Jemima Grey’s Chinoiserie Fabrique at Wrest Park, Part 1. History

Wrest Park has an interesting Chinoiserie fabrique (Fig. 1) which is of interest because it has recently been restored (not for the first time) which allows us to come to grips with the structure. I examined it in June 2013 shortly before the restoration of 2016, which is documented in photos on the restorer’s website. I have not yet found a publication arising from this.

The most useful account I have found is in Patrick Conner’s Oriental Architecture in the West, London: Thames and Hudson, 1979, a book that I have found to be extremely useful and reliable (pp. 68–70).

The sources he cites are letters between Jemima Grey and Lady Gregory of 5 July 1748, 4 September 1748, 25 July 1760, 13 June 1781, and letter of Elizabeth Anson to Jemima Grey 20 August 1750, all in the Bedfordshire County Record Office; Joyce Godber, The Marchioness Grey of Wrest Park, Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, 1968, The Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society; v. 47 (State Library of Victoria, Storage. S 942.56 B39P). Joyce Godber is also the author of History of Bedfordshire 1066-1888, Luton, Bedfordshire County Council, 1969. Also Harris, Chambers (see below).

Jemima Grey, née Campbell (1722–1797) was the only child of John Campbell, 3rd Earl of Breadalbane, and granddaughter and heiress of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent (1671–1740), the creator of Wrest Park. In 1740 Jemima was married to Philip Yorke (1720–1790), son of the 1st Earl of Hardwicke, the Lord Chancellor. Hardwicke died a fortnight later, following which Jemima succeeded by a special remainder in her own right as Marchioness Grey, as well as being Countess of Hardwicke and heir to Wrest Park.[1]

Philip and Jemima, who were then very young, travelled a lot around England, recording their impressions in letters and diaries. They saw the Chinese pavilions at Studley Royal (1744, 1755), Stowe (1748), Wroxton (1748), Richard Bateman’s house (before 1756) and Shugborough (on several occasions).

Through this ‘the marchioness in particular developed firm opinions on style and arrangement’.[2] She was dissatisfied with the classical fabriques at Stowe, finding that the park lacked ‘Variety and Surprise’ and the buildings were too ‘heavy’. She particularly liked Gibb’s Gothic fabrique and the ‘Chinese Room’ (the one now returned there), which she wrote was ‘the prettiest I have seen, & the Only One like the Drawings and Prints of their Houses’ although ‘it stands in a dirty Piece of Water’.[3]

By 1758 they tackled the gardens at Wrest Park, employing Capability Brown.[4] They also built a  Mithraic altar, a bath house and a ‘Capability’ Brown column, which was built by Edward Stevens. Conner points out that Jemima was in the vanguard of taste‘ and ‘her ideals prevailed in many landscape gardens of the 1750s and 1760s’. By 1756  she was ‘almost tired of the Chinese’ and favoured the Gothic of Strawberry Hill.

Interestingly, she made a distinction between Gothic and Chinese in terms of scale. Criticising ‘Dickie’ Bateman’s Park at Old Windsor, she found the scale of his Gothic to be too small:

One could suppose Oneself before in a Chinese Baby-House, but can never be reconciled to a Gothic One’. … [Gothic should be] more Great & Solid & Awfull & Magnificent’.[5]

This is an important distinction: Chinoiserie cannot be sublime. Gothic was strongly associated with vast cathedrals and abbeys and their ruins: it is about religious emotion, sublimity, and the past. Chinoiserie, by contrast, belongs in the present and is imprecise in its associations. It had connotations of extravagant inventive fantasy that the Gothic lacks.

Conner, citing Godber, states that in September 1761, ‘when the external paintwork was completed’ Jemima sent instructions for the painter to begin work on the interior: ‘[a]nd he may begin first with the yellow paper .. which he knows should not be made deeper than a straw colour …’.[6] It would be good to have the whole passage. This is in Godber perhaps? Harris also states that the sources call it a ‘Chinese Temple’, but this needs to be confirmed. (Conner calls it a Chinese House.)

William Chambers

The Wrest Park fabrique is supposed to have been designed by Sir William Chambers. It gets an entry in John Harris’s 1970 monograph (which I have found to be unreliable in a lot of ways),[7] as ‘attributed, c. 1766’. He states that it ‘was decorated by Peter Falconet between 1766 and 1769’ and that ‘it is therefore tempting to associate its design with Lord Hardwick’s [that is, Philip Yorke, 2st Earl of Hardwicke and husband of Jemima Grey] call to Chambers on 18 May 1767 to come to his town house in St. James’s Square and “settle with him”’.[8] Conner, however, points out that the documentation indicates that the fabrique was constructed in 1761, ‘but this does not rule out the possibility of Chamber’s authorship.’[9] Perhaps not, but it is why Chambers name was mentioned, and neither Harris nor anyone else seems to provide stylistic reasons why it should be by Chambers. Given how involved with fashionable design Jemima was she may not have needed to outsource the project to a big name like Chambers. Moreover, they employed Capability Brown, and Chambers was antagonistic towards Brown.[10]

Peter Falconet

And where does Harris’s statement that it ‘was decorated by Peter Falconet between 1766 and 1769’ come from? It seems that Peter Falconet painted a portrait of Chambers, but what is Harris’s source here? His references are to E. Edwards, Anecdotes of Painting, 1808, p. 40; E. von Erdberg, Chinese Influence in European Garden Structures, 1936, p. 188, fig. 52. It turns out that his source is Edwards, who gives a one-page life of Peter [Pierre-Étienne] Falconet, who was the son of Étienne-Maurice Falconet the famous French sculptor (Fig. 2). Edwards states that ‘[h]e was for some four years in London’ and ‘his name stands in the catalogues of the Exhibitions [of the Incorporated Society of Artists] from 1767 to 1773, soon after which he returned to Paris’. But where does Harris get his date range of 1766 to 1769 from? Edwards is internally contradictory in that in his third paragraph he states that ‘In 1766, he [Falconet] obtained a premium for painting in chiaro oscuro, twenty guineas’, which, from the amount, has to have been in England. Does Harris have some other source?

Edwards is hostile towards Falconet as an historical painter. He states that ‘in 1768, he obtained, for an historical picture, twenty-six guineas: in this last work, it was evident, that the extravagant and outré manner of Monsieur Pierè, who at that time was the fashionable historical painter at Paris, had tainted the mind of the young Falconet, as it also corrupted the taste of all the students then in the French Academy’. ‘Monsieur Pierè’ is Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre (1713–1789), director of the Académie and Premier Peintre du Roi of painting from 1770, and painter of religious works at Saint-Sulpice, who was perhaps a bit to Catholic for Edwards.

No-one seems to mention Falconet him as a decorative artist apart from Edwards. Perhaps Edward Croft-Murray does?

On Falconet at Wrest, Edwards states that ‘[h]e practised sometimes in history, at other times portraits, and also painted ornaments; of the latter, he left a specimen, in a Chinese temple at Wrest*, in Bedfordshire’. His asterisked footnote reads ‘Wrest, the seat of the then Marchioness de Grey, now in the possession of her eldest daughter, Baroness Lucas, in her own right, the window of Lord Polworth.’

On Falconet, there is an entry in the DNB. L. H. Cust, revised by Tina Fiske, ‘Falconet, Pierre-Étienne [Peter] (1741–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Published in print: 23 September 2004. This tells us that he was sent to London by his father to work under Reynolds in 1765, and went to Saint Petersburg to join his father (who was working on his equestrian statue there) in 1773. This entry only refers to his portraits; it makes no reference to Wrest Park or the decorative painting referred to by Edwards.

Summary of the Data on the Chinoiserie Fabrique at Wrest Park

What Harris seems to be doing is to assemble Chambers-related data that clusters around his estimated date of construction of c. 1766. To those already mentioned he adds that ‘[i]t may be relevant that Edward Stevens was working at Wrest in 1770’. He built the Capability Brown column there (Wrest Park website). Stevens was Chambers apprentice, whom he took on in 1760 (Harris, p. 10.). Harris’s source for this is from someone who consulted the Bedfordshire Record Office archives, where there is a bill for work on ‘the Cascade Bridge and the Cold Bath’ on 31 August 1770.

If we cut through all this to the hard data, what we have is:

(a) there is documentation that in September 1761 the exterior painting was just complete and decoration of the interior with yellow paper was beginning. The name of the decorator is not given. Apparently. It would be good to see the full transcript of this document.

(b) According to Edwards in 1808, Falconet painted a ‘specimen’ of ‘ornaments’ in ‘a Chinese temple’ at Wrest which must date from between 1765 and 1773. One wonders what this actually means. A ‘specimen’ sounds like a discrete piece or a sample. There is no obvious place for extended decorative work, but if it were a stand-alone panel or something like that it could have gone anywhere, for example on the back wall.

[1] As she had no male heirs, the title later became extinct upon her own death in 1797, but her elder daughter was later created Countess de Grey in her own right.

[2] Conner, p. 68.

[3] Conner, p. 68 and note 22.

[4] Conner, p. 68.

[5] Conner, pp. 68–69 and note 22.

[6] Conner, 1979, p. 69, citing Godber, 1968, p. 68

[7] Eg the long demolished Legeay business, and his unsourced drawings …

[8] John Harris, Sir William Chambers: Knight of the Polar Star, London: Zwemmer, 1970, cat. 149, p. 254. The rest of the entry is about other work at Wrest in 1770 on the Cascade Bridge and Cold Bath by Edward Stevens. Harris cite RIBA letters, Hardwick to Chambers 18 May 1767; E. Edwards, Anecdotes of Painters, 1808, p. 40; and E. von Erdberg, Chinese Influence on European Garden Structures, 1936, p. 188, fig. 12.

[9] Conner, 1979, note 27 on pp. 183-83.

[10] John Dixon Hunt, The Picturesque Garden in Europe, London: Thames and Hudson, 2002, p. 56: ‘Above all, his [Chambers’] professional, personal and political antagonism to ‘Capability’ Brown ensured that the Chinese mode was seen as an energetic alternative to Brownian parkland …’.  Mind you, Jemima could clearly reconcile the Chinese mode with employing Brown. Perhaps there is something in the Capability Brown literature on this?

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Art, Baroque architecture, Baroque Gardens, Country Houses, English Gardens, Fabriques, Garden History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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