architecture, bridge, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, London, public park, pyramid, Temple, Tower

The Pagoda and Chinese Bridge, St. James’s Park, London, 1814

1814 saw the centenary of the ascension of the House of Hanover to the British throne. Although it was only a few years since George III had celebrated a reign of 50 years, it was decided that a grand national fête would be held in August to mark the occasion, an event which would also commemorate ‘General Peace’ and the anniversary of the ‘Glorious Battle of the Nile’.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

The whole of the pageantry in St James’ Park was superintended by Sir William Congreve M.P.; his prowess developing rockets for warfare in the earlier years of the century presumably qualifying him to design the pyrotechnics. The centrepiece was a vast stage-set ‘castle’ which thanks to painted transparencies, lighting and fireworks dramatically transformed from a martial fortress into a Temple of Concord, illustrating Britain’s path from war to peace. The vignettes above illustrate the spectacles and festivities that drew huge crowds to the park.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

Another showpiece was the ‘beautiful Chinese bridge’ that was built over the canal. On it was constructed an ‘elegant and lofty pagoda, consisting of seven pyramidal stories’. It was illuminated with gaslights and formed the centrepiece of a huge fireworks display ‘both fixed and missile.’ The canal was the scene of mock naval battles, and there were also pleasure craft in which the public could view the scene from the water. Bands played, and there were food stalls and magnificent marquees in which to dine. Such was the excitement around the celebrations that publishers took presses to the park to issue some prints on the spot.

Sadly timber buildings, fireworks and flaming gas lamps are not good companions, and as midnight approached the pagoda went up in flames, causing two deaths and a number of injuries to the men who were supervising the display. By the time the fire was extinguished the tower was reduced to only one storey and had become ‘a melancholy wreck of its former elegance’. Print makers were quick to issue a reworked view showing the conflagration.

©Trustees of the British Museum.

The pagoda was not rebuilt, the bridge was taken down a few years later, and the temporary structures were largely forgotten until the late 1960s when the artist Barbara Jones was asked to design a mural for a new cafe in St. James’ Park. The Cake House, which replaced an earlier cafe of the same name, was designed by Eric Bedford of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, and the cafe deliberately echoed the shape of the marquees erected in 1814.

The Cake House shortly before demolition in c.1998. ©Crown copyright Historic England Archive.

For the interior Jones created a design for a mural based on the history of the park, with the ornamental buildings of the Grand Jubilee playing a major part. Another of the themes was cows, which traditionally had been kept in the park to provide milk for visitors.

Details from Barbara Jones’s working drawings for the tile mural. Courtesy of Neil Jennings Fine Art.

According to Building magazine the mural was executed in ceramic tiles by ‘Richard Parkinson Associates’, presumably the Richard Parkinson better known as a creator of ceramic figures in partnership with his wife, Susan. This company name appears only in this magazine feature of 1970, so the associates were probably Parkinson, Jones, and her assistant Tony Raymond. They were apparently credited in the cafe, but like the rest of the mural this is long gone. The thick file on the building of the cafe, now held in the National Archives, contains a memo which notes only that the interior wall is to be ‘finished in blue mosaic tiles’. No designer or contractor for this work is mentioned.

The mural designed by Barbara Jones showing the bridge and pagoda. The photograph was taken shortly before demolition in c.1998. © Crown copyright Historic England Archive.

The refreshment pavilion was officially opened by Mary Wilson, wife of Prime Minister Harold, in February 1970 (apparently she took daily walks in the park whilst resident at No. 10). The blue and white tiles were accentuated by white pedestal tables and fashionable polypropylene stacking chairs in charcoal, light grey and deep blue. Featured in The Daily Mirror a few days after opening the mural was ignored, although the exterior (‘looks like a rather gay tent’) was admired. The queues for the new-fangled self-service system did not go down well, and the reviewer was not impressed by the ‘lukewarm’ soup, or indeed the gateau which was ‘a bit mushy’.

The Cake House survived for more years than the pagoda, but by the end of the 20th century it was considered outmoded with ‘insurmountable functional and structural issues’, and was demolished to make way for Inn the Park, which opened in 2004.

Building within a historic park has always led to criticism. In 1969, as the Cake House was under construction, the Architects’ Journal thought the structure ‘far too intrusive’ for its location in the gardens. In 1998 Sir Michael Hopkins designed its replacement, Inn the Park. The Architects’ Journal reported that it too was ‘wholly unsuited to the site’ but thirty years on, fashion being fickle, the old Cake House was now remembered with fondness for fitting into ‘the landscape as a folly or surprise’.

The Chinese Bridge and Pagoda by Ed Kluz, 2019, Courtesy of the artist and a private collection.

Big thanks to artist Ed Kluz whose recent show at the John Martin Gallery in London featured the Pagoda bridge and awakened my interest. Read more here https://www.jmlondon.com/exhibitions/facades-by-ed-kluz/

Barbara Jones’s series of designs for the Cake House mural can be seen at Neil Jennings Fine Art’s forthcoming show of works of art on paper by Twentieth Century British women artists at Fisher London, Grays Inn Road Wednesday 20th November- Saturday 30th November 11am-6pm (closed Sunday). For further information follow Neil on instagram @neiljenningsfineart or email neiljennings20@gmail.com

For more on the history of London’s public parks there’s a new show at the charming Garden Museum from 20 November 2019 https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/play-protest-and-pelicans-a-peoples-history-of-londons-royal-parks/

Inn the Park remains but is now a branch of the Benugo chain https://www.benugo.com/partnerships/public-spaces/parks/st-jamess

 

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2 thoughts on “The Pagoda and Chinese Bridge, St. James’s Park, London, 1814”

  1. Rosemary says:

    This is fascinating. The Bridge, Pagoda and so forth were designed by John Nash with help from Auguste Pugin, who also illustrated them, and who had additional help from his French brother-in-law Louis Lafitte. Lafitte came over to England as soon as peace was declared (later getting stuck here for the 100 days). Although he had until very recently had been designing for Napoleon, he was a freelance and quite happy to oblige with transparencies celebrating the British victory. I have never see the print of the pagoda on fire -who is that by?- and knew nothing of Barbara Jones’s evocation which looks to have been charming.
    Thanks as ever for a most informative post.

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