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Languid theatricality and dreams of distant worlds: George IV’s Chinoiserie clock

a photo of a gold clock with two chinese figures resting on either side of it

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator at the Royal Pavilion Brighton on her favourite object in A Prince’s Treasure – The Royal Collection returns to Brighton

In September 2019 more than 120 pieces of furniture and decorative objects returned to the Royal Pavilion, on loan from the Her Majesty the Queen, via the Royal Collection Trust. Most of these spectacular items were originally designed or purchased for the Royal Pavilion by George IV.

Some of the rooms in the Pavilion now look very close to what George had envisaged and created in the early nineteenth century. It has been the unrivalled highlight in my working life as a curator and art historian to be involved with this historic two-year loan. The arrival of these objects in the Pavilion give visitors a real sense of George’s love for drama, exoticism, colour, ornament and sparkle.

Of all the royal loans the six magnificent Chinese pagodas in the Music Room, embellished and heightened by George, will – deservedly – attract the most attention. For me, however, the most wonderful objects are those in which the Regency artist and designer Robert Jones – about whom we know so little – included “Chinese” figures to evoke foreign lands.

My personal favourite piece is the gilt-bronze clock that sits on the mantelpiece on the north wall of the Banqueting Room. It was designed for exactly this location by Jones, who worked at the Pavilion from 1815 (coinciding with John Nash’s complete external oriental makeover of the building).

a photo of an ornate chinoiseried room with golden mantelpiece featuring an ornamental clock

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Picture by Jim Holden

a close up of two Chinese figures on a Chinoiserie clock

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

He created the interiors of several rooms, including the phenomenal Banqueting Room and Saloon. The clock itself was made in c.1819 by Benjamin Vulliamy and is adorned with gilding by Fricker & Henderson. In a way it doesn’t matter much that it is a clock, and its practical value pales into insignificance compared to its embellishments.

Two Chinese figures, one male, one female, flank the silver-faced clock with its serpent-shaped hands. Clad in shimmering, heavily decorated garments (created with enamel paint), they lean against the clock, or perhaps time in general, in languid theatricality, exuding leisure, beauty and exoticism.

On top of the clock perches a peacock, echoing the Feng Huang birds that appear to hold the four corner chandeliers in the room. Many of the motifs and colours you find in the Banqueting Room and elsewhere in the building, such as dragons, sunflowers, snakes, stars, figure groups, silver in combination with gold, and deep blues and reds, are also present on this object.

I particularly like the bulbous-eyed, almost comical dragons Jones painted on to the robes of the figures. These are certainly one of his trademarks. The clock has a near twin on the opposite side of the room, a barometer with an integrated thermometer, surrounded by figures and ornament in the same shape, but painted in different colours, decorated with different motifs, including an as yet unidentified letter or cross shape. The arrival of these two magnificent objects gave us a chance to inspect the figures in detail, and – unsurprisingly – we have found more details that link them to the room, including masonic symbols that are also present on the canopies above the fireplaces.

In the earliest guidebooks for Brighton that refer to the John Nash transformation of the Royal Pavilion, this clock is one of the very few objects that is described in detail, and in the most gushing language. In early 1821, very shortly after the Banqueting Room was finished, John Evans quotes an account from the Brighton Herald of the state rooms of the Pavilion in his book Excursion to Brighton, in which the Music and Banqueting Rooms are compared to fanciful imaginary palaces from The Thousand and One Nights stories.

The clock is singled out as a ‘unique specimen of design, and perfect execution’ in this earliest known description of it in printed form:

‘The chimney pieces […] with golden canopied figures as embellishments, and other ornaments on or-molu [gilt bronze]. On the centre of that to the north, is a timepiece of excellent fancy and workmanship; it is presented through the medium of an open sunflower, on each side of which are figures in brilliant colours of beautiful enamel work, which appear as reposing in the shade of its exuberant and varied foliage, chased in gold! The playfulness of imagination has given singular interest to this useful ornament – its character is perfect; but it farther delights, on close inspection, but disclosing in the combination of the leaves a chimera of forms as exquisitely contrived as expressed. This unique specimen of design, and perfect execution, is represented on the chimney piece opposite as a barometer.’

a photo of a golden mantlepiece with mirror and Chinese clock on it

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

a photo of a golden mantlepiece with mirror and Chinese clock on it

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

As far as we know Robert Jones never travelled to China, but may well have been inspired by French and German Chinoiseries of the eighteenth century, such as Francois Boucher’s paintings, or by the Drummer Boy Clock (also on loan to us and displayed in the Banqueting Room Gallery), which he may have seen at Carlton House or at the Pavilion, where it arrived in 1819. He may also have heard or seen images of the spectacular gilt ‘Chinese’ figures surrounding the mid-eighteenth century Chinese Teahouse in the park of Sanssouci in Potsdam, Germany.

Seated and reclining figures are also present in decorative Chinese export ware, which Robert Jones would have been familiar with, such as some of the ‘nodders’ that line the Long Gallery in the Pavilion. These Chinese export figures were usually made from unfired clay, painted in bright colours, and were often adorned with jewellery, silks, real hair, and objects such as halberds (a two-handed pole weapon) made from bamboo cane.

Often referred to – inaccurately – as ‘Chinese Court Officials’ they represent character types of the late Qing dynasty. Their most intriguing feature is that, when their heads are lightly touched, they nod gently. The movement is possible because the head is separate from the hollow body of the figure. A weighted rod is attached to the bottom of the head, which sits lightly on a little ledge, allowing for a rocking motion. ‘Nodders’ from China can be found in several collections and historic interiors in Europe, but they are now extremely rare and valuable. It comes as no surprise that George amassed the largest collection of ‘nodders’ recorded anywhere. Jones clearly sought inspiration for the colourful and shimmering robes worn by the figures flanking the Banqueting Room clock from these and other Chinese objects.

I had seen the clock and barometer before, at Windsor Castle, where they had been since January 1847, following Queen Victoria’s decision to sell the Royal Pavilion, but seeing them put into the place they were designed for was a truly moving moment. It felt as if a final jigsaw piece had been slotted into the theatrical design scheme of the Banqueting Room.

a photo of an ornate gold clock oin which a Chinese drummer figure beats the clock face

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Photo by Jim Holden

You will not learn much about real Chinese robes or customs from these objects, but a lot about how George IV’s and Robert Jones’s minds worked, and about Chinoiserie in general. In many ways they are perfect examples and a concentrated version of what surrounds them: The Royal Pavilion, i.e. the best of European Chinoiserie – a colourful dream of otherness and distant worlds.

A Prince’s Treasure – From Buckingham Palace to the Royal Pavilion. The Royal Collection Returns to Brighton is at the Royal Pavilion Brighton until Autumn 2021, Free with Royal Pavilion admission. brightonmuseums.org.uk/royalpavilion/whattosee/a-princes-treasure/

venue

Royal Pavilion

Brighton & Hove, East Sussex

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