by Moses Griffith (1747-1819) hanging in the Verandah Passage at Shugborough).  The original colour scheme seems mostly to have survived inside the Chinese House, which is decorated in light turquoise, with a separate alcove decorated with red lacquer fretwork and golden monkeys flying kites of birds (see image below).  Eileen Harris persuasively attributes the landscaping and the rerouting of the canal around the Chinese House in 1747 to Thomas Wright.[1]

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

Since the flood of 1795 and the rerouting of the Sow, the Chinese House no longer stands on an island, but on a small promontory, with a new red iron bridge, built by Charles Heywood in 1813, leading towards the Cat’s Monument.  Some repairs were undertaken in the late twentieth century to restore the Chinese House to its present condition (a photograph taken by Osvald Sirén in the late 1940s shows considerable damage to the underside of the roof).[2]  The building was originally set amongst larches, often referred to by eighteenth-century observers as ‘Indian Trees,’ but these have not survived.


Margot, Kate, Ellen and Stephen outside the Chinese Houses at Shugborough. Image courtesy of Kate Smith.

Shugborough also boasted a pagoda, c. 1752, which stood on the other side of the Mansion House, and seems to have been washed away in the floods of 1795.  We know from a letter of 14 November 1752 that the ‘skeleton’ of the pagoda had been completed by that date.[3]  Jemima, Marchioness Grey (Lady Anson’s sister-in-law), mentions the apparently completed pagoda at Shugborough in her correspondence of August 1763.[4]  The pagoda is clearly visible in A View of Shugborough from the Park from the East by Nicholas Thomas Dall (d. 1776), which hangs in the Swallow Passage of the Mansion House.

The Chinese House seems to have been the first of Thomas Anson’s new garden features constructed after his brother’s return.  It was soon followed by a number of other garden structures of more classical taste: Thomas Wright’s Cat’s Monument (1749); Samuel Wyatt’s Ruin (c. 1750), and the Shepherd’s Monument, started by Wright before 1758 (and the subject of much speculation ever since).[5]  From around 1760 onwards, Thomas Anson engaged the services of James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, who produced for Shugborough several structures after the designs in The Antiquities of Athens (1762; co-authored with Nicholas Revett), of which both Thomas and George Anson had been subscribers to the first edition.  [John Walsh also employed James Stuart to work on his home Warfield Park in Berkshire, the subject of another case study.]  The Stuart structures are: a Doric Temple (c. 1760; reliefs added after 1842); a Triumphal Arch (c. 1765), which was adapted into a memorial following Admiral Anson’s death in 1762; a Tower of the Winds (before 1767), and the Lanthorn of Demosthenes (1771), with a metal tripod cast by Matthew Boulton and a ceramic bowl by Josiah Wedgwood.  According to Wedgwood, ‘Mr Stewart [sic] said he knew Mr Anson would glory in having the Arts of Soho and Etruria united in his Trypod, and that it would be a feather in our Caps which that Good Gentleman would delight in taking every opportunity to shew to our advantage.’[6]  The present tripod at the top of the Lanthorn is a fibreglass copy.[7]

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Tower of the Winds, Shugborough, Staffordshire. Image courtesy of Stephen McDowall.

The juxtaposition of buildings in the Chinese taste and those in a classical style can only partly be explained by the competing interests of the two Anson brothers (although this was certainly a factor).  The sight of a Chinese house surrounded by classical ruins might seem rather incongruous to us today, but for this brief period in the mid-eighteenth century such pairings evoked little surprise.  Yet as the art historian Wu Hung has recently observed, the relationship between these two types of buildings, both in gardens but also in European visual culture, has thus far received little scholarly attention.[8]  While it cannot on its own provide a satisfactory explanation, it is interesting to note that some early eighteenth-century commentators seem to have seen parallels in the way classical and Chinese gardens were laid out.  In 1728, probably drawing on Temple and Addison, Robert Castell expressed the view that the designer of Pliny’s garden at Tuscum had been ‘not unacquainted’ with the manner of the Chinese garden, in which, ‘tho’ the Parts are disposed with the greatest Art, the Irregularity is still preserved; so that their Manner may not improperly be said to be an artful Confusion.’  This manner was surely to be preferred over gardens that show too much artifice, as ‘it cannot be supposed that Nature ever did or will produce Trees in the Form of Beasts, or Letters, or any Resemblance of Embroidery, which imitations rather belong to the Statuary, and Workers with the Needle than the Architect; and tho’ pleasing in those Arts, appear monstrous in this.’[9]

Of what he calls the ‘flimsy fantasy of doll-like lovers, children, monkeys, and fishermen lolling about in pleasure gardens graced by eternal spring’ of eighteenth-century chinoiserie, David Porter argues that ‘there was no substance to such a vision and indeed no desire for substance.’[10]  Walpole in 1750 refers to the ‘whimsical air of novelty that is very pleasing’ created by Chinese temples and bridges, which for the most part appears to have been the sole purpose of such buildings.[11]  In this regard the significance of the Chinese House at Shugborough is that it seems to have been the earliest garden structure in a Chinese taste for which a claim to authenticity was made.  This claim was based on its supposedly having being built from a sketch drawn in China by Peircy Brett, one of the officers on the HMS Centurion, Commodore Anson’s flagship during the voyage of circumnavigation.  Sketches made by Brett had been the basis for the 42 copper-plated engravings that illustrated the 1748 edition of the Voyage Round the World, where the fact that these ‘were not copied from the works of others, or composed at home from imperfect accounts given by incurious and unskilful observers, as hath been frequently the case in these matters; but the greatest part of them were drawn on the spot with the utmost exactness,’ represented a particular point of pride.[12]  A travel record of 1782 by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), who is listed as a subscriber to the first edition of the Voyage Round the World, highlights ‘the genuine architecture of China, in all its extravagance,’ later adding that the Chinese House ‘is a true pattern of the architecture of that nation, taken in the country by the skilfil pencil of Sir Percy [sic] Brett: not a mongrel invention of British carpenters.’[13]  Unfortunately the original design for the Chinese House, which formed part of the collection of the late Earl of Aylesford at Packington Hall, seems to have been lost in a fire in late 1979.[14]

The question of ‘authenticity’ is of course a complex one.  The same Chinese House that Pennant thought was ‘not a mongrel invention of British carpenters,’ is described in Hugh Honour’s classic 1961 study as ‘as delightful a specimen of mongrel chinoiserie as ever appeared in England.’[15]  But the fact that an explicit claim to authenticity was made in this case is interesting, and links the Chinese House at Shugborough to the designs for Chinese structures at Kew, later drawn up and published by William Chambers.  One might add here that this preoccupation is mirrored today in a Western obsession with recreating ‘authentic’ Chinese gardens, usually now taken to be the so-called ‘scholar’ gardens of Ming Suzhou (although these too are available to us only through much later reconstructions).

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On 1 November 2013, Geoffrey Morgan left the following comment:
The inscription on the Shepherds Monument is not difficult to decipher.
O . U . O . S . V . A . V . V
The two lower letters refer to Dagobert Merovingian; the upper line of letters broadly translated as: –
” Observateur Utiliser Objecter Shugborough Voir Aussi Visa Versa “.
Or, Observer Use the Object at Shugborough to See or Understand Also Vice Versa”.
Do you not find it odd that the Chinese House – an Eastern house, is on the WEST side of the monuments?

[1] Eileen Harris, ‘A Flair for the Grandiose: The Architecture of Thomas Wright – II,’ Country Life, 2 Sept 1971: 546-50.

[2] Osvald Sirén, China and Gardens of Europe of the Eighteenth Century (rpt: Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1990), plate 73B.  Sirén seems to assume that the Chinese House was built after the Great Pagoda at Kew.

[3] Staffordshire Record Office, D615/P(S)/1/4/75.

[4] Joyce Godber, The Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park (Bedford: Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 1968), p. 73.

[5] The very brief summary in this paragraph is based on George T. Noszlopy & Fiona Waterhouse, Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), pp. 100-17.

[6] Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley, dated 24 to 26 December 1770, in Ann Finer & George Savage ed., The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London: Cory, Adams & Mackay, 1965), pp. 100-1.  On this collaboration see Nicholas Goodison, ‘Mr Stuart’s Tripod,’ The Burlington Magazine (Oct 1972): 695-705.

[7] For a brief chronology of Stuart’s buildings at Shugborough, including plates showing their correspondence with designs from The Antiquities of Athens, see David Watkin, Athenian Stuart: Pioneer of the Greek Revival (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982) pp. 25-8.

[8] Wu Hung, A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Visual Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), pp. 14-6.

[9] Robert Castell, The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated (London: Printed for the author, 1728), pp. 116-8.

[10] David Porter, Ideographia: The Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 135.

[11] Walpole to Sir Horrace Mann, 2 August 1750.  See W. S. Lewis ed., The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Volume 20 (London: Oxford University Press, 1960) p. 166.

[12] ‘Introduction’ to Walter comp., Voyage Round the World.

[13] Thomas Pennant, The Journey from Chester to London (London: B. White, 1782), pp. 67-9.

[14] My thanks to the present Earl of Aylesford for attempting, unsuccessfully, to locate this design for me.  An image of the design was published (before the fire) in Conner, Oriental Architecture, plate 22, but is difficult to make out properly.  I have thus far also been unable to locate the photograph used for this book.

[15] Hugh Honour, Chinoiserie: The Vision of Cathay (London: John Murray, 1961), p. 151.