Thomas Jeckyll – Japonism designer and architect

Thomas Jeckyll was born in 1827 in Wymondham, Norfolk, to Maria Ann (Balduck) and George Jeckell, a curate. Although he never visited Japan, he became a leading light in spreading japonisme in Britain through his architecture and metalwork designs.

Thomas Jeckyll fireplace from around 1873 – Victoria & Albert Museum

He set up an architectural practice in Queen’s Street Norwich in 1853, between the castle and the cathedral close. Through his cousin Peter Bloomfield Jeckell junior, who was living in London, he became friends with artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and George Du Maurier. He moved his practice to London in 1857 but continued to undertake work for Norfolk clients and maintained his membership of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society.

The first evidence of Jeckyll’s interest in Japanese and Asian art were the wrought iron gates that he designed for the Norwich iron manufacturers Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, that were exhibited first at the Exposition Universelle, Paris in 1867. The bottom panels of the gates feature stylized Japanese flower and bird motifs. These gates are now at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts.

Gates designed by Jeckyll featuring the traditional Japanese pattern “seigaiha” (blue sea and waves) can be seen at the Sprowston Manor Hotel and Golf Club and also in the entry porch and garden wall of High House Thorpe St Andrew.

Unfortunately not many of Jeckyll’s Japanese influenced buildings or architectural details survive – the Boileau Fountain which had seigaiha panels and the Chapelfield Gardens Pagoda in Norwich have been pulled down.

His most famous design was for The Peacock Room in London for the shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland. It was meant to be a dining room, in the porzellanzimmer style with shelving for Leyland’s collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain. Jeckyll hung it with panels of antique leather decorated with red roses said to be from a Norfolk Tudor Hall, made to celebrate Catherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII.

Jeckyll succumbed to the mental illness that had been troubling him intermittently for some time and had to stop his work, entering Heigham Hall, a private asylum just outside Norwich in November 1876. Whistler took over, overpainting the leather panels to create a unified design in blue and gold.

Peter Nelson, 1876

Jeckyll never recovered sufficiently to create any further designs and died in 1881. Barnard, Bishop and Barnards began “endlessly recycling his popular and profitable designs” in iron, with the result that you can still easily buy Japonisme style antique fireplaces and ironmongery designed by Jeckyll and manufactured by Barnard Bishop and Barnards to this day. Examples, photographs, advertising and designs are also on display at the Musum of Norwich Bridewell.

Should you be in North Norfolk, you can also see the monument to Juliana, Countess of Leicester, in St Withburga’s church on the Holkham Hall Estate, where the marble panelling on the base is distinctively Jeckyll and Japanese.

For more on Jeckyll, and plenty of photos, see Jeckyll and the Japanese Wave on the wonderful Colonel Unthank’s Norwich website.

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