William Chambers, Chinese design guru

Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers's book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library

Plate 4 from Sir William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings (1757). ©British Library

This evening I will be giving a talk on the Chinese designs of the architect William Chambers, as part of the seminar series on the history of gardens and designed landscapes organised by the Institute of Historical Reseach.

Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 2 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

I cannot give a full preview of the talk here, but essentially it will be about the pervasive influence of Chambers’s 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings on the appearance of chinoiserie garden pavilions across Europe.

Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 5 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Chambers claimed to have written the book to correct European misconceptions about Chinese architecture which were being perpetuated by the authors of fanciful and frivolous ‘Chinese’ pattern books.

Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 10 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Ironically, the popularity of Chambers’s ‘correct’ book meant that his designs were quickly adapted by others and used to design yet more cheerfully fantastical pavilions, especially as part of the so-called jardins anglo-chinois which were popular in France in the 1770s and 1780s.

Plate 14 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

Plate 14 from Designs of Chinese Buildings. ©British Library

But in some ways Chambers had the last laugh, as his version of Chinese architecture became the ‘correct’ chinoiserie style for about the next hundred years.

5 Responses to “William Chambers, Chinese design guru”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    Amusing, and reminds me I really must go to Amboise and photograph the Duke of Choiseul’s pagoda sometime.

  2. columnist Says:

    What a stunning book, which I consider a work of art in itself. I regret that I will not be able to attend!

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, yes that pagoda is amazing too, although interestingly without any Chambers elements in it, at least as far as I know. And it seems to have been intended as a kind of ‘lieu de mémoire’, as it has the names of the Duke’s friends and supporters inscribed on it, as a kind of ‘temple of friendship’.

    Columnist, yes I agree!

    And as I was scrutinising his designs for this talk I noticed that some quite specific motifs reappear in separate designs, for instance the double circle motif.

    This suggests to me that he was not just recording Chinese architecture, but was also consciously or unconsciously creating a coherent style.

    And that may be part of the reason that the book proved to be so influential: that it presented a very clear and simplified view of Chinese architecture, which was a distortion of reality, but which also made it easier to appreciate and reuse by European architects and designers. What we might call good market research and good product development 🙂

  4. trewinb Says:

    IKEA wasn’t the first Swedish influence on furnishings. He learned his superb drawing skills from both Blondel and Clerisseau (who also taught the Adams brothers).

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes in a way he was the ultimate European architect: born in Sweden to a Scottish father, studied in Paris and Rome, and practised in England.

    I hadn’t thought of his ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings’ in terns of an Ikea catalogue, but I suppose they have both had a transformative effect on European taste 🙂

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