The multiple layers of Chinese wallpaper

The Chinese wallpaper and border papers in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust

The Chinese wallpaper and border papers in the Chinese Bedroom at Blickling Hall. ©National Trust

The work on our catalogue of the Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust is progressing well. Over the next few months I will be featuring a few sneak previews here.

The Chinese Bedroom at Blickling. The ivory pagodas may have come from Lady Suffolk's villa Marble Hill in Twickenham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Chinese Bedroom at Blickling. The ivory pagodas may have come from Lady Suffolk’s villa Marble Hill in Twickenham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

One of the striking things about Chinese wallpapers is that they force you to look at them in a multi-channel, multi-layered way. They are simultaneously art and decoration, eastern and western, realistic and fantastic. They relate both to the history of interior design and to the history of global trade. They document subtle shifts in social and cultural attitudes, but also illustrate the techniques of Chinese paper making, printing and painting, and of European wallpaper hanging.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper ©National Trust

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper ©National Trust

Mirroring this complexity, we have had a lot of help in our research from a diverse group of academics, curators, conservators, historic interiors specialists and present-day Chinese wallpaper manufacturers. In an article just published in issue 50 of the National Trust’s Views magazine, entitled A Multi-Channel Approach to Chinese Wallpaper, I have tried to chart the development of the project so far, and the way it has drawn in a multiplicity of experts. We hope that we can build on this informal Chinese wallpaper study group following the publication of the catalogue, perhaps resulting in further events and publications.

Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk (d. 1767) in masquerade dress, by Thomas Gibson, c. 1720.  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk (d. 1767) in masquerade dress, by Thomas Gibson, c. 1720. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Chinese wallpaper at Blickling Hall is a good example of how new insights can be gleaned by combining family history, art history and material evidence. At the outset we already knew that Henrietta Howard, Lady Suffolk, had helped her nephew John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, to redecorate Blickling in the run-up to his marriage in 1761.

Inscription on the back of one of the Chinese border papers at Blickling. Photograph by Mark Sandiford

Inscription on the back of one of the Chinese border papers at Blickling. Photograph by Mark Sandiford

This was confirmed when Mark Sandiford and Philippa Mapes removed the Chinese wallpaper from the walls for conservation treatment in 2002. On the back of the border papers they found inscriptions mentioning ‘1758’, ‘Suffolk’ and ‘Lott 30′, suggesting that Lady Suffolk had purchased these borders at auction, and possibly the wallpaper as well. She also had Chinese wallpaper at her own house, Marble Hill, in Twickenham, and this has recently been recreated.

Transcription of a faint Chinese stamp on the back of one of the Chinese border papers at Blickling. Drawn by Mark Sandiford

Transcription of a faint Chinese stamp on the back of one of the Chinese border papers at Blickling. Drawn by Mark Sandiford

One of the Chinese border papers at Blickling was also found to have a faint Chinese stamp on the reverse – perhaps the name of the paper manufacturer, although it has proved difficult to decipher so far. Yet another intriguing discovery was the fact that the sky of the landscape wallpaper is separate and not Chinese. It was probably added by the paper hangers, perhaps to extend the height of the wallpaper to fit this particular room. Recently we discovered that some other Chinese wallpapers surviving in Britain also have added skies, for instance the one at Harewood House.

The Chinese Bedroom at Blickling during conservation work in 2002, showing the sky section added to the Chinese wallpaper. Photograph by Mark Sandiford

The Chinese Bedroom at Blickling during conservation work in 2002, showing the sky section added to the Chinese wallpaper. Photograph by Mark Sandiford

Much remains to be discovered about this wallpaper, and Chinese wallpapers in general, but by combining all the physical and documentary evidence, and by comparing wallpapers in different houses (and even different countries), we are beginning to gain a greater understanding of their make-up, significance and development.

4 Responses to “The multiple layers of Chinese wallpaper”

  1. style court Says:

    Emile — the collaborative efforts of you and your colleagues makes me think of what’s happening at The Met with “Interwoven Globe.” Apart from all the complex international relationships (textile-related connections, both economic and creative) detailed in the exhibition, it seems that actually organizing the show involved a whole lot of interdisciplinary connections behind the scenes. And the more that’s learned about some of these textiles, the harder it is to really stick them in one curatorial department.

    Anyway, excited about these sneak peeks!

  2. style court Says:

    Just read your article, Emile. Anxious to learn what response you receive from Chinese when catalogue is published.

  3. deana Says:

    Oh my goodness, the paper is in 2 parts? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. I should very much love to read your article. Hopefully it is online??? I am mad for Chinese paper. Little worlds are created on the walls, most extraordinary.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks very much for alerting us to that fascinating exhibition at the Met (http://bit.ly/10a4hBU). Their interdisciplinary approach does indeed sound similar to what we are trying to do with Chinese wallpaper.

    And, as you say, we too have found that the more you look at Chinese wallpapers, the more difficult it becomes to pigeon-hole them. For instance, we have found that the traditional distinction between floral and figural (or scenic, as I think you call them in America) wallpapers is not really fixed, as some wallpapers have elements of both. The workshops clearly showed considerable flexibility in combining patterns and motifs as the market demanded – a subject for a follow-up post, perhaps :)

    And it is interesting to see that present-day Chinese wallpaper purveyors such as Fromental and Gracie are still doing just that: using certain types and patterns but adjusting and combining them when required.

    And yes we are very keen to get feedback from Chinese experts and build up contacts with them. We still know very little about the development of the workshops in Guangzhou which produced these wallpapers, and we are only just beginning to understand the art-historical origins of the motifs and scenery depicted in them.

    Deana, yes it shows how the European paper hangers were actively and cleverly engaging with these wallpapers when inserting them into the rooms they were acquired for.

    We hope to publish the catalogue online and in hard-copy format, hopefully in February 2014.

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