How was your birthday this year? because quite frankly however you celebrated, the ultimate birthday celebrations are Queen Lovisa Ulrika’s 33rd birthday in 1753. After a private theatrical performance, the Swedish royal family strolled through Drottingholm park and there her 7 year son – dashingly dressed as a Chinese prince – presented her with a key on a red velvet cushion, then the trees parted and there stood a Chinese pavilion, which had been secretly constructed off site and then erected in the palace grounds overnight, a real fairytale creation…the loveliest imaginable (she wrote to her mother). Thus began eight days of celebration and a birthday gift which has kept on giving, to the extent that it is now a UNESCO world heritage site. So when we went to Stockholm I persuaded my husband to join me on a the chinoiserie-pilgrimage…I think it helped we went by boat.
It slipped through the archipelago while we sipped clear white wine and slipped back local delicacies. Fortifying for a ‘cultural heritage’ tour with the Mrs, who map in hand at Drottingholm, swerved left as we arrived …at the guards pavilion:
It was a pit-stop for one and total inspiration for the other.
It’s a perfect fantasy construction, an ephemera recently restored to its former 18th century glory. The chinese pavilion’s construction failed fairly quickly (1763), but its popularity meant it was swiftly rebuilt in its present form by 1769, as chinoiserie mania was at its pagoda’d heights in 18th century Europe.
The central grand pavilion shown above was framed by four separate smaller pavilions, containing billiards, wood-turning (I kid you not) and the ultimate in private 18th century dining style… ‘the confidence’ … a mechanised dining room where servants hoisted the dining table and dumb-waiters into position, course by course, from below and you dined in strictest confidence.
All this was designed by Carl Frederick Adelcrantz, director of Public Works, and Jean Eric Rehn, Surveyor of the King’s household. But Chinoiserie entwined itself throughout 18 th century Europe, we can see French and English influences within the building . Sir William Chamber’s illustrated guide ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings,Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils’ was widely disseminated despite its tongue-twister of a title:
plate 2 from Chamber’s book.
chimes with the exterior of the Chinese Pavilion.
While inside the main Green and Blue Drawing Rooms at either end of the central pavilion, have romantic Rococo -Chinoiserie painted interiors inspired by the fashionable French artists Francois Boucher (below), Antoine Watteau and Jean Pillement.
So this Eastern inspired summer house is also realised and inspired by multiple European sources and influences, and yet at its heart remains Swedish, reflecting the tastes of the royal family and their interests, from the tiled Swedish stoves to their collection of Chinese dolls, from the embroidery the queen and her ladies undertook to her husband the King who gave his wife a precious link to her family home in Prussia …
Where the Chinese Tea House was commissioned for Sanssouci. So back to those trees parting… WHAT a present.In Lovisa’s era the walls gleamed with oil paint to mimic the lacquered red and yellow of chinese temples, today dragons and palm trees still support the second story and bells chime under the undulating roofline.
An inventory compiled in 1777 just before Lovisa’s death, when it fell out of fashion, has enabled a large scale restoration project to return the pavilion not only to its ‘original state’ but also to source and accurately place over 75% of the original furniture. As you step through the door, you step back in time and feel the full skill of the 18th century decorative arts.
The marble hall’s restrained neo-classicism is a visual palette-cleanser before you travel the Chinoiserie rainbow. Its angular geometric shape accentuates the cool colour scheme, the monochrome marble floor and the soft shades of scagliola (imitation marble) walls are only enlivened with gilt trims and rococo gilt reliefs poised between the five double doors.
Either left or right, you enter the Red or Yellow Rooms, symmetrical rooms and schemes, both incorporating costly imported lacquer panels into the European conception of Chinese design and reflecting the exterior colour scheme.
The intersecting rings (above) and ‘meander’ (at the top of walls above the chandelier below) are both in William Chamber’s book. The circular overdoors are Swedish visions of the Chinese lacquer panels incorporated into the walls below where they are finished with Swedish ‘Chinese’ symbols framed by European ‘Chinese’ garlands. There’s a constant through ‘the looking glass’ effect of endless refractions between East and West as you peer deeper into these schemes.
Then the overdoors from the yellow room are inspired by Francois Boucher’s romantic Chinoiserie and the vibrant yellow bounces off bright pink in the embroidered room beyond. Look closely at the details….details…details…to seehow much intricate work and thought was put into these tiny rooms.The occasional splash of fashionable Rococo even occurs in these supposedly ‘authentic’ Chinese interiors, like the corner console above. The 17 th century porcelain urn is once again resting on its top…within touching distance of us, the 21st century visitor.
These are jewel box rooms, you could literally have tea for two, but its their intimacy that makes you inhale their jewelled interior, lit up by Rococo foliate chandeliers, framed by the rocaille gilt trim and meander edging (in red and gilt).
So we pass through to the curved galleries – see the door open above- one either side of the red and yellow rooms, a yellow gallery connects the red to the green drawing room, a green gallery connects the yellow to the blue drawing room. Do you sense a rainbow theme here? I do.There are delicate and unassuming Chinese lanterns, simple panelling and display cabinets for family treasures, my favourite? the beaded glass pagoda from the 17th Century and Queen Hedvig Eleonora.The blue and green drawing rooms at either end of the pavilion (and these galleries) are the ultimate in 18th century entertaining, simultaneously channeling the inside-outside trend still going strong today whilst serving as drawing room, dining room and banquet hall as required. Sometimes both sets of drawing room doors would be open and guests could mingle between these rooms in scented summer gardens and the rooms would become virtual verandas with potted plants inside and out to blend space and fantasy together. Both rooms are hand painted with imaginary scenes of mythic Cathay, Chinoiserie pilgrims show their respects.Emerald green, gilt and fresh white – add trellis work, panelling and cartouches -timeless chic. I love looking into the framed scenes and carved details.
Before crossing the courtyard to its Blue pendant. Here enlarged scenes are placed into panels, each one a musical tableau:looking back into the green gallery.Up into the chandelier…see how each pictorial element is at eye level.Not forgetting those gilt edged panels and trellis work:and then the musical scenes themselves:In this romantic Rococo vision of China, inspired by the ‘blue and white’ export porcelain collected by European royalty and aristocrats, there are endless charming details beautifully painted to entertain visitors and massage away daily life, no wonder Chinoiserie still appeals today…The ho ho birds, the flowers, the ladies … it’s all idyllic. You might want to stay… Queen Luvisa never did, but her bed chamber exists, for retiring too between the summer fun. Its original cerise watered silk with silver trims has faded now, but its still exquisite teamed with vibrant green.Upstairs the octagonal room’s walls are covered in silk hangings painted by Chinese artists to their idea of far-flung European taste, our native flora and fauna… Euroiserie?Completed with the Swedish tiled stove, it’s an idiosyncratic mix that twists the Chinoiserie kaleidoscope one notch further.
From here the oval room (see those colour shifts, pink-blue-green, move over boring Grey on Gris):
Shall we just move in?
The Chinese Pavilion is an incredibly rare, well preserved example of the exquisite Rococo Chinoiserie in the 18th century, why does it matter? why do we care?
Our desire to create beauty, infusing sensory and intellectual pleasure into our surroundings, is the most powerful and lasting expression of civilisation, while an interest in the world beyond our own reflects the curiosity essential to all our progress. The Pavilion enshrines this in the finest of 18th century craftsmanship, enabling a dialogue between past and present, to treasure and enjoy. Indeed perhaps like Mr OC you might have to lie down and recover at the dizzying wonder of it all after the extensive pilgrimage…
as you hear the wife say, ‘Next birthday could you possibly …make mine a pavilion’.
all images taken by me except for plans of the pavilion and the Sanssouci Tea house, from Wikipedia.
Specific information about the pavilion is from ‘the Chinese Pavilion’ a room by room guide for visitors.
Want to know more about Chinoiserie? it’s on the blog… origins, history and contemporary examples.