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  • Garden Empire or the Sublime Politics of the Chinese-Gothic Style
  • Chunjie Zhang

Soon after the Storming of the Bastille in Paris shocked all of Europe on July 14, 1789, the Bavarian prince-elector Karl Theodor expedited the project of an English Garden and hastily opened this people's park (Volkspark) with a prominent Chinese tower (chinesischer Turm). The tower in Munich resembles the one in the royal gardens at Kew near London, which was designed and built by the royal architect to George III, Sir William Chambers, in 1762 (fig. 1). A prominent landmark in the metropolitan area of Munich, the English Garden, like Kew Gardens, is one of the earliest public parks in Europe and is meant to express Karl Theodor's gesture of generously sharing his property and governance with his people. Indeed, before and after Karl Theodor, German princes had a series of "Chinese" structures erected in their gardens and parks: the Chinese village Mulang in Kassel Wilhelmshöhe (built in 1781), the China House in Sanssouci, Potsdam (1764), the Chinese palais in the Steinfurter Bagno near Münster (1787), and, most conspicuously, the Chinese garden kingdom (Gartenreich) in Dessau/Wörlitz (1795–97) built by Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau after his visit to England.

Unlike the French renaissance garden's strict geometrical regularity, the irregular style is often considered to be the English garden style. Yet Chambers forcefully claims in his A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) that the irregularity is actually Chinese. Indeed, garden design was a politically contentious issue between the royalist Tory party, to which Chambers belonged, and the liberalist Whig party in England. Stephen Bending explains: "The English landscape garden, then, is a reflection both of Britain's cultural disposition and of correct—natural—government, for if regular gardens represent despotic interests, the 'rational' landscape garden is a reflection of a variegated—constitutional—regime."1 This conjuncture of style and politics reminds me of John Dixon Hunt's argument that a garden is designed to represent, not to imitate, in a specific iconographical context. Hunt calls the garden a fiction or "third nature" because of its complex relationship with nature and culture.2 In this fiction of Europe's "Chinese" gardens, as I will show in the ensuing pages, the particular style of Chinese structures of William Chambers's design, which I call the Chinese-Gothic style, reveals a royal representation of empire and an accompanying aesthetics of sublimity in the eighteenth century. [End Page 77]

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Fig 1.

View of the Wilderness at Kew, by William Marlow, watercolor, 1763. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1925. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Even though Chambers realized his Chinese garden design in Kew, his promotion of Chinese-styled gardening was not well received among his contemporaries. William Mason, Chambers's contemporary and a prominent Whig follower, composed the well-known poem An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers (1773) and satirized Chambers's garden design: "Let Barbaric glories feast his [King George III] eyes, / August Pagodas round his palace rise, / And finished Richmond open to his view, / 'A work to wonder at, perhaps a' Kew. / Nor rest we here, but, at our magic call, / Monkies shall climb our trees, and lizards crawl; / Huge dogs of Tibet bark in yonder grove, / Here parrots prate, there cats make cruel love. … And thou, Sir William! while thy plastic hand / Creates each wonder, which thy Bard has plann'd … let that Bard his Knight's protection claim, / And share, like faithful Sancho, Quixote's fame."3 Mason's satiric tone reflects his distaste for things Asiatic, either as architecture or as animal. The garden scene Mason describes shows little natural harmony, but rather reveals a grotesque discord. The word "bard" means both a poet and a piece of bacon. Twice Mason calls Chambers a "bard" and compares him to Don Quixote's absurdity. Mason's disagreement with Chambers's Chinese design finds support from Germany.

The German garden theorist Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld admits in his five-volume Theorie der Gartenkunst (1779–85; Theory of Garden Art): "To be honest, it was the report of garden improvements in...


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