The Emperor of China’s Palace at Peking


This set of twenty copper-plate engravings depicting scenes in China was published by the leading London printmaker Thomas Bowles (1695-1767) in 1753. They are based on engravings by Matteo Ripa (1682-1746), an Italian missionary priest working in China between 1711 and 1723.  Ripa was employed as an artist at the Qing court of Emperor Kangxi, and is known for having introduced to China the technique of copperplate engraving for pictorial representations and maps. The basis of Bowles’ prints is Ripa’s engraved series of thirty-six views after paintings by the Emperor’s Grand Secretariat Shen Yu. They depict the opulent imperial palaces and landscaped gardens and were accompanied by Ripa’s Italian transliterations of excerpts of poems written by the Emperor himself. Limited editions of the print series were reproduced in China.

Upon his return to the Continent via London in 1724, Ripa gave one of his copies of the print series to the celebrated architect and patron Lord Burlington (1694-1753). This is now housed in the British Museum. Ripa also presented King George I with a copperplate set of the Kangxi Atlas which he himself had produced, and that is held here at the British Library (Maps K.Top.116.15, 116.15.a, 116.15.b.). 

Thirty years after the Burlington album was brought to Britain, Bowles adapted and re-engraved twenty of its views, publishing each with Ripa’s titles translated into English.  Plate 7, for example, is titled ‘The Water like a Looking Glass and the Mountains like Clouds’, while plate 2 is called ‘The Way like the Herb Chi, and the Banks like Clouds of Heaven’. As well as pictures of the Emperor’s palaces and courtiers, the prints show the ‘temples, pleasure-houses, artificial mountains, rocks, and lakes’ of ‘Pekin’, ‘Gehol’, and ‘adjacent Countries’. Local Chinese are depicted enjoying leisurely activities like swimming in a lake or contemplating a view; fishermen navigate small boats through crystalline still waters, native wildlife such as cranes hawk for fish by the riverbank and swallows soar high in the sky. The views are highly picturesque and intricately rendered.

There was a ready market for such Chinese or Chinese-styled goods (‘chinoiserie’) in 18th century Britain. Imports of expensive Chinese porcelain, silks, wallpaper and lacquerware for the upper classes stimulated the trend, and demand for these fashionable goods grew rapidly, reaching every level of society. Thomas Bowles, a successful printmaker with an eye on contemporary trends, delivered a desirable commodity in this series of engravings. His team of printmakers specifically adapted Ripa’s views for a target audience, none or at least very few of whom knew the ‘real’ China. These are stylised pictorial interpretations of the nation, alluringly rich in detail: exotic scenes which have very little basis in reality. They are idealised visions of ‘Cathay’, the China of Fancy, produced to decorate walls and to demonstrate the buyer’s taste in current fashions.

Blog on the Kangxi Atlas:

Full title:
The Emperor of China’s Palace at Pekin, and his principal Gardens: as well in Tartary as at Pekin, Gehol, and the adjacent Countries. With the temples, pleasure-houses, artificial mountains, rocks, lakes, &c. as disposed in different parts of the Royal Gardens. With an Exact Elevation of the Great Mogul’s Superb Throne. The Whole neatly Engraved on Twenty Copper-Plates Twelve Inches Square, from the original View, correctly taken on the Spot
1753, London
Thomas Bowles
Book / Print / Engraving
Thomas Bowles, Matteo Ripa
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Maps 7.Tab.73.

Full catalogue details

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