The Chinese Bedroom, originally a dressing room, at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond
Andrew Bush, Dr Helen Clifford and I are hoping to produce a little catalogue of the Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust. Andrew is the paper conservation adviser for the National Trust, and Helen is a scholar who is also participating in the East India Company at Home research project.
We are hoping to add to the publicly available information about the phenomenon of Chinese wallpapers, which is still not very well understood. Equally, we are keen to compare the examples in National Trust houses with other extant or recorded Chinese wallpapers.
Detail of a gilded rococo mirror by John Bladwell, c. 1752, against the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham
At the moment we are aware of seventeen houses now owned by the National Trust which have or had Chinese wallpapers. Within the wider context of Britain and Ireland we have so far found references to about 65 other houses with such papers, and we will probably come across more of them as we progress with our research.
One serendipitous connection which I discovered a while back is the strong similarity between a Chinese wallpaper at Belton House and a section owned by fellow blogger the Columnist, suggesting that they may have been made by the same workshop. We hope to find more such links, so do contact me if you have any information or images that you wish to share.
Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, showing pheasants. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond
I have been surprised by the wide geographical spread of the houses where Chinese wallpapers ended up, from Cornwall to East Lothian and from Norfolk to County Westmeath. This seems to indicate how powerful these papers were as a commercial product, their desirability clearly outweighing the obstacles of distance, time and cost.
Chinese nodding-head figurine, c. 1820, placed on a bracket against the wall in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham
The Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk, reflects some of these economic and social factors. It was purchased in 1751 by the Norfolk squire William Windham II as part of the redecoration of the house then being masterminded by architect James Paine.
The room it was intended for was then a dressing room, which together with the adjoining bedroom was decorated in shades of off-white. The paper, with its white background and light colouring, was obviously chosen to harmonise with this scheme.
Detail of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, showing a bird, flowers and fruit. ©National Trust Images/David Kirkham
Windham was shocked that it was considered necessary for a specialist to be called in to hang the paper, ‘at 3s 6d per day while at Felbrigg & 6d per mile travelling charges which I think a cursed deal.’ Nevertheless ‘the India Paper hanger’ John Scruton did indeed hang this and other papers in the house between 30 March and 9 May 1752.