The mysteries of Chinese wallpaper

The Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle. The Chinese wallpaper probably dates from about 1800, but the room was put together in the 1830s. ©NTPL/Michael Caldwell

A little while ago we were speculating about the similarities between different panels of Chinese wallpaper, and wondering whether they might have come from the same workshop. Ming Wilson, senior curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has now told me that hardly anything at all is known about the workshops that made these wallpapers. So far no records about them have been identified in China. The only available documentation relates to their importation and use in Europe.

Eighteenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet in the Lower India Room. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Chinese art historians are certainly interested in these wallpapers, so hopefully they will discover some sources sooner or later. But until then the best thing we can do is conserve and study the surviving examples, so that we can at least identify what they were made of and how they were made.

Late eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

On that point, my colleague Andrew Bush (paper conservation adviser for the National Trust) has just told me that some of the decorative elements on these wallpapers were in fact printed onto the paper, with wooden blocks. This may account for some of the similarities between different papers. The designs would then be filled out and finished by hand. 

Penrhyn Castle, with the Cambrian Mountains in the distance. ©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

The examples shown here are from Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, Wales. This extraordinary fantasy castle was built by Thomas Hopper in the 1820s and 1830s for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who had inherited the extensive Penrhyn estate from a cousin. He also inherited West Indian sugar plantations, and the income from those, as well as from a nearby slate quarry, allowed him to build the castle. 

Detail of the State Bedroom showing a Louis XIV desk and an English Rococo mirror hanging against the Chinese wallpaper. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Hopper designed the castle in Norman style, using examples surviving  elsewhere in Britain as his models. He designed the furniture and fittings in the same style, and these were combined with antiques and works of art to create a dramatic and rich ensemble.

11 Responses to “The mysteries of Chinese wallpaper”

  1. Barbara Says:

    You have now shown me a room to go with my great room from the Brunswig & Fils book. I could also stay in that Lower India Room for a while without longing for home. Perhaps it is the green with a hint of turquoise in the Chinese wallpaper. Lovely.

  2. Karena Says:

    Stunning images and very interesting background. Some of the design houses like DeGournay are now reproducing some of these fabulous papers.


    Art by Karena

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barbara, the view from the windows is quite dramatic as well, similar, perhaps, to the view from your tethered bubble 🙂

    Karena, yes isn’t it fascinating how Chinese wallpaper has stayed in fashion almost continuously ever since the late seventeenth century?

  4. columnist Says:

    Thanks Emile, fascinating as always.

  5. Aletta Says:

    Emile, what a great article, really fascinating to read about the printing by block and hand finishing.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Aletta, How nice to hear from you here. Yes by writing and researching these posts I am learning things all the time!

  7. Janet Says:

    That is fascinating about the derth of knowledge regarding workshops in China. I wonder if there is anything to be found about the dealers/importers.

  8. Janet Says:

    Ooops, dearth, not derth.

  9. style court Says:

    Ditto Janet.

    Hand-painted Chinese (or Chinese-inspired) wallpaper ranging from the antique to the current offerings from Gracie and De Gournay has been such a focus of the shelter mags and design blogs for the past few years so it’s really wonderful Emile that you and NT are adding your voices to the conversation with such depth. Very interesting subject.

    (In 2008 Harewood posted behind the scenes videos of paper restoration. Not sure if they are still available online.)

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, according to Gill Saunders in her book ‘Wallpaper in Interior Decoration’ (London, V&A, 2002, p. 64), evidence for the importation of Chinese wallpapers comes mainly from the records of their sale and use in Britain, i.e. once they had arrived.

    There is very little documentation about Chinese wallpapers in the records of the East India Company, because they were classed as a minor product, and were therefore mostly imported privately, as part of the consignments of goods that Company employees were allowed to take back on their own account.

    One of the few Company records on wallpapers that have been found, quoted by Saunders, mentions 2,236 sections of wallpaper being brought back on a ship in 1775 – which at an average of 25 sections per room would have been enough for more than 90 rooms!

    American ships were also taking Chinese wallpaper directly to the US in the late eighteenth century.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thank you so much for the reference to the Chinese wallpaper at Harewood House – that’s inter-blog synergy for you 🙂 The Harewood website has a page on the conservation of that wallpaper and its recent reinstallation:

    The web page mentions that it was originally put up by Thomas Chippendale’s men in 1769. Interestingly, the records about this wallpaper only relate to its purchase for and use at Harewood, and not to its production and shipment.

    For the benefit of other readers: Harewood (pronounced ‘harwood’) House, near Leeds, is the seat of the Earl of Harewood, but it also has designated museum status. They have fascinating collections including numerous pieces of Chippendale furniture produced for the house, and there are always interesting projects afoot there.

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