In a mottled mood

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper with its imitation bamboo trellis border in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall, inv. no. NT354141. ©National Trust Collections

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper with its imitation bamboo trellis border in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall, inv. no. NT354141. ©National Trust Collections

Our little Chinese wallpaper study group was recently discussing the use of printed and painted paper borders which give a trompe l’oeil impression of mottled bamboo trelliswork. They were probably made by the same Guangzhou workshops which produced the actual wallpapers and they seem to have been particularly popular during the second half of the 18th century.

Fragment of a painted imitation bamboo trelliswork border, formerly at Hampden House, Buckinghamshire. Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. no. E.948A-C-1978. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fragment of a painted imitation bamboo trelliswork border, formerly at Hampden House, Buckinghamshire. Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. no. E.948A-C-1978. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The discussion was sparked off by the border in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall. We also discussed a very similar border in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, originally from Hampden House, Buckinghamshire. There may be a direct link between the Blickling and the Hampden borders, as both houses were owned by the Earls of Buckinghamshire, albeit at different times.

Sections of Chinese wallpaper framed with a faux bamboo trelliswork paper border, second half 18th century, from a house at no. 10 Ginnekenstraat, Breda, which was demolished in 1961. Breda's Museum, inv. no. S06489.  ©Breda's Museum

Sections of Chinese wallpaper framed with a faux bamboo trelliswork paper border, second half 18th century, from a house at no. 10 Ginnekenstraat, Breda, which was demolished in 1961. Breda’s Museum, inv. no. S06489. ©Breda’s Museum

Anna Wu and Sander Karst told us about another similar border which frames two ‘pictures’ made up of sections of wallpaper that had formerly hung in a town house in Breda, in the Netherlands.

Imitation bamboo chair made of turned, carved and painted beech, c. 1790, owned by David Garrick's widow. Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. no. W.27-1917 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Imitation bamboo chair made of turned, carved and painted beech, c. 1790, owned by David Garrick’s widow. Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. no. W.27-1917 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The taste for mottled bamboo caught on in England to the extent that the actor David Garrick and his wife had a number of faux mottled bamboo chairs in their villa on the Thames at Hampton between the 1770s and the 1790s.

Corner of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House (nv. no. NT433859), showing the faux bamboo European paper border and the imitation bamboo trim on the doorframe. ©National Trust Images/Martin Trelawny

Corner of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House (inv. no. NT433859), showing the faux bamboo European paper border and the imitation bamboo trim on the doorframe. ©National Trust Images/Martin Trelawny

Even as late as 1840 imitation mottled bamboo woodwork and paper borders were still fashionable, as can be seen in the Chinese bedroom at Belton House.

Detail of a Chinese watercolour picture pasted on the wall as part of the 'wallpaper' in the Study at Saltram, inv. no. 871979. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Detail of a Chinese watercolour picture pasted on the wall as part of the ‘wallpaper’ in the Study at Saltram, inv. no. 871979. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

A representation of a decorative mottled bamboo fence in an elegant Chinese garden is visible in one of the pictures used as ‘wallpaper’ on the walls of the Study at Saltram, probably in the late 1760s.

Detail of a mottled bamboo armchair, in scroll 4 of a set of hanging scroll paintings entitled 'The Eighteen Scholars', by an anonymous Ming-dynasty artist. ©National Palace Museum, Taipei

Detail of a mottled bamboo armchair, in scroll 4 of a set of hanging scroll paintings entitled ‘The Eighteen Scholars’, by an anonymous Ming-dynasty artist. ©National Palace Museum, Taipei

In China mottled bamboo was  considered a rare and refined material suitable for scholars and other members of the elite, as is explained in an online exhibition of the National Palace Museum, Taipei. The patterning was thought to add a sophisticated touch of natural boldness to fencing, fretwork, furniture and other objects.

Mottled bamboo and goat's hair writing brush by Li Dinghe, mid-19th-century. ©The Palace Museum, Beijing

Mottled bamboo and goat’s hair writing brush by Li Dinghe, mid-19th-century. ©The Palace Museum, Beijing

Jonathan Hay has recently written a fascinating study, entitled Sensuous Surfaces, about how materials like mottled bamboo interacted with other patterns, textures and shapes in Chinese interiors during the late Ming and early Qing periods, creating subtle interweavings of visual delight and cultural meaning.

2 Responses to “In a mottled mood”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    So is the mottling on the real bamboo natural or applied? I’m assuming natural — so is it a particular species or some other natural cause like a fungal disease?

    I’ve always loved the Belton wallpaper — the birds in particular have such personality. I didn’t realise it was so late though.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Unlike you I am completely ignorant about plants, but my search results tell me that it appears to be a particular species of bamboo, phyllostachys bambusoides f. lacrima-deae, native to Hunan, Henan, Jianxi and Zhejiang, and especially the Jiuyi Mountains. In Chinese it is apparently (again according to my quick search) known as xiangfei (斑竹).

    But speaking of applied decoration, there is the inevitable charming story about the origins of this species of bamboo to the effect that when the mythical King Shun died his courtesans wept such bitter tears that the nearby bamboo was stained forever!

    Yes the Belton Chinese Bedroom is really interesting in being so late – ‘late Regency’ as it were – and the Chinese wallpaper in the nearby Bamboo Bedroom (not open to the public) was hung even later, in 1861.

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