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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 13th March 2009
David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, looks at sharawadgi, and how Ripon played its part in making it popular.

‘Sharawadgi’ is the word for today - a word, introduced to England in 1685 by Sir William Temple in an essay he wrote on gardening. It means pleasing irregularity, or graceful disorder. It comes from the orient – either from a Chinese word ‘sarokwaichi’ or a Japanese one, ‘sorwaji’, both of them with the same meaning.

Why this digression into Far Eastern languages and obscure 17th-century essayists? Because the Ripon area and one of its most prominent sons were at the forefront of introducing the concept of sharawadgi into English gardens and architecture.

When John Aislabie laid out his estate at Studley Royal in the early 18th century he was following the fashion of the day, with its straight canals, carefully-shaped turf banks and geometric pools. By the time his son William was able to add the Fountains Abbey ruins to the estate, taste had changed; the extension to the Studley garden is in the new, irregular style – the style of sharawadgi. The style was becoming very fashionable, and like most fashions it brought together many influences.

Classically-educated gentlemen were looking at descriptions of ancient Roman gardens – in 1729 Robert Castell produced a book, ‘The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated’ that had plans that landowners could take ideas from. There was also the influence of Chinese gardens, which were just then becoming known. In fact Chinese art of all types was appearing, and getting into the most unlikely places – ceilings suddenly sprouted plasterwork with Chinese figures, Chippendale carved furniture with tiny bells and Chinese-inspired fretwork. And the style persisted; look at the cast-iron balcony around the cabmen’s shelter in Ripon Market Square – it’s in pure Chinese style.

And how did people get their information about the Chinese style? Much came from books, of course, and there was already a Chinese taste around in the 1740s – but one of the most influential volumes on the subject was written by someone whose formative years were spent in Ripon – William Chambers.

The Chambers family was originally Scottish, but by the beginning of the 18th century part was living in Ripon and part in Gothenberg in Sweden. William was born and christened in Gothenberg in 1725, but was sent to Ripon for education at the Grammar School. He lived with his uncle, the Ripon surgeon and apothecary Dr William Chambers, at 37 Market Place. We have no details of his education, but it seems he left the school when he was 17 and joined the Swedish East India Company. He was obviously a bright lad, and in his years on long voyages with the Company, he wrote, ‘I studied modern languages, mathematics and the liberal arts, but chiefly civil architecture.’

Most significant were his visits to China with the Company, in 1743 and 1748. The buildings and gardens there left a lasting impression on him, and determined the direction of his life. He left the East India Company and studied architecture, in Sweden first, then in Paris and in Italy. He built up excellent contacts, and by 1757 he was ready to publish his influential book ‘Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils’, which was dedicated to George, Prince of Wales.

Best known of Chambers’ Chinese buildings is the Pagoda in Kew Gardens, built in the 1760s. There was already a Chinese Temple at Studley, put up in the early 1740s by William Aislabie. It overlooked the Valley of the Seven Bridges; was Chambers influenced in his Chinese studies by the Studley example, making him more open to the Chinese influence when he was able to see it with his own eyes?

Chambers’ career was illustrious – he was architect to the Dowager Princess Augusta and tutor in architecture to the future King George III. He eventually obtained the country’s top architectural job, as Controller of the Works. Among his most memorable designs are Somerset House on the Strand and the golden confection that is the Royal State Coach, used for coronations.

One of his most loyal clients, Lord Charlemont, for whom Chambers designed his most perfect work, the Casino outside Dublin, wrote an epitaph to Chambers on his death in 1796 – he was, Charlemont said, ‘The Best of Men, and the First of English Architects, Whose Buildings, Modelled From His Own Mind, Elegant, Pure, and Solid, Will Long Remain the Lasting Monuments Of That Taste.’

Ripon’s tribute is more modest; the Civic Society’s plaque on 37 Market Place – now the Halifax Bank – is crowded with information – that the former building on the site was home to Hugh Ripley, last Wakeman and first mayor, that it was the Post Office from 1860 to 1906, and that it was later the Lawrence Restaurant and Ballroom. In the middle of this comes the sentence ‘In the 1730s the celebrated architect Sir William Chambers spent his boyhood here.’ It’s little enough to mark the influence of Chambers on the nation – and its ‘sharawadgi’.

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