Suggested words

Introducing the Pagodas Project

Published by: Ana Vilela

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

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