Dr Johnson wrote in 1738 : “There are few nations in the world more talked of, or less known than the Chinese.” He was reflecting on the latest book about China to be published, one which Patrick Conner in Oriental Architecture in the West suggests that inspired the first “Chinese” building in Britain.
This was a massive 4 volume work by the Jesuit priest Father Jean-Baptiste Du Halde who had not visited China himself but collated the unpublished reports of 17 of his fellow priests. It first appeared in France in 1735, but was translated into English as The General History of China the following year, and went into its 3rd edition by 1741.
Unlike Nieuhof’s account of the Dutch Embassy which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago there are very few illustrations. However the artist, Antoin Humblot, crucially shifted the emphasis of his Chinese sources, from reality to something rather more playful and elegant, and in the process he made China appear almost to be rococo. Such books helped feed the growing fascination for all things “Chinese” including gardens and architecture, which Tim Richardson has called “one of the wonderful eccentricities of the age.”