Framing China

Chimney-board in the Yellow Taffeta Bedroom at Osterley Park, decorated with a Chinese picture of birds, insects, flowers and rocks surrounded by decorative floral patterns, second half 18th century, possibly originally used as wall decoration. ©National Trust Collections

Chimney-board in the Yellow Taffeta Bedroom at Osterley Park, decorated with a Chinese picture of birds, insects, flowers and rocks surrounded by decorative floral patterns, second half 18th century, possibly originally used as wall decoration. ©National Trust Collections

When I was at Osterley Park yesterday I noticed this chimney board covered with Chinese painted paper. I was wondering if it might be a remnant of what had once been the decoration of the walls of one of the rooms.

View of the Chinese Room at Erddig, showing the Chinese pictures on paper mounted on the walls in the 1770s. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

During the third quarter of the 18th century it seems to have been popular to decorate walls with Chinese pictures on paper or sections of Chinese wallpaper, framed with paper borders or gilded fillets.

Some of the 17 Chinese paintings hung in the bedroom of the 5th Lord Leigh's sister at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, in 1765. They were sold from the house in 1981.

Some of the 17 Chinese paintings hung in the bedroom of the 5th Lord Leigh’s sister at Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, in 1765. They were sold from the house in 1981.

This practice is an intriguing example of Asian objects being inserted, literally and figuratively, into a western decorative framework, conceptually similar to the encasing of Asian porcelain in European ormolu mounts.

Some of the Stoneleigh Abbey pictures when they hung at Albemarle House, Virginia, from which they were sold in 2010. ©Sotheby's

Some of the Stoneleigh Abbey pictures when they hung at Albemarle House, Virginia, from which they were sold in 2010. ©Sotheby’s

In some cases there seems to have been a practical element to this as well, as a means of making the expensive and relatively scarce ‘India paper’ cover larger expanses of wall.

The Chinese Room at Carton House, County Kildare, decorated c. 1759. Image from Lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.co.uk

The Chinese Room at Carton House, County Kildare, decorated c. 1759. Image from Lordbelmontinnorthernireland.blogspot.co.uk

Stella Tillyard, in her book Aristocrats (1994), quotes the Countess of Kildare writing from Carton House to her husband in London: ‘My dear Lord Kildare, don’t let Louisa forget the India paper, and if you see any you like buy it at once for that I have will never hold out for more than three rooms, and you know we have four to do; for I have set my heart upon that which opens into the garden being done, for ‘tis certainly now our only and best good living room.’ Perhaps Lord Kildare didn’t manage to obtain any more, as the end result was a careful composition of framed fragments.

View of the interior of a Santa Monica residence decorated by Schuyler Samperton, incorporating Chinese wallpaper panels produced by Fromental. ©Schuyler Samperton Interior Design

View of the interior of a Santa Monica residence decorated by Schuyler Samperton, incorporating Chinese wallpaper panels produced by Fromental. ©Schuyler Samperton Interior Design

And this practice persists to this day, with framed sections of both antique and new Chinese wallpaper being used as decorative focal points.

14 Responses to “Framing China”

  1. Hammond-Harwood House Says:

    I just finished reading Aristocrats, and loved how much information Tillyard included on the sisters’ houses; it was very clear how important the decoration of their homes was to them, and how much their homes reflected their sense of their place in society and desire to keep up with fashion.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, Allison, and I was amused by the description Tillyard gives of the valiant but ultimately hopeless attempts by the Kildares to control household expenditure :)

  3. style court Says:

    I love how you brought in Schuyler’s contemporary project for comparison because that dining room has multiple walls with large expanses of framed paper — not just 2 panels flanking a doorway or hung as a pair, as we see more often today. So it really does call to mind Carton House (albeit a 21st century California spin) .

    I also like the “salon style” groupings you’ve highlighted and how you liken them to wall arrangements of porcelain.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Courtney. And it it is also interesting to see the contrast between Chinese wallpaper sections being hung as a private hobby, as at Carton, and as a professional decorating project, as at Stoneleigh, where a firm called Bromwhich and Legh was responsible for the hang. Just like today: some people like doing the decorating themselves, and some get the professionals in :)

  5. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    All of this is extremely interesting and must give a boost to the Trust’s plans to publish some badly needed summaries of information about these very influential and important decorations. Bravo. It boggles the mind to think how early they were sold in England. If George Minnikin was announcing that he makes and sells all sorts of Japan and other hangings, does it not seem likely that he had models? And this was in 1680!

    I was not aware of the Stoneleigh Abbey arrangement. How nice to see this! You can count the 6 on this wall (and perhaps another 20 or so for the other 3 walls?). It’s startling to realize that even this large amount of sheets is half of what was put up in the Cardigan/Goodison installation of 1742, when Benjamin Goodison put up 88 Chinese sheets. No doubt they were in full color, so they must have made quite the impact.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you Robert. Yes our planned catalogue will hopefully bring together information from different sources, including the invaluable conservation reports which Andrew Bush has amassed over the years.

    Interestingly, one of the Chinese pictures visible in the photograph of that room in Stoneleigh Abbey seems to be more or less identical to one in the Study at Saltram, where they also did a ‘collage’, albeit a slightly mad ‘patchwork quilt’ one rather than the elegantly spaced and framed composition at Stoneleigh.

    One of the curious things I have found (at least so far) is that as you say there are references to Chinese wallpapers going back to before 1700, but I haven’t found any actually surviving wallpapers from that early period yet. The earliest examples I have seen (images of) seem to date from about 1750. Have the earlier ones just all perished? Or are they hiding in plain sight?

    That Cardigan/Goodison installation sounds interesting – which house was that?

  7. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    Hi Emile,

    Look at Margaret Jourdain’s book on Chinese Export Art, p. 31. A more accessible book, John Cornforth’s Early Georgian Interiors, p. 207, n. 55, mentions it.

    I can only imagine that paper conservators (maybe even some in private practice that may have had no reason to publicize their work?) would have the best handle on where these artifacts are (if any still exist). The frustrating thing is that the weight of advertising and, even if limited, commercial records, is far more evident than the evidence!

    Another route to take would be to ask your Dutch neighbors, who have come into their own as scholars as well as their former role of shippers extraordinaire in the 17th and 18th century. Perhaps one of them has looked into this question. Eloy Koldeweij comes to mind.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks Robert – yes I had noticed that reference in Jourdain and Jenyns, and unfortunately the source listed is a bit vague – ‘a MS account book of the 4th Earl of Cardigan’ – but it is a useful hint and could not doubt be verified in the actual family papers.

    Yes the files of my colleague Andrew Bush, who is our paper conservation adviser, contain lots of useful facts and observations.

    And yes we should check with our Dutch colleagues – we are in contact with Nico van der Woude and his colleagues who are currently conserving several Chinese wallpapers at Oud Amelisweerd near Utrecht, and I will ask them.

    • Robert M. Kelly Says:

      Thanks kindly Emile. Its funny, it’s well known that while decorating Strawberry Hill in 1753, Horace Walpole wrote to Sir Horace Mann that ‘the room on the ground floor nearest you is a bed-chamber hung with yellow paper and prints framed in a manner invented by Lord Cardogan (sic), with black and white borders printed; over this is Mr. Chute’s bed-chamber, hung with red in the same manner’.

      My friend Joe Rock opined that maybe it really was Lord Cardogan. But, although the reference is not rock-solid, Lord Cardogan’s dates don’t seem to line up. Walpole seems to have misspelled, something that 18th century letter-writers did rather more often than 21st century researchers.

      Walpole’s rooms sound familiar, down to the black and white borders, yet it’s hard to know what he meant by ascribing the invention to the Cardigan installation. It seems likely that Goodison was working with coloured pictures. If there was innovation, perhaps it consisted in more elaborate frames or more intermediate ornamentation than had been customary. Or, maybe the choice of a dining room was a departure.

      If nothing else, the Cardigan/Goodison room may have been memorable for the scale – 88 is a huge number. Goodison’s job was to ‘paste them all over the walls of a dining room’, and to ‘make good the Figures over the joining of the pictures’.

      The latter comment is vague, but suggests that ornaments (masks?) or borders were added to link everything up. Isn’t it true that ‘figures’ could be almost any motif in the period? I think it’s a catch-all term. ‘Make good'; could this mean improve the seams, as was sometimes done to the seams of Chinese scenics by adding twigs and leaves? With so many prints in a single room, the individual scenes could not have been large. Perhaps they needed a superstructure.

      Since our super-geeks are constantly reminding us that someday “all will be digitized” would it be too much to ask them to put the MS account you refer to in the front of the line?
      :)

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed spellings were very fluid then, and it would seem likely that Walpole was in fact referring to the Cardigan print room (but he, too, doesn’t mention the actual house). And of course he was always assigning slightly glib labels like that to people, which makes him at once so interesting and so infuriating as a recorder, as one is never entirely sure if what he is claiming is a fact or a slight exaggeration.

    Yes it is difficult to assess whether ‘figures’ refers to the paper borders between the pictures or where the scenery in one picture is connected (or is made to look as if it connects) to the next.

    I have just read a comment in Friederike Wappenschmidt’s 1989 book about Chinese wallpapers to the effect that in her opinion the use of separate pictures or prints was a slightly earlier phenomenon, which was then partially replaced when the larger sets of Chinese wallpapers came in from the middle of the 18th century onwards, i.e. the non-repeating panoramic floral or landscape patterns, which were from then on considered to be the smarter and more harmonious option. Which also makes me wonder if the late 17th- and early 18th-century mentions of ‘India paper’ might refer to those separate prints and pictures, and not to what we now call wallpaper, which only came in in the middle of the 18th century.

    • Robert M. Kelly Says:

      Emile, these are interesting thoughts. We many never know, yet the absence of evidence for large Chinese panels early in the century would fit what Wappenschmidt suggests. I think this question may get into how designs were made to fit the strictures of the wallpaper sizes, too. I think it was difficult for Western European paperstainers to fit these Eastern motifs into what was essentially a Western form. You can see how awkward some of these creations were, a case in point are the gigantic red squirrels in the Ord House wallpaper which are out of scale with everything else.

      For architectural moldings and small borderwork and repeat patterns based on textiles, that was one thing, and I think those were easily integrated into the 21″ widths. The mass of expansive natural and landscape ornament from the East….not so easy.

      It may be just as you suggest…that these very many pictures needed to be joined up in some way, and so maybe they were almost a proto-typical scenic wallpaper in the way that they were brought together? It’s worth a thought.

      Your question about what “India paper” referred to – large scenic panels or small sheets – might be answered by rephrasing it: how much did each panel or sheet cost? if each unit were 18d or so (and this was a popular price in the middle of the 18th century) the odds are that it was an individual sheet of about 36″ in one dimension, perhaps 32″ or so in the other. Whereas, if each unit cost a lot more money, that would indicate the scenic type. It seems that these were at least 44″ wide, and some were 48″, and as we know, up to 12′ or 14′ high….an enormous amount of paper. Unfortunately, the billing records are often lost forever due to the casual and random ways they entered the country, so we have a severe handicap.

  10. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    I just thought of another one: Fawley Court, visited by Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys in 1772:
    “The dressing room…is pretter than ’tis possible to imagine, the most curious India paper has birds, flowers etc. put up as different pictures in frames of the same with festoons, India baskets, figures etc. on a pea-green paper, Mr. Bromwich having again display’d his taste as in the billiard room below, and both have an effect wonderfully pleasing’.

    Now granted this is much later, and also a much smaller room, I would think. Still, maybe it shows the staying power of this type of linked-up decoration, which was perhaps a viable alternative to the very wide ones we’ve been talking about.

  11. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    Whoops, found another one. My friend Joe Rock posted this advertisement of a paperstainer from Dublin in 1770 which includes this information:

    “…as they are connected with a gentleman of the greatest eminence in the paper way in London, and who constantly attends the India sales, are now furnished with a variety of India landscapes, both for ornamenting rooms by way of pictures, or hanging them entirely, and a large parcel of the finest sheets of India birds and flowers in different grounds…..”

    Thus the two different ways of hanging are mentioned: large landscapes (“hanging them entirely”) and also hanging small pictures (“by way of pictures”).

    The ad can be found here:

    https://sites.google.com/site/researchpages2/home/advertising-wallpaper?goback=%2Egmr_4248838%2Egde_4248838_member_229925944

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Robert, and apologies for having been absent for a few days. The references you mention are indeed very relevant and show the popularity if not just Chinese wallpaper but also smaller Chinese pictures used as wall decoration.

    That 1770 Dublin ad is wonderful in that it tells us all sorts of things at once:

    a) in that it shows the relative difficulty to obtaining Chinese wallpapers in Ireland, as they were imported via London

    b) in providing a snapshot of how the trade operated: traders buying the wallpapers at the EIC auctions and then selling them on retail or wholesale.

    c) in that Ryves, Darkin & Co. were selling ‘a variety’ of ‘India landscapes’ and ‘India birds and flowers’, so that presumably the customer had a degree of choice.

    d) in that at this date there was clearly a choice between hanging separate Chinese ‘pictures’ (presumably they are referring to purpose-made smaller pictures rather than cut-up wallpapers, although that is not entirely clear) or papering rooms ‘entirely’ with Chinese wallpaper.

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