Shugborough Case Study: The Mansion House

Chinese porcelainSAM_0033

Chinese objects in the Blue Drawing Room at Shugborough. Image courtesy of Stephen McDowall.

The most significant, and in many respects disastrous, event in Shugborough’s nineteenth-century history was the great sale of 1842, held to repay the considerable debts accumulated by Thomas, 1st Earl of Lichfield (1795-1854), who, ‘between spending and speculating…has half ruined a noble estate’ according to one observer.[1]  The extensive catalogue of the sale, which lasted a full two weeks, gives an indication of the vast collection of books, wine, paintings and sculptures lost to the estate.[2]  These losses make understanding mid-eighteenth-century Shugborough much more difficult, as Viccy Coltman has shown with regard to the dispersed sculpture collection.[3]

Remarkably, the majority of Shugborough’s important Chinese objects survived.  Reading through the contemporary report on the 1842 sale that appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine, providing an impressive list of ‘some of the most remarkable articles,’ their purchasers and the prices they realised, one is struck by just how fortunate we are that so many Chinese and chinoiserie items were spared.[4]  The suggestion that they were a last-minute withdrawal from the sale only makes their deliverance all the more fascinating.[5]  Why, and by whom, were the Chinese items at Shugborough considered too important to sell?

Having survived the sale, the contents of the Chinese House, including the porcelain, the painted mirror pictures, fret tables, rushbottom chairs and even the Rococo plasterwork ceiling (c. 1747; now in the Verandah Room) were removed to the Mansion House for safe keeping in 1885.  Most of these decorative objects and pieces of furniture are usually said to have been acquired by Commodore Anson while he was in Canton in 1743.[6]  It is in most cases impossible to corroborate this, and references to decoration and furniture in the Ansons’ correspondence of 1747-48 tend to suggest that many pieces were acquired only during the building’s construction around this time.  A letter from Thomas to George dated October 1747, for example, records that ‘the three Chinese Lanthorns’ arrived safely.[7]  One interesting dimension that deserves further consideration is the extent to which the building – and its decoration in particular – was considered a female domain.  Research on the ‘nabob’ suggests that eighteenth-century East India Company excess was often represented in Georgian stereotypes as feminine and effeminate.[8]  Was this stereotype actively embraced by the women of Shugborough?  The personal correspondence of the family is at times suggestive: another of Thomas’ letters states of the Chinese House that ‘we propose to take Advantage of Lady Anson’s [being] here to finish it.’[9]

Most famous amongst the Chinese objects dating from the time of the circumnavigation is the 208-piece Qianlong period armorial porcelain dinner service, decorated with another design by Peircy Brett, on display in a mahogany cabinet in the Verandah Room.  Views of the lighthouses at Plymouth and Macao decorate the rims of the plates, which also display the Anson crest and arms.  The service is usually said to have been presented to Commodore Anson by the grateful European merchants of Canton after the crew of the Centurion helped to extinguish a fire in that city in late 1743.[10]

Kate Mirror PaintingSAM_0019

Kate next to a mirror painting in Ante Room at Shugborough. Image courtesy of Stephen McDowall.

The two painted mirror pictures now in the Ante Room were also brought in from the Chinese House in 1885.  These would have been sent to China for decoration around the mid-eighteenth century, and are considered amongst the best mirror paintings of their period.[11]  The technique of back painting on glass is thought to have been introduced to China by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766; Ch. Lang Shining 郎世寧) while he served the Qing court between 1715 and 1766.[12]  Two walnut, parcel gilded, chinoiserie mirror frames in the Blue Drawing Room, only one of which retains its original (early Qianlong) Chinese mirror painting, may have been carved by Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779).

The Blue Drawing Room also contains a large mahogany display cabinet, which closely follows a design in Chippendale’s Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director of 1754 (see image above left).  Its contents include a set of famille verte porcelain dishes (c. 1725), Yongzheng famille rose porcelain lanterns and a pair of Qianlong famille rose rectangular ink stands.  Recently put on display in the Yellow Bedroom are several late-Qianlong cloisonné enamel and gilt pieces, including a set of jardinières, believed to have come from the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing in 1860.  The Swallow Passage contains a long-case lacquer clock with a representation in the dial of Admiral Anson’s flagship at the (First) Battle of Cape Finisterre (1747), and a beautifully decorated gold chinoiserie design on the body.

Other items at Shugborough relating to the circumnavigation include the sword surrendered in 1743 to Commodore Anson by the captain of the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, a silver gilt punchbowl (1768) engraved with a decoration of the HMS Centurion by Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp, and a model (1747) of the Centurion now loaned to the estate by the National Maritime Museum.  What remains of the figurehead of the Centurion hangs in the Verandah Passage.

Previous / Next


On 17 April 2014, Mel Stanley left the following comment:
Hi what would have happened to a garden sculpture that would have been at the center of what was the rose garden, assuming the now herb garden is the same size that the rose garden was then the center of that, I’m’ fairly sure there was one there, and would love to see a picture of it or it’s now location.
On 22 April 2014, Kate Smith left the following response:

Many thanks for your question. I’m not sure we’re able to answer it, so it might be worth visiting Shugborough or contacting the staff there.

All best,


[1] Thomas Greville, cited in Robinson, Shugborough, p. 45.

[2] A catalogue of the Splendid Property at Shugborough Hall, Stafford:  To be sold at auction, by Mr. George Robins, on the premises, on Monday, the 1st Day of August, 1842, and thirteen following days (Sundays excepted), commencing at twelve o’clock each day most punctually.  Staffordshire Record Office D615/E(H)13.

[3] Viccy Coltman, ‘Thomas Anson’s Sculpture Collection at Shugborough: “Living Good and Pleasing” or “Much Taste a Turn to Roman Splendour”,’ Sculpture Journal 12 (2004): 35-56; ‘“Providence Send us a Lord”: Joseph Nollekens and Bartolomeo Cavaceppi at Shugborough,’ Acta Hyperborea 10 (2003): 371-96.

[4] ‘Sale at Shugborough Hall,’ Gentleman’s Magazine 18 (Oct 1842): 405-7.  Marble sculptures and paintings are the only items listed here.

[5] Robinson, Shugborough, p. 48, citing a manuscript copy of the sale catalogue at the William Salt Library, Stafford.  This manuscript can no longer be located.

[6] See for example Robinson, Shugborough, p. 57; Corinne Daniela Caddy, The Complete Working Shugborough Historic Estate: Souvenir Estate Guide (Stafford: Staffordshire County Council, 2008), p. 58.

[7] Thomas Anson to George Anson, 12 Oct 1747, British Library Add. MS 15955, fo. 60r.

[8] Tillman W. Nechtman, Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[9] Thomas Anson to George Anson, undated (after 24 Oct 1748), British Library Add. MS 15955, fo. 85v.

[10] On this dinner service and the problem of its origins, see Stephen McDowall, ‘The Shugborough Dinner Service and its Significance for Sino-British History,’ Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37:1 (2014), pp. 1-17.

[11] David S. Howard, A Tale of Three Cities – Canton, Shanghai & Hong Kong: Three Centuries of Sino-British Trade in the Decorative Arts (London: Sotheby’s, 1997), p. 149.

[12] de Bruijn, ‘Found in Translation’, p. 55.