Of the many styles that have appealed to the imagination of western architects and designers, few have been more inventive or extravagant in their expression than those of China and India. From the exotic kiosques of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great to the flamboyant ‘Iranistan’ of the American showman Phineas Barnum, images of the East have inspired a wide range of buildings from the romantic to the bizarre.
But the oriental taste found its most congenial setting in the landscape gardens of eighteenth-century England, where the Chinese pavilion came to represent a counter-culture, a rococo alternative to the classical tradition. Partly because pagodas and pavilions of the West were not faithful reproductions but interpretations of oriental architecture, their style has been regarded as eccentric or less than reputable; in this fresh and challenging study, however, Dr Conner argues that the hybrid nature of these buildings was a source of novel and exciting design, and shows how the styles of the Orient came to impress – or antagonize – such leaders of taste as Horace Walpole, Humphry Repton and John Nash.
Drawing on a wide body of contemporary journals and pattern-books, paintings and engravings, he examines not only those buildings and gardens that can be seen today but those which have long since disappeared, or which were too fanciful ever to reach fruition. He traces the fluctuations in the taste for oriental architecture, relating them to the development of the landscape garden in England and France, and noting also their dependence on various forms of contact – artistic, diplomatic and military – with China and India. Each of the projects discussed is set fully in its context and time – whether an established masterpiece like the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, that most exuberant and brilliant combination of oriental styles, or Sir William Chambers’s plans for Chinese gardens containing halffamished animals, gibbets and instruments of torture. In a book that is both scholarly and entertaining, Dr Conner provides a fascinating perspective on a phenomenon of taste that is often unorthodox but never dull.