The early history of Chinese wallpapers is tantalisingly vague. At some point during the first half of the eighteenth century Chinese pictures, which were in demand in Europe as wall decoration, seem to have morphed into panoramic wallpaper. We don’t know exactly when that crucial transition – like the first tetrapod crawling out of the sea onto dry land – took place, but a few surviving wallpapers are known to date from that early period.
Yesterday I was listening to a fascinating talk by V&A conservator Susan Catcher about one of those Chinese Ur-wallpapers. She was describing the hair-raising process of treating a panel from the Eltham Lodge wallpaper, which seems to have been originally hung during the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
The wallpaper had to be given a new backing, but the extremely brittle and fragile condition of the paper made this an unexpectedly tricky task. Susan had to call in the help of all available colleagues to limit the time the paper was kept moist, but the whole procedure still took ten days. The wallpaper was relined onto Chinese xuan paper coloured to an appropriate tint with Japanese yasha dye (a fuller account of the project can be found here). Susan told us that this panel was due to be installed behind the chinoiserie bed from Badminton House in the V&A’s British Galleries today.
This Eltham Lodge wallpaper is stylistically quite close to the Chinese wallpaper surviving at Felbrigg Hall, which we know was purchased in 1751 and hung in 1752. The scenery in these wallpapers has been depicted in a rather painterly manner, quite different from the smoother and more stylised look of later Chinese wallpapers. Similar early Chinese wallpapers survive or have been recorded at Dalemain, Ightham Mote, Newhailes and Uppark in Britain and at Oud Amelisweerd in Holland.
By the way, the catalogue of Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust, which I have mentioned earlier, is due to be published in March 2014.