The Garden Room at Chiswick House and its association with Meissen Porcelain?

The Garden Room (Summer Parlour) ceiling at Chiswick House was decorated by William Kent (1685-1748) between 1725 and 1745 for Dorothy Savile (1699-1758) in the grotesque manner, one of its earliest usages of this style in England. Characteristic of this type of painting (found in subterranean Rome and later popularised by Raphael) was the playful combination of animal and garland forms. In the Garden Room ceiling William Kent included several owls which had dual meanings, for it formed part of the Savile heraldic crest and was also sacred to the goddess Minerva (wisdom), who, like Lady Burlington, was a patroness of the arts.

In the octagonal ceiling panel which was located nearest to the original chimneypiece (that was carved with a mask of the goddess Diana with her crescent moon), Kent painted two cherubs who admire a bust of an unidentified lady (possibly the Polish Queen Maria Clementina Sobieska). One of the boys raises his fingers to his lips in imitation of the Egyptian child-god Harpocrates, suggesting the need for secrecy and silence (a Masonic gesture). In a second octagonal panel at the opposite end of the room, the two boys re-appear, this time hugging a poorly painted pug.

In the centre of the ceiling Kent painted a large sunflower surrounded by four vignettes containing scenes depicting buildings, bridges and water. Each vignette is headed by a mask of the goddess Venus and fish-scale, a water deity suitable for paintings with maritime themes. The source for the four small paintings is unknown, but the subject matter and appearance bears similarities to examples on early Meissen porcelain, many pieces of which were adorned with maritime scenes including ships, coasts, ports and harbours. Such harbour views are believed to be based on engravings of Italian ports which were popular subjects for Meissen artists such as Christian Friedrich Herold (1700-1790) and Johann Georg Heintze (active 1720-1749) and appear on Meissen wares between the early 1720s to around 1760 (1). The Garden Room ceiling was decorated by Kent between 1725 and 1745 and is contemporary with such land and seascapes common to Meissen porcelain of the period.

Above-  Examples of early Meissen porcelain with vignettes showing seascapes, al ruins,  follies and Arcadian landscapes interspersed with figures.  The central cartouche is framed with a shell. Such decoration included newly created enamels with a greater variety of colours which were born in the secrecy of the Meissen factory within Albrechtsburg Castle.  

The manner in which the four aquatic views in their panels are arranged around the sunflower (symbol of the sun and courtiers in the service of the monarch) shares strong stylistic similarities with the various seascape scenes arranged around the circumferences of the early to mid 18th century Meissen plates. This creates the illusion that the circular panel in the centre of the Garden Room ceiling was intended to symbolise a piece of Meissen porcelain, complete with classical embellishments.  

It is also likely that William Kent had first hand experience of viewing Italian ports and harbours as he spend up to ten years living in Italy before returning to England with Lord Burlington in 1719.

The possibility that the four small Kent paintings were based on either real Meissen paintings or derivative of such scenes is strengthened by the location of a China Closet which was positioned next door to Lady Burlington’s Garden Room (the China Closet is now sadly only a shell). Like many stately houses of its day, this room was likely to have contained a mixture of porcelain and earthenwares including Chinese export porcelain from the Xangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong periods (blue and white, famille, monochromes, ‘clobbered’ and Imari colours), Delft, together with high quality Meissen sets for display, ceremonial and daily use.

(1) The architectural elements within these scenes, combined with waterscapes, were also certainly derived from French and Italian Arcadian painters such as Nicolas Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa, artists whose work William Kent knew and whose paintings he also copied and collected. The staple ingredients of their idealised landscapes included rivers, seascapes, bridges, figures and animals, ruined temples, mountains in the distance and contracts of light and darkness. Such scenes painted by Meissen artists were undoubtedly influenced by the informality and naturalistic scenes in Arcadian painting and were probably copied from engravings.