Chinese wallpaper’s tetrapod moment

Recently conserved panel of Chinese wallpaper in the collection of the V&A, formerly at Eltham Lodge. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Recently conserved panel of Chinese wallpaper in the collection of the V&A, formerly at Eltham Lodge. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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.

Another Eltham Lodge wallpaper panel, which had been conserved earlier. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another Eltham Lodge wallpaper panel, which had been conserved earlier. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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 Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

The Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham

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.

Section of the Felbrigg wallpaper during conservation. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Section of the Felbrigg wallpaper during conservation. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

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.

Detail from the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

Detail from the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote. ©National Trust Images/Rob Matheson

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.

4 Responses to “Chinese wallpaper’s tetrapod moment”

  1. style court Says:

    Excited to hear that the catalogue could be available in roughly three months. And I’m anxious to see images of the wallpaper installed behind the Badminton bed. Will the bed hangings remain ivory?

  2. Tom Carey Says:

    Also excited about the catalogue (I assume this was meant to say March 2014?) and seeing the newly hung panel in the V&A.

  3. columnist Says:

    Looking forward to to catalogue. Having recently had a watercolour painting (Chinese but not wallpaper! – c1841) restored, I too am amazed at the skill of conservators in working with such a delicate material. Unlike the wallpaper you mention, mine had to be removed from a backing that was causing it to deteriorate.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes we are almost there, and the proofs are looking great:)

    I don’t think the V&A have plans to change the ivory bed hangings – they are not historical but because they are not sure what the original hangings were like they have kept these replacements ‘neutral’.

    Ironically, the wallpaper is quite difficult to see in that spot because it is right behind the headboard. The newly conserved panel is replacing the other Eltham Lodge panel, which will now presumably have a little rest in the dark.

    Tom, yes indeed March 2014, thanks for pointing out my error!

    Columnist, at that event where Susan Catcher spoke we also had a presentation from Margit Reuss of the Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde in Leiden, about a set of three Chinese export oil paintings on paper (an unusual combination, oil and paper) which they recently had conserved and which are now on loan to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. They were rather grimy and had several holes and splits, but the conservators managed to clean and reline them admirably.

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