By Dr Inbal Livne
Head of Collections, Powell-Cotton Museum
Percy Powell-Cotton was born into a family with both financial and aesthetic interests in China.1
Growing up in London, not only was the family home filled with collections of Chinese furniture and decorative arts made by previous generations during their services to the East India Company, but the house’s position in South Kensington, in such proximity to what would become known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, was almost certainly a key influence on the young Percy Cotton.2
When Percy was 17 the family moved to Quex Park, Kent, where they set about making improvements to the existing Georgian house. In 1883 a grand drawing room was added, but when Percy inherited the estate in 1894, he began to make more extensive changes. This included the redesign of the drawing room, which would become known as the ‘Oriental Room’. Inspired by visits to porcelain and furniture workshops in China and Japan during his world travels (1889-1891) the room included inherited furniture from China and India, with some new pieces from Japan (bought later at auction). The intricate wooden panelling had been commissioned from woodcarvers in Srinagar during his 1895 trip there, and the ornate metalwork of the wall lights and floor lamps from Benares. The ceiling, reminiscent of north African tiles, was in fact created in plaster by Italian craftsmen in 1907, and the embroidered wall panels on silk backing were cut from Chinese robes and reused (also in 1907). Over approximately a decade Percy created the pastiche of ‘the Orient’ still visible at Quex Park today, which is almost unique within the UK as a remaining example of eastern-inspired decorative experiments in a modest country house during this time.
Percy never returned to China himself, but in 1910 an important collection of ‘Oriental Works of Art’ was sold at auction in London from what is believed to be the collection of Arthur William Uglow Pope (1858-1927), a railway engineer recently retired from the Chinese Imperial Railway. Percy made several visits to Pope’s address to view the collection and acquired a substantial amount of the collection including Chinese ceramics. Over the following decades other pieces were added to the collection as Percy retained a lifelong interest in the subject matter, despite his activities focusing largely on Africa and the building of his museum.
Today the Chinese ceramics collection is represented in both Quex House (the family home) and the associated Powell-Cotton Museum. Of national significance, what started as a family collection made to decorate the home, was built into a collection that spanned both Percy’s personal and professional life. It is represented in both these capacities today.
1: For further information on the history of the family and their connections to the East India Company, see ‘The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857: Quex Park Case Study’ https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/quex-park-case-study/
2: Percy Horace Gordon Cotton changed his name by deed poll to Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton in June 1894, following the death of his father.