Peeling back the years

Fragments of Chinese wallpaper recently discovered in the 4th Duke's Bedroom at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

Fragments of Chinese wallpaper recently discovered in the 4th Duke’s Bedroom at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

Exciting things are coming to light at Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Duke of Bedford – and in quite a literal sense. Historic interiors consultant Lucy Johnson has been discovering the remains of an early Chinese wallpaper in the 4th Duke’s Bedroom there, which had been hidden by later wallcoverings.

Section of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammonder from the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

Section of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammonder from the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

What makes this discovery even more interesting is that these fragments seem to relate to a Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall: the head of a bird visible on one of the sections of wallpaper in the 4th Duke’s Bedroom is identical to a bird that is part of the wallpaper scheme in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall.

Part of a bird on the Chinese wallpaper recently discovered in the 4th Duke's bedroom at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

Part of a bird on the Chinese wallpaper recently discovered in the 4th Duke’s bedroom at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

Andrew Bush, the National Trust’s paper conservation adviser, has established that the Felbrigg wallpaper was printed in outline and then painted in by hand. It looks like the Woburn paper was produced in the same way, presumably by the same workshop.

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

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

Since we know that the Felbrigg scheme was put up in 1752, by a London paper hanger called John Scrutton, it would seem likely that the Woburn paper was put up in about the same period.

Detail of a peony in the Chinese wallpaper discovered at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

Detail of a peony in the Chinese wallpaper discovered at Woburn Abbey. ©Woburn Abbey

And indeed Lucy has found references in the Woburn archives to the decorating firm of Crompton and Spinnage having hung ‘India paper’ in ‘His Grace’s Bedroom’ in that very same year. This wallpaper must have represented the height of chinoiserie fashion in the early 1750s.

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

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

Lucy is preparing an exhibition about these and other discoveries at Woburn (opening on 11 April) which will highlight the links between the orientalist elements in the interiors and the Asian plants and chinoiserie garden features outside.

7 Responses to “Peeling back the years”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Fascinating. How is the catalogue coming along? Perhaps before long you will need a second edition or supplement!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, the catalogue is now in final proof stage and looking good – due out in early March. And indeed some of these discoveries have happened after we locked down the text!. But we hope to organise a conference on the topic soon, bringing in all the people (like Lucy Johnson) who we have made contact with during our work on the catalogue, and hopefully to publish something capturing the proceeds of the conference, which will include these new discoveries and emerging connections.

  3. CherryPie Says:

    It is fascinating how the peeling back of wallpaper can lead us to historical connections. And the discovery leads us to explore further about those connections.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Cherie, indeed, layers of wallpaper = layers of history :) And another helpful thing is that wallpapers were often rather fashionable purchases, so surviving examples provide little snapshots of historical taste.

  5. MJH Design Arts Says:

    The papers are wonderful, but the actual historical references bring it all into focus. Mary

  6. carolscreativeworkshops.net Says:

    My decorating team and I always hope, when asked to strip wallpaper, that we’ll find some peelings of papers from previous decades underneath. It always sparks some absorbing musings over who might have lived in the house during those eras, and what their lives would have been like compared to the present inhabitants’. Wallpaper telling us stories. Fascinating!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    MJH, yes the historical documents bring the wallpapers to life, and vice versa.

    Carol, yes and sometimes you can then also have a giggle about people’s bad or OTT taste – some historic wallpapers being so ‘loud’ :)

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