Fellow blogger The Columnist recently featured some sections of Chinese wallpaper (hanging framed on the wall of his dining room) that reminded me of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton House, Lincolnshire. The wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom was put up in about 1840, during the tenure of the 1st Earl Brownlow and his third wife, Emma Sophia.
The wallpaper itself is older, and was reputedly bought at the sale of another house where it had never been hung. Some of the birds and butterflies were cut out from unused sections and pasted on, to fill the design out in accordance with contemporary English taste.
The Chinese themselves did not use such wallpapers and they were produced purely for export. The fashion for chinoiserie – or Chinese-style decoration – in the Regency and early Victorian periods was stimulated by the extravagant interiors of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
The architecture of Belton represents the English house of the Restoration period in its purest form. When ‘Young Sir John’ Brownlow, 3rd Baronet, came into his inheritance in 1679, he decided to rebuild his family’s country seat in the latest style. Its design was inspired by the recently completed Clarendon House in London’s Piccadilly.
There is a certain continuity to the chinoiserie at Belton. As early as 1691 Young Sir John commissioned two tapestries from the Soho workshop of John Vanderbank which show a beguiling mixture of Chinese, Indian and Turkish elements.
Chinoiserie was popular in the Restoration and William and Mary periods because luxurious Far Eastern products such as porcelain, lacquer and silk were becoming increasingly available through trade. At this time China was admired as a sophisticated and rationally organised society. As these tapestries show, however, the English conception of the east was still quite hazy and tinged with make-believe.
Belton House was given to the National Trust in 1984 by Edward Cust, 7th Baron Brownlow. Thanks to generous grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Trust was also able to purchase the most importants contents of the house, and to set up an endowment fund for the property.