Peppered papers

Detail of a flower in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, which was printed and then finished in colour by hand. The paper was hung in 1752. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Detail of a flower in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, which was printed and then finished in colour by hand. The paper was hung in 1752. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Last Friday Andrew Bush and I gave a lecture at the fourth annual conference organised by China Culture Connect at the National Maritime Museum in London, which this time focused on the history and conservation of traditional Asian painting. We were talking about the Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust and what we have discovered about them so far with the help of a growing international network of experts.

Detail of a pair of ducks in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Detail of a pair of ducks in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

As we are keen to learn more about the art-historical context of the production of this wallpaper, we were delighted be able to attend talks by leading Chinese experts. For instance, we heard from Min-ying Wang of the Yiheyuan Summer Palace in Beijing about the conservation and restoration of wallpapers and other works on paper mounted as wall decoration there.

Detail of a lotus leaf in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Detail of a lotus leaf in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Although the designs of the wallpapers in the Chinese imperial palaces are different from those of the wallpapers made for export to the west, the materials and techniques are more or less the same. Pictures were sometimes pasted on top of patterned or plain wallpapers in Chinese interiors, a practice that probably influenced the development of pictorial wallpapers for export. And the printing seen on some export wallpapers (such as the one at Felbrigg Hall shown here) relates to the long-established pictorial printing tradition in China. This confirmed to us that Chinese export wallpaper was not an isolated phenomenon, but was grounded in the Chinese art-historical tradition.

Detail of a pomegranate in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Detail of a pomegranate in the Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Ms Wang also told us that treating wallpapers with pepper extract is very effective at deterring paper-munching pests – a wonderful example of a traditional technique that is as effective now as it ever was. Perhaps pepper should be added to the list of conservation materials in the National Trust Manual of Housekeeping.

4 Responses to “Peppered papers”

  1. Susan Walter Says:

    I think pepper should definitely be added! I’ve just been to a lecture about a 19thC botanist and his collection. He apparently dosed the sheets of pressed specimens with mecury salts to protect againgst insects and fungi. When the collection came to be conserved the conservators had to be tested once a week to check that the mercury levels in their urine hadn’t gone up.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes pepper would seem to be slightly less hazardous :)

  3. robert Says:

    Emile, this is fascinating! In what manner do they use the pepper? Can you direct us to some reading material? Thank you. Robert

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, apparently the extract is applied to the paper (and it is also sometimes used in that way to protect historic book collections). I am not sure exactly how the extract is obtained, but I will try to find out and check whether anything has been published about it.

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