Jemima Grey’s Chinoiserie Fabrique at Wrest Park. Part 3. Chinese Elements, Function, Typology and Sources

Chinese Elements

There is not much Chinese about the fabrique. It has a dragon on the pinnacle, which was easy to miss in 2013 (Fig. 4), but must be much more conspicuous now that it has been gilded (Fig. 13). It has the double concave roof with solid upturned eaves that seems to have been particularly favoured in England as a signifier of Chinese buildings. There are upturns at the corners, but these are not true Chinese upturned eaves, but simply wooden scrolls that pick up the concavity of the roof (Fig. 14). Bells hang from these, as in the Nanking pagoda in Nieuhoff (Fig. 15).

Chinoiserie Frets

There is fretwork, only a few pieces of which are in any way Chinese. The point of Chinese fretwork is that it provides the opportunity to create regular or irregular geometrical patterns, preferably complicated, that lack members that continue from one edge from another, except around the edges. In other words, if you follow a piece it will almost always stop short before very long. The pieces are often at right angles to each other, with some at 45 degrees or diagonals, but need not be; indeed, there is quite a tradition in English Chinoiserie for quite odd angles, as in Paul Decker’s series of etchings, which deserve further study (Fig. 16).[1] These must be inspired, if not modelled on, similar plates in Chippendale’s director, which came out in 1754 (further edition 1755 and 1762) (Fig. 17).[2] What is unclassical about these designs is that there is no regular grid underlying the design, unlike a Greek meander (Fig. 18).[3] This is what makes them unsatisfactory to the classically-trained eye, and helps provide the subversive element necessary to Chinoiserie.

Decker’s designs for railings are a little like Serlio’s designs for garden squares: they are much too complicated actually to be made. Indeed, the Chinoiserie fret is a genre almost entirely devoid of structural thought. How on earth is one meant to join all these short sections of square-section wood? In furniture, perhaps, but as gates or fencing panels they would distort in no time, and have no resistance to side impacts. If you tried to make them today you would use welded square tube, or else last cut them from a flat sheet of metal, which would make them as tacky as those laser-cut decorative panels you can buy at Bunnings.

Consequently the nearest thing to a Chinese fret at Wrest Park, the rails at the side, are made of metal: they look to be square section steel tube, and are surely modern (2013) (Fig. 19). In the 2016 photos they appear to be unchanged. Would the originals have been of wrought iron or wood? Their pattern seems to follow what we see in the watercolour (Fig. 3a), but this is not quite clear enough in the reproduction. The pattern is a fairly timid Chinese fret: it is made on a not-quite regular grid: the horizontal divisions are equal, but the vertical divisions are not quite regular (Fig. 20). This suggests that it was designed by starting with the three posts which are set at an unconsidered distance from the side walls, making regular horizontal divisions, dividing the second and fourth rows half way between the posts, then setting the outer verticals within the posts to make the width of the vertical panels the same as the horizontal ones. The outer vertical panels are three horizontal bays high, the inner only two, but alternated across the centre post to give the only note of vitality to the pattern.

The band of ‘frets’ below the upper roof (Figs 21, 22, 23) is more meander that Chinese fret, and looks a bit like a complex Greek fret or swastika meander (Fig. 18),[4] but it isn’t. Nor does it have the syntax of Chinese frets. The basic idea is a rectangular U-shape that faces alternately up and down, with stems. This leaves negative shapes that are either rectangular S-shapes, reverse S-shapes, or simple bars. The designer basically drew a series of equally spaced vertical lines, and six equally spaced horizontal lines, the spacing in both directions being the same.

The ‘frets’ below the main roof consist of alternating wide rectangles and circles that in the outer bays become vertical rectangles and ovals, as if being squeezed (Fig. 24).

The other pseudo-fret is on the filled walls panels of the outer bays (Fig. 25) which are filled with an applied rectangle of pale blue and an interlaced hexagon (or hexagon and square) pattern.

Function and Decker

The function of the building is clearly that of a ‘summerhouse’: a place to sit in shade within the garden with an outlook, in this case to the stream and presumably the original Chinese bridge. Typologically some sources call it a Chinese ‘temple’, as do the restorers, while writers today often call it a Chinese ‘house’.

Decker’s first volume of Chinoiserie designs (Chinese Architecture, Civil and Ornamental, 1759)[5] is strong on typological labels. Plate 2, a ‘Royal Garden Seat’ (Fig. 26) bears a certain resemblance to the Wrest Park building, but is more truly a framed seat, like a baroque throne room baldacchino. What is interesting here is how there is a focus on a framed picture above the seat, which is not the case at Wrest where the regular vertical panels prevail, but it must be remembered that there were once pictures of some kind (see above). In plate 7 (Fig. 27) Decker shows a ‘Summer House’, a ‘Repository’ (i.e, a storage shed) a ‘Temple’ and a ‘Garden Seat’.  The ‘temple’ and ‘depository’ are variations on the theme of the enclosed octagonal pavilion, while the ‘garden seat’ is open on all sides and again has the throne-room-with-baldacchino focus on the seat back. The summer house is a bit hard to read, but seems to be a enclosed space with a front door and a kind of colonnade or veranda at the sides. Plate 8 (Fig. 28) shows an ‘Umbrellod Seat’ and a Garden Temple’ while Plate 9 (Fig. 29) shows an ‘Alcove’, all of which are variations on the baldacchino-seat idea.

Plate 10 (Fig. 30) is the ‘Summer Dwelling of a Chief Bonzee or Priest’, which is closest to the summer house idea, being an enclosed space with a wide opening at the front and seats at the back, but the caption has it wandering into the genre of representations of historical Chinese buildings (rather than, as with the other examples, the representation of English garden buildings in Chinoiserie style), as well as the hermit’s grotto (the thatched roof), and there are some Rococo C-scrolls and shell forms as well. All-in-all, the Wrest Park structure is not a very good fit with Decker’s typologies, but in Decker’s terms it is more of a ‘garden seat’ (open at the sides, with a seat at the back for looking out from) than a ‘Summer House’ or ‘Summer Dwelling’, which for Decker is more enclosed. One gets the idea that Jemima and Decker are not on the same page, even though Decker’s plates were hot from the press a year or so before she started work. Indeed, compared to Decker the Wrest Park design is rather dull and fails to fully exploit the possibilities of fantasy that Chinoiserie permits.

Chinese Beds

Another possible inspiration is a Chinese bed. One appears in Langdon’s 1840 catalogue as ‘a Chinese bedstead’ (no. 1271, between pages 140 and 141, text on p. 140, Fig. 31) and it resembles a little the Wrest Park fabrique.[6] Could the designer have been thinking of something like this?

And what about Chambers (see above)? Are there useful stylistic or typological connections with the illustrations in Chambers’ Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils, published in 1757, shortly before the building of the Wrest Park fabrique? The answer is: no. Chambers’ designs are far too solid, and even when fanciful or inaccurate are informed with his experience of actual Chinese buildings. They are not Chinoiserie.

[1] Paul Decker (1725–1809), 1 of 12 plates, plus a frontispiece, from ‘Chinese Architecture. Part the Second’, London, 1759. London, Victoria & Albert Museum, Museum number: E.6642-1905, 23 x 28.2 cm.

[2] Thomas Chippendale, The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director: Being a Large Collection of . . . Designs of Household Furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and Modern Taste …, London, 1754.

[3] Complex Greek meander, from Abraham Swan, The British Architect, 1758, plate LV (detail).

[4] Complex Greek meander, from Abraham Swan, The British Architect, 1758, plate LV (detail).

[5] Paul Decker, Chinese Architecture, Civil and Ornamental, London, 1759. 23 plates plus a frontispiece. Each plate etching and engraving, 23 x 28.2 cm. V&A E.6618-1905.

[6] Langdon, 1840, no. 1271, between pages 140 and 141, text on p. 140: ‘Chinese bedstead, furniture, &c. Specimens of Chinese furniture are abundantly displayed in this collection; the beds of the Chinese, in general, are composed of mats, placed on two or three boards, laid on forms or benches, and covered with a canopy, supported by bamboo sticks of silk gauze or cotton curtains, and a musquito net in the summer. Various kinds of bamboo pillows are also exhibited.’

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

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