The art of hanging Chinese wallpaper

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, hung with Chinese wallpaper in 1752. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, hung with Chinese wallpaper in 1752. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Another insight we have gained while working on the forthcoming catalogue of Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust is that there was a lot of skill involved in installing them. The paper was physically different from western paper and the drops were often wider. Sometimes the scenery was panoramic, requiring the joins to be either very exact or fudged and disguised.

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg, showing various artfully cut additions along the bottom.  ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg, showing various artfully cut additions along the bottom. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

If the paper didn’t quite fit the walls the paper hangers had various tricks up their sleeves to achieve a harmonious end result. They would cut motifs from extra rolls and stick them over the joins to disguise breaks in the scenery. If they needed more height they would add plant and rock motifs at the bottom, cropped in various artful ways to make these disjointed elements look more natural. And as we saw in a recent post about the wallpaper at Blickling, they sometimes added a bit of sky at the top.

The Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, with pairs of Chinese prints hung in an alternating pattern with various cut-out additions to create a wallpaper effect, possibly in the 1750s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammondn the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, Devon

The Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, with pairs of Chinese prints hung in an alternating pattern with various cut-out additions to create a wallpaper effect, possibly in the 1750s. ©National Trust Images/John Hammondn the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, Devon

As Chinese wallpaper was very expensive – and, as catalogue co-author Andrew Bush has noted, you couldn’t just nip around the corner for an extra roll – this ‘cutting and pasting’ must have required considerable skill and nerves of steel.

Partition in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, decorated with fragments of prints in a slightly less sophisticated manner, suggesting a later, amateur hand.©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Partition in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, decorated with fragments of prints in a slightly less sophisticated manner, suggesting a later, amateur hand. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

These techniques were first noticed by conservator Mark Sandiford a number of years ago when he was working on the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg. When I was at Saltram recently  I noticed exactly the same ‘tricks of the trade’ being used in the Chinese Dressing Room there.

6 Responses to “The art of hanging Chinese wallpaper”

  1. deana Says:

    What a remarkable technique. It is often difficult to get a close-up view of the papers when you are at the houses. Quite rightly one wouldn’t like the public to damage the papers. As a result, such details can be missed. I will be more aware next time I’m in a papered room. Living with these exotic papers must be wonderful, with new discoveries every day like walking in a garden.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes and of course the paper hangers intended for the visitors to miss their clever tricks, at least at first glance:)

  3. Gésbi Says:

    Paper hanging in this case was a minor art form in itself! What you describe is very similar to perfecting a design for paper or fabric at its conception. Even with computers, the old cut and paste tricks can help out a lot when its testing the drawing life size on the wall!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gésbi, yes you’re right, this was not just technical skill but design skill as well – a useful way of looking at it!

  5. Dr Graham Martin Says:

    Graham Martin
    I have been a room guide at Felbrigg Hall for several years and the Chinese wallpaper there has fascinated me. It has also puzzled me. The papers appear to have been hung from the ceiling downward leaving a gap been the the lower edge and the dado. This gap appears to have been filled with scraps from other wallpaper sheets. The result is the papering of the room is a bit of a mess along its entire length just above the dado.

    It is difficult to imagine William Windham II, who was known for his artistic temperament and attention to detail, accepting this botch-up. It would have very simple to have harmonised the problem by raising the dado or even more simply papering or painting a suitably designed strip at the top or bottom of the paper similar to adding a strip of “sky” at Blickling.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    How nice to hear from someone directly involved with Felbrigg. Yes this way of ‘stretching’ the wallpaper may appear a bit messy to us, but it was accepted practice in the 1750s.

    The proportions of the dado were probably considered sacrosanct, so the paper hangers had to somehow make the paper fit the wall space. As you say, the hangers sometimes added areas of sky at the top, and separate strips of paper decorated with flowers or trelliswork patterns (both Chinese and European) were also used at the top and the bottom.

    But they also on occasion made up collages of fragments of the same wallpaper, either to increase the length, or – as for instance at Saltram – to disguise the joins between the sheets when the ‘wallpaper’ was in fact made up of sets of prints. Some paper hangers’ advertisements from that time mention the availability of additional sheets with extra birds and flowers which could be used for such ‘cutting and pasting’.

    Since few people had actually seen Chinese scenery the hangers could take some liberties with how the motifs were rearranged. And considering all these limitations, I think the professional hangers often did a good job in creating schemes that – at first sight at least – look quite convincing.

    The paper hanger who did the Felbrigg scheme, John Scrutton, not only extended the wallpaper vertically but also ‘shrunk’ it horizontally, cutting paper away around the sides of the trees and flowers, which allowed him to hang the drops closer together and thereby create a more convincing garden panorama.

    So on balance I think he was probably worth the higher fees that William Windham II was grumbling about :)

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