PAGODAS & PAVILIONS

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The Quarters, Essex
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Munich English Garden
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Woburn
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Pillnitz
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Creaking Pavilion
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Tsarskoye Selo
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Tsarskoye Selo
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Groussay
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Pillnitz
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Stowe Pavilion
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croome court
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Kew Pagoda
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Jardin Anglo-Chinois, French
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Potsdam
The Interiors Archive

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Kew detail
Richard Lea-hair

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Palazzina Cinese Palermo
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TEXT

The first Chinoiserie building in the West was constructed in the winter of 1669-70 by Louis XIV of France at Versailles as a romantic gesture (and presumably suitably secluded meeting place) for his mistress Madam de Montespan. The Trianon de Porcelaine, although retaining an essentially European structure, was covered all over in blue and white Delft tiles with matching porcelain vases adorning the roof. The building was directly influenced by the publication five years earlier of a description and engraving of the instantly famous Porcelain Pagoda of Nanking, a massive and ancient tile-clad Chinese tower visited by the Dutch Embassy to China that took place in the 1650s. Yet French gardens in the grand manner of Versailles were the polar opposite of the asymmetrical intricacies of Chinese gardens and were supremely unsuited to accommodating the kind of small, whimsical wooden buildings that were no doubt depicted all over the tiles of the Trianon de Porcelaine. It was therefore in England, where garden fashions were about to radically change, that the chinoiserie garden pavilion was truly born.

 

The English Landscape Garden is the name given to an art form invented in England between 1730 and 1760, which replaced the formal style of gardening that had ruled for centuries. In just a few decades, the ancient square orchards were pulled down, the long avenues of trees so beloved in France were dug up, and the labyrinthine parterres popularised by the Dutch were rolled flat. This was to make way for a landscape- so called for its imitation of the natural forms found in the bucolic English countryside and in Italy, where English gentleman spent their intermediate years exploring ruins and purchasing art as part of well-established ‘Grand Tour’. Garden walls were demolished and vast swathes of lawn, grazing cattle and clumps of woodland were now invited in. Old fishponds and straight canals were flooded and joined together until they resembled natural winding streams and noble lakes.

 

By 1734, the startling pace of change was noted in a letter from a Thomas Robinson to the Earl of Carlisle, which observed how ‘the celebrated gardens of Claremont, Chiswick, and Stowe are now full of labourers, to modernise the expensive works finished in them, even in everyone’s memory. If this grows a fashion, it will be happy for that class of people, as they will run no risk of having time lay on their hands.’ As predicted, the new style had become a universal fashion within fifty years, the perfection which became a lifelong obsession for gentlemen across the British Isles. What enabled them to constantly refresh their enthusiasm was the introduction of an architectural element in the form of the eye-catcher, the garden pavilion, and the folly. 

While most people sought to create an in-the-flesh celebration of their classical education and travels in Italy by adorning their new rolling hills with miniature roman temples and statues of the ancients, others sensed a Chinese influence on the fashion. The same letter quoted above went on to observe that the new English gardens were, ‘according to what one hears of the Chinese, entirely after their models for works of this nature, where they never plant straight lines or make regular designs’. This notion about Chinese asymmetry, which was an entirely novel concept in Europe at this date, had been periodically appearing in letters from those connected to the China trade or the Jesuit missions, and indeed matched what everybody could see for themselves on their porcelain vases, lacquered cabinets and wallpapers. Here Chinese gardens were consistently depicted as have a series of delicate bridges and pavilions thrown over an irregular piece of water with willow trees and pointy, pagoda-topped hills.

Without a doubt these connections led to the very early inclusion of chinoiserie structures into eighteenth-century English gardens, beginning in the 1730s and spreading like wildfire. The first may have been at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, where the lower part of the garden was given a deliberately Chinese flavour with numerous winding streams, described by Horace Walpole in 1753 as having ‘several paltry Chinese buildings and bridges, which have the merit or demerit of being the progenitors of a very numerous race all over the kingdom.’ Horace’s prodigious correspondence is a fascinating compendium of scathing remarks, but perhaps in this case his tone indicated a weariness with of the new craze. Just three years earlier he had written excitedly to a friend: ‘The country wears a new face; everybody is improving their places, and as they no longer fortify their plantations with walls and high hedges, one has the benefit of them even in passing by. The dispersed buildings, I mean, temples, bridges, etc. are generally Gothic or Chinese and give a whimsical air of novelty that is very pleasing.’

            

Whimsy and Novelty: here we have two of the key attractions of the chinoiserie garden building.Georgian England was governed by almost indisputable rules of good taste, largely tied to classical principles of design, which could at times be cold and severe. Chinoiserie architecture, hand in hand with the similarly delicate and inventive Gothick and Rococo styles, provided a breath of fresh, exotic air into the standard design rulebook. 

Unfortunately this delicate nature of chinoiserie buildings, being predominantly built of wood, has led to the survival of only a handful. The oldest of these is the Chinese House at Stowe, first recorded in 1738 and recently returned from a century in Ireland (presumed lost). It originally sat upon stilts in the centre of an octagonal pond which was at that time being naturalised into a serpentine lake in accordance to with the landscape fashion and far more suitable for the life-sized sculpture of a sleeping Chinese lady within. 

Artists like Pillement and numerous less skilled draftsmen produced pattern books containing thousands of designs to indulge the craze for chinoiserie. These were equally useful for a lady to paint on a cabinet, as for her husband to commission a local architect to build an endless array of follies, many of which only recalled China in the vaguest manner with some bells, a bit of lattice fretwork or a curving roof. Some proud owners made claims of Chinese authenticity, but as with all the related shoots of chinoiserie decoration, this was wishful thinking. In 1753, London’s Worldmagazinewrote that ‘not one in a thousand of all the stiles, gates, rails, pales, chairs, temples, chimney-pieces, &c. which are called Chinese, have the least resemblance to anything that China ever saw… our Chinese ornaments are not only of our own manufacture, like our French silks and our French wines, but, what has seldom been attributed to the English, of our own invention.’

 

 This last point about invention must be seen in the context of the early eighteenth century, when almost every aspect of European taste was dictated by –or at least derived from–Paris. Thus the English were particularly irked when the French, who enthusiastically took up the craze for laying out new landscape gardens, promptly described the style as Anglo-Chinois, choosing, (to quote once again from Horace Walpole), ‘to be fundamentally obliged to more remote rivals.’

Although the various royal courts of Europe had been experimenting with some beautiful examples of chinoiserie buildings, particularly the Prussians at Sans Souci and the Swedish court at Drottningholm, the spread of the English-style gardens brought a rash of smaller pavilions, boats and bridges. Extrmely influential in this wave of outdoor Chinamania, was the English architect Sir William Chambers. In 1757, eight years after visiting the outskirts of China with the Swedish East India Company, Chambers produced the first major account of Chinese gardens and architecture, which included the first measured drawings seen in Europe. His designs had little impact at home but were warmly received on The Continent. He did, however, gain the loyal patronage of the British royal family, who have always been at the forefront of eccentricity. 

The grounds he laid out at Kew Palace outside London from 1757 were widely celebrated by European visitors, who marvelled at the range of exotic styles employed in the garden architecture. Besides numerous classical temples, there was a Mosque and an oriental ‘Alhambra’, both sadly lost owing to their flimsy wooden construction. Three similarly fleeting chinoiserie structures have also succumbed to the passage of time, but the largest of all the garden buildings, the Great Pagoda, survives. A massive brick tower of ten storeys in height, this chinoiserie marvel would have been seen from miles around.In 2018, eighty painted and gilded dragons were triumphantly returned to its newly re-painted eaves after a sad period of neglect.

The French wanted as much architectural variety in their gardens as Chambers had displayed at Kew, and they had much larger budgets to achieve their aims. Their attitude to the new garden style was one of total freedom and fun, with roundabouts, swings, and other games being common. At Versailles, Marie Antoinette succeeded in creating a large English garden around her Petit Trianon, complete with a rotating Chinese ‘ring game’ with a large chinoiserie spectators’ stand.

A stream of German nobles and princes who visited their royal relatives at Kew returned home to create their own English-style gardens, usually complete with at least one chinoiserie structure.Friedrich II, Landgrave of Cassel, built himself an entire Chinese village named Mulang at the palace of Wilhelm-shöhe during the 1780s and 1790s. But this was nothing compared to the largesse lavished on chinoiserie architecture by the style’s most enamoured disciple, Catherine the Great of Russia. 

As had been the case in England, France, Sweden and Prussia, Catherine’s plans cantered on her summer palace at Tsarskoe Selo, where she planned the most expansive arrangement of chinoiserie structures in Europe, seemingly inspired by the translation of Sir William Chambers’ book on Chinese architecture into Russian in 1771. Catherine already had a ‘Chinese Palace’ at her palace of Oranienbaum from 1764, not ostensibly oriental from the outside, but with much exuberant chinoiserie décor within. Yet it wasn’t until the arrival of the English landscape taste to St Petersburg that she could fully indulge her fantasy of a full chinoiserie architectural composition, as gay and colourful outside as within.

 

‘Let it be my Caprice’. These were reputedly the words used by Catherine when she finally signed off on the enormous cost to construct the artificial mountain of rockwork through which carriages approaching her palace would pass, under the shadow of a chinoiserie pavilion perched upon the top. Still known as the Great Caprice, this opened up to a vista revealing a veritable Chinese fairy-land comprising a series of bridges and pavilions, a vast theatre and a village of ten guesthouses arranged around a central octagonal pagoda of three storeys. Life-sized Chinese statues hold lanterns to illuminate a bridge with railings of red coral sprouting from pink granite vases, while huge purple dragons look down from the rooftops.