by Naomi Collick, Curator at Chiddingstone Castle
Chiddingstone Castle was the home of the art dealer and collector Denys Eyre Bower (1905 – 1977). He moved into the Castle in 1955 with his eclectic and impressive collections of Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, Japanese, and Ancient Egyptian artefacts.
The collections were the work of a lifetime and were inspired by Denys’ experiences or personal interests. He started his career as a bank clerk in his small home town of Crich in Derbyshire. He bought the Castle after pursuing his dream of running a successful antiquities dealership in London. He moved in, filled every spare space with his collections, and opened it up to the public for visitors to view for a small entrance fee. He gave the tours himself and wrote labels by hand for some of the objects, leaving the rest to be appreciated for their visual qualities.
The country house known as Chiddingstone Castle that Denys moved into in 1955 had been owned by various people since the Tudor period. It was the home of eight generations of the Streatfeild family. As the Streatfeilds steadily improved their fortunes through the wool and iron industry and strategic marriages, they upgraded their Tudor mansion. The final version of the house that can be seen today was completed in the 19th century. It was remodelled to resemble a medieval Castle with additional rooms and features added.
The Streatfeild family moved out in the early 20th century, and the Castle was owned and lived in by Lord Astor, British and Canadian troops, Long Dene School, and various other characters. Denys was the last private owner and he left the Castle and collections to the nation, in the hope that others would enjoy them as he did. A charitable trust was established in 1984 to care for the Castle and collections.
The Buddhist collection is the smallest of the four main collections but had the most personal meaning for Denys. We know from various accounts and archival material that Denys himself was a Buddhist. The extent to which Denys practiced Buddhism in his daily life is not clear, but he carefully collected objects that he found visually interesting from various Buddhist countries throughout Asia. The objects in the collection date from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. They include statues, paintings, shrines, prayer wheels, musical instruments, amulets, and offering implements.
Buddhism was a key part of Denys’ identity, as illustrated by his portrait by Dame Laura Knight (1877 – 1970) which hangs in the Castle’s North Hall entrance. It depicts him seated with a statue from his Buddhist collection. It is the only object from his collections that he chose to be portrayed with. There are a number of books on Buddhism and copies of the Journal of the Buddhist Society in Denys’ collection which are still held at the Castle. He knew his Buddhist collection from memory, and carefully displayed it at the Castle in antique wooden cases.
Denys’ display style was inspired by the traditional ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which became popular from the 15th century. A cabinet of curiosities would be crowded with artefacts often grouped into similar types. Wealthy collectors would have a cabinet in their homes. There would rarely be any labels – the idea was to show off the collection as a whole rather than to educate the viewer about each object. A cabinet served as a visual way to learn about world cultures. With his display style, it was the visual impact of the Buddhist collection that Denys presented to his visitors. When Denys left his collections to the nation in his will, it was his wish that future generations would be able to continue visiting the Castle to view and appreciate them.
Today, the interpretation in the Buddhist Room at the Castle introduces how Denys used to display the collection, whilst also focusing on the original context and sacred meaning of the objects. As a museum we aim to explore a variety of perspectives beyond just Denys’ view. We are honoured to be a part of The Ceramic House Interbeing Project, which we hope will help us reach new international audiences for Denys’ collections. The artists participating in Neither Increasing Nor Decreasing will be responding to objects in the Buddhist collection, bringing new visual interpretations and meaning. Denys would certainly have been fascinated to see the results of this exhibition, as he was inspired to collection Asian art having grown up surrounded by his father’s Chinese ceramics.