Shugborough Case Study: Two Brothers


George Anson, 1st Baron Anson. 1755. After Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Oil on Canvas. London: National Portrait Gallery. NPG 518.

The story of Shugborough as we now know it is essentially that of two brothers: Thomas Anson (1695-1773) and his younger brother George (1697-1762).  Thomas was a founder member of the Society of Dilettanti in 1732, established for the appreciation of classical Greek art.  He travelled extensively around the major Mediterranean cities in 1740, and became Member of Parliament for Lichfield in 1747.  The Shugborough estate, far smaller than the one we know today, had originally been purchased in 1624 by William Anson (d. 1644) of Dunston, Staffordshire, and a modest two-storied house had been constructed there in 1695.  Thomas Anson inherited the estate on the death of his father William (1656-1720), in 1720, and from the late 1730s onwards, began slowly to acquire the surrounding properties.  But in 1744 the return of his brother from abroad allowed improvements to the estate to begin in earnest.

Commodore George, soon Admiral Lord Anson had just completed a triumphant and extremely lucrative circumnavigation of the globe.  The expedition to harass Spanish possessions in the South Seas had not gone well, until in 1743 he managed to capture the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, loaded with American silver.[1]  The Commodore’s personal share in the prize amounted to a vast fortune, which financed much of the early work on Shugborough during the 1740s and 1750s.  Probably the most famous naval officer of his day, George lived at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, from 1754 until his death in 1762, which precipitated another round of improvements at Shugborough, Thomas having inherited the bulk of his brother’s wealth.

George Anson had by his own account spent several harrowing months in Canton (Guangzhou) during 1743 dealing with obstinate and obstructive Chinese mandarins, and his impressions of China and its people, described at length in his Voyage Round the World (1748), was not high.[2]  Indeed, the Commodore had reserved particular scorn for Chinese artists and craftsmen, labouring ‘under that poverty of genius, which constantly attends all servile imitators,’ and whose skills were easily surpassed by their Japanese and European counterparts.[3]  Should we be surprised, then, to find at Shugborough so many Chinese or chinoiserie objects acquired either during the circumnavigation or in the years immediately following?  What did such objects mean when placed within this country house context?

The remainder of this case study will reflect on these issues with reference to both the ‘Chinese House’ to the north of Shugborough, and the various objects of Chinese origin or chinoiserie taste that are now located within the Mansion House.  This division reflects the estate as viewed by visitors today, although it is perhaps worth noting here that this was not the way eighteenth- or even most nineteenth-century visitors to Shugborough would have experienced its ‘Chineseness’: the Chinese objects and furnishings having been moved from the Chinese House to the Mansion House for safekeeping only in 1885.

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[1] On the voyage see Glyn Williams, The Prize of all the Oceans: The Triumph and Tragedy of Anson’s Voyage Round the World (London: HarperCollins, 1999).

[2] Richard Walter comp., A Voyage Round the World in the Years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV by George Anson, esq. (London: John & Paul Knapton, 1748).

[3] Walter comp., Voyage Round the World, p. 411.  For a discussion of this aspect of Anson’s account, see Anne Gerritsen & Stephen McDowall, ‘Material Culture and the Other: European Encounters with Chinese Porcelain, ca. 1650-1800,’ Journal of World History 23.1 (March 2012): 87-113 (pp. 107-9).