Designs of Chinese Buildings and Furniture


In the 1740s, the young William Chambers travelled on three trading voyages to China with the Swedish East India Company. He was the first European to study Chinese architecture methodically, and later studied drawing and architecture in Paris and Rome. Setting up as an architect in London, he was forced to adapt his ideas to accommodate the English Palladian style, and became a major establishment architect. His friendship with George III led to his eventually becoming Comptroller and Surveyor-general, effectively architect to the Crown. He was founder and treasurer of the Royal Academy of Arts and his most well-known surviving building is the pagoda at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

This is Chambers’s seminal work on Chinese architecture and design, ranging across architecture, gardens, clothes, machines, furniture and domestic objects. He describes how the buildings and furniture were used, and explains the nature of Chinese taste, particularly with regard to the construction of gardens. The list of subscribers who paid for publishing the book shows the high-status circles he moved in.

On pages 7 to 8 Chambers makes the point that Chinese architecture was rigidly controlled according to social level. Anything even faintly beyond the expected design was deemed socially divisive and politically dangerous. Accordingly only the Emperor could commission anything adventurous or unexpected.

Though there was a peak of Chinese design in England in the 1740s, this was ill-informed and confused. Chambers’s detailed observations and drawings laid the ground for a more integrated and intelligent view. Even after his death in 1777, his work was influential, as can be seen in the design of the Brighton Pavilion in 1815.

Full title:
Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils. Engraved by the best hands, from the originals drawn in China ... To which is annexed, a Description of their temples, houses, gardens, &c.
1757, London
Book / Print / Image
William Chambers
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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