Introducing the Pagodas Project

In December 2021, after a pause due to both the Covid pandemic and a change in contractor, conservation work has recommenced to complete the conservation of two large ceramic pagodas from within the Royal Pavilion & Musuems Trust (RPMT) collections.

The project is now being undertaken in the RPMT Conservation Workshop by a group of talented emerging conservators, supervised by Object Conservator Andy Thackray ACR. The funding of the project is heavily supported by generous donors and will result in not only two restored pagodas on display in the Music Room, but also the establishment of three conservators that can go on and hopefuly have fruitful careers looking after our cultural heritage. This is the first blog of a series that will document the experience and undertakings of the team as we carry out our work. Meet our team: Ana, Bernarda, Hannah, Vivien and Samantha (left to right).

The large ceramic pagodas were acquired from Sir Kenneth Clark in 1949, before which the provenance is unknown. Little is known about these objects but it is known that a few identical objects came to Britain along with the commercial trade from China around the late 18th/ early 19th century. Four similar pagodas were originally displayed between the window piers in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. All of these are accounted for in the Royal Collection and they were recently temporarily loaned back alongside many other objects for the A Prince’s Treasure Exhibition.

The group of pagodas loaned by the Royal Collection, in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion during the Prince’s Treasure exhibition. These pagodas were originally commissioned by George IV for this room and later taken to the Buckingham Palace during Queen’s Victoria reign. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Believe it or not, the pagodas purchased for the Music Room were further embellished and enlarged with grand bases and finials in order to perfectly fit the scale and decorative scheme of the room. The pagodas that this project seeks to restore are almost identical to the original Music Room pagodas, albeit appearing in the form they took prior to these embellishments.

Another pair of almost identical pagodas came up for sale at Christie’s in 2013. You may find more information on these from the Christie’s website.

Aside from these, only one other example in the V&A East Asia Collection is known of as well as another that was sold into a private collection from Woburn Abbey in 1954 which had many damages plus five whole tiers, the finial and all of the applied ornaments missing.

V&A Museum Pagoda - © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
V&A Museum Pagoda – © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Detail from the V&A Pagoda, showing a couple of the exquisite and unique porcelain figurines that live in each tier – © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The pagodas are made of soft paste porcelain, with beautiful colourful decorative glazes and striking details like dragons and painted landscapes. They are composed of nine tiers made up from nineteen stacked components. They have decorative detachable metal bells, metal carp and both ceramic and metal Fu dogs. When fully constructed, the pagodas reach over 2.5 metres high.

Some pagoda tiers in their bespoke storage crates
Top roof tip ornament with hanging bell suspended from a rod (the bell may be original but the rod and finial are likely to be later replacements)
Gilt metal carp surmounting roof tips with a hanging bell. The carp are likely replacements as the gilt brass carp on other examples are less crude and are oriented face down (see images above of the V&A pagoda). The originals were most likely attached to the ceramic by a pin extending from the throat so that their tail extended upwards. A chain was most likely attached to a loop on the fish belly from which the bell was hung.
Gilt brass lions which are likely original
A few remaining porcelain lions which judging from the decoration are likely to be original. It’s unclear at this stage how the brass and porcelain lions were distributed over the pagodas.

The pagodas have presented several structural and aesthetic conservation problems for us to solve,losses, fragmentation and previous treatments that needed to be revised. We have started with photography sessions, documenting the initial condition of the pagodas before any treatment done by us.

The team photographing one of the tiers from one of the pagodas
The photography set up used by the team.

Tier 1 and 2 of one of the pagodas photographed by the team to document the condition before treatment. We can easily see the losses (image on the left) and historical fillings from previous treatments (image on the right).

We have also used these photographs to map their condition. These maps will document all the conservation issues, past treatments and new interventions.

Before doing any planned treatment, we have carried out a series of tests and trials. These tests will help us to chose optimal materials and methodologies for our treatments.

Mixing epoxy resin, filler and pigment ingredients
Test mixtures of epoxy resin, fillers and colouring agents to gauge working properties and appearance at imitating porcelain

A novel use for children’s building blocks to hold silicone rubber in place while it cures. It is initially poured into these enclosures to create moulds of undamaged sections. From these moulds we can cast accurate reproduction sections to compensate for losses elsewhere on the pagodas.

Silicone rubber mould experimentation

So far, we have been amazed with the project. The pagodas are such an interesting and beautiful part of the Royal Pavilion collection. We are excited to keep you updated with the different phases of this project and we hope you can see the restored pieces in the Royal Pavilion in the near future. Until then, please stay tuned for our next blog.

Ana Vilela, RPMT Conservation Assistant

15 Responses

  1. Matilde

    Congratulations on your work!!!
    How long will it take to restore every piece of the Pagodas?

    • Matthew Duckenfield

      Very interesting,to hear of the restorative work being undertaken on such a unique and interesting project,the attention to detail and historical significance must engage the team in a varied and exciting way

      All the best with your endeavours

      Matt

  2. Andreia Cruz

    beautiful work. great team that restored such beautiful pieces.

  3. Beatriz Lourenço

    Very interesting project and brilliant article. Looking forward to hear more about it!

  4. Dee Hornet

    It is astonishing to learn about pagodas and how they enriched our material culture through artistic exchanges between Asia and the West.
    It seems that heir architectural structure originated from the Indian ‘stupa’, being traditionally a place of worship. They increasingly appeared in Chinese art of the 18th century after their religious importance had started to decline.
    Thank you for your meticulous and passionate work in restoring these superb craftsmanship.
    It is one more example of how different cultural systems have interacted.

  5. Heike Tamayo Cabrales

    Lovely to read about all the good work that’s been done to restore and keep for future generations.
    Thank you

  6. Aislinn Luton

    Such beautiful work, it’s so interesting to see your process. I’m in love with the little porcelain lions, I want a set for my house!

  7. Matthew Duckenfield

    Very interesting,to hear of the restorative work being undertaken on such a unique and interesting project,the attention to detail and historical significance must engage the team in a varied and exciting way

    All the best with your endeavours

    Matt

  8. Adam O’Donnell

    Very interesting. I have never really thought to much about these objects on my visits. Your post certainly throws light on the conservation of the pieces, which we all just take for granted. Keep up the good work. Personally I think you need to do a better group photo as all I can see are masked people.

  9. Patricia Sergent

    What an amazing and exciting project! I can’t wait to visit and admire the pagodas restaured to their full glory once more. Thank you so much for sharing your collection to the public and the community. It is also interesting to learn the history and the parcours of the artifacts. It is fascinating to witness what is happening behind the closed doors of the Art Conservation. I am waiting for the next chapter with curiosity and enthusiasm. Well done to the team!

  10. Marisa Ferrando Cusí

    Estupenda información sobre este nuevo proyecto del taller de Conservación RPMT liderado por Andy Thackray y el equipo de restauración: Ana, Bernarda, Hannah, Vivien y Samantha.
    En mi opinión los mejores resultados se obtienen cuando se toman en consideración simultáneamente no solo la Investigación conducente a la obtención de nuevos conocimientos sino también su aplicación en la resolución de problemas o interrogantes propios de los diferentes métodos o criterios a emplear, dado que no hay dos objetos ni dos restauradores totalmente iguales y que cada uno se manifiesta de forma diferente ante un mismo procedimiento.
    La restauración es siempre, sin duda, un gran reto al enfrentarse a unas obras realizadas en el pasado con unas técnicas y por unos autores difícilmente imitables e insuperables.

    ¡Seguid contándonos!

  11. Lynn Howland

    Wow what an incredible effort from the team! The intricate skill and workmanship to restore these beautiful pieces is truly amazing!!

  12. Michael Statham-Fletcher

    I so enjoyed visiting the Prince’s Treasure loan exhibition from Buckingham Palace in early 2020. Something which intrigued me about the Pagodas was the reference to their transport from China by Dr Garrett – with so much else too! Can this tale be expanded at all: eg
    1. Did he go there with a specific shopping list – as his “haul” must have been expensive and presumably had to be made through the usual intermediaries?
    2. How did his patron – say the Prince of Wales – know what to order? The pagodas must have taken a long time to make.
    3. I haven’t been able to trace his memoirs/ letters referred to in the Exhibition leaflet – is there a way of linking up with these documents? There didn’t seem to be anything specific on him in the Royal Collection website when I last looked.
    4. It casts an exotic light on the intrepid voyages of John Company – not just umpteen tea cups and saucers and tea were coming back to Britain from China!
    Thankyou so much for your care for these beautiful treasures and for sharing your insights with us.

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