The ‘Pleasing’, the ‘Terrible’ and the ‘Surprising’: Sir William Chambers’s Landscaping Agenda

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Published on behalf of Alex Doak:

This year, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show celebrated its 100th anniversary and many of the events and exhibits throughout the show looked back with fondness over a century of planting nostalgia in Britain. With this in mind, I’d like to delve a little further back into the country’s horticultural past as I look at a book in our Special Collections which presented a highly controversial theory of garden design to its contemporary audience of the eighteenth century, and which was written by one who, like Chelsea’s participants, wished to celebrate the immense possibilities of garden arrangement.

Sir William Chambers’s Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (Sp Coll f38) is essentially an extension of the royal architect’s earlier essay, ‘On the Art of Laying Out Gardens Among the Chinese’ (1757), and contains a highly descriptive garden narrative, sensitive to the allure of tones, colours and sounds within the overall experience of the landscape. The seriousness with which the author presents his projected ideal garden scheme is often brought into question by garden historians due to the extravagant and extrovert nature of its contents and it is a text which has unfortunately faced much criticism since its publication in London in 1772.

Despite its title, the Dissertation is not a garden manual. It does not include instructions on how to cultivate gardens in a traditional Chinese style, nor does it contain any real life examples. So what is it? Well, in fact, the Dissertation isn’t any one thing. For instance, it seems to be written as a travel account, yet describes a fictional location. Similarly, it is written as a set of scenarios for the use of English landscapers, yet provides almost nothing that is practically transferable to English grounds. Instead, Chambers’s publication is very much a fictional account of a Chinese model garden, created and contained entirely in the author’s own imagination.

Gardeners, like poets, should give a loose to their imagination, and even fly beyond the bounds of truth, whenever it is necessary to elevate, to embellish, to enliven, or to add novelty to their subject. Chambers, (1772) p19 (Sp Coll f38)

Within this intriguing text, Chambers’s model Chinese garden is divided into three emotive landscapes; the ‘pleasing’, the ‘terrible’, and the ‘surprising’, and is presented as a kind of literary journey for the reader to experience. Chambers refers to his garden stroller throughout the text as the ‘passenger’ or ‘traveler’, through whom we explore the garden alongside in a kind of virtual tour, and whose imagined responses become our own. Chambers’s ‘Chinese’ landscape summons a wide range of emotions from its viewer; such as pleasure, shock, embarrassment, and intrigue. Furthermore, it is a place where the seasons of the year and different times of the day co-exist and are separated by the screens of nature, rather than time, and so the fanciful juxtaposition of scenes can be viewed as a representation of nature’s variety, unpredictability and sensory appeal. These three supposedly ‘Chinese’ scenes were many a woodland walk away from England’s conservative garden entertainments and were collectively representative of indulgence, in every form the author could conceive of.

The unashamedly hedonistic landscape Chambers presents to the reader in his Dissertation is not the China Britain had become vaguely familiar with during the course of the century; and certainly not even the China that Chambers had himself presented in his earlier Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (1757). Instead, it is a fictional land, host to the authors most fantastical imaginings. The described landscape is in marked contrast to the contemporary fashionable parklands of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown at this time, where for Chambers, art and its associations appeared to have no place. If Brown’s gardens were dull, unimaginative and made for monotonous viewing, then the Chinese model dictated here represented the ultimate alternative mode of landscaping in its opulence, thrill and limitless bounds of garden arrangement.

Critical Reception

Because Chambers had travelled to China, when few others had at this time, he had previously earned a reputation as a respected authority on Chinoiserie and therefore it confused his contemporaries that the Dissertation was not the valuable sourcebook on the subject of Chinese gardening styles, which they had perhaps anticipated. As a result, the publication was met with much disapproval; its two most prominent critics being Horace Walpole and William Mason, both forthright in their dislike by publicly denouncing it for all its technical inaccuracies and its interpreted political agenda. This charged response was due mainly to the fact that it was felt that Chambers’s publication, dedicated as it was to the King, was seen as a blatant glorification of China as a monarchical power. This conceived political context angered those who were vehemently against the Tory establishment. Indeed, the Whigs were particularly concerned by the fashion for the exotic in English landscape design and subsequently wanted to protect the idea of a national landscaping discourse, cultivated in Britain, without any cross-cultural intrusions. That Chambers’s Chinese garden model was perceived as a threat to English political liberty, shows, at the very least, the influential role of the landscape and the symbolic significance of garden layouts at this time.

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Encouraged by Walpole, and in direct response to the Dissertation, Mason wrote his poem, An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers (Sp Coll BC8-y.24), and published it anonymously the following year. Hugely popular, Mason’s poem went through eleven editions in 1773 and can be largely credited with encouraging the demise of chinoiserie in English landscapes more generally. Chambers released a second edition of the Dissertation shortly after Mason’s Epistle, adding only ‘An Explanatory Discourse by Tan Chet-qua’. This short text however, which can be read in full in Special Collection’s copy of the second edition Dissertation, was not a response to Mason personally, as Chambers declined to ever publicly reply to the poet’s ridicule. Chambers’s ‘Explanatory Discourse’ did not infact deny any political agenda, but was written instead as if by a Chinese sculptor, rather than by Chambers himself. This was a method employed only to further emphasise the point that this model was feasible and was indeed superior to the English tradition.

Amidst the mockery, Chambers was not without supporters, amongst who were the key literary figures, Goldsmith, Burke and Reynolds; who were ready to defend him against Mason’s poetical scorn. Their offers of help, however, were discouraged by Chambers, who replied to Goldsmith’s offer to write a poem in his defence as follows: ‘‘I shall give myself no trouble about it, nor would I have you. Employ your pen my dear Doctor on better subjects; and leave my little book to fall or stand by its own strength.’’ Chambers to Goldsmith (1773) BM Add MS 21d

That the garden scenes depicted in the Dissertation are nonsensical is obvious, yet it seems Chambers was sincere in his wish to use them to inspire gardeners to construct scenes which are beautiful, horrible and sublime, in order to allow the stroller to experience nature in all its guises. Beneath the Dissertation’s implausible façade of chionoiserie fantasy however, it is, at its core, a serious appeal to gardeners to construct sensory landscapes in order to provoke a variety of emotive responses. Had it been published sooner, during the height of the vogue for chinoiserie in England, it may have been better received by its readers. As it is however, the Dissertation has quite lost its place within British garden history and features little more than as the butt of Mason’s jokes. Its link to contemporary associationtist ideas further displays a deeper level of study, which lies beneath its outward embellishment and is key, I believe, to the fact that it should be given more credit as both a serious landscaping manifesto and as a highly considered contribution to the aesthetic theory of landscaping in its day.

Alex Doak

Chambers’s Dissertation (Sp Coll f38), complete with ‘An Explanatory Discourse by Tan Chet-qua’ as well as Mason’s An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers (Sp Coll BC8-y.24) are available for consultation in the Special Collections Reading Room, along with Chambers’s much renowned Treatise on Civil Architecture (Sp Coll Hunterian Ce.1.19)

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Categories: Special Collections

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