Researching Chinese wallpaper

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.

17 Responses to “Researching Chinese wallpaper”

  1. Sandra Jonas Says:

    What an impressive undertaking! Looking forward to the blog posts and of course the final result.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Sandra.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Sounds like a great project. Only 17 NT houses and 65 other English houses have or had Chinese wallpaper? Sounds like an underestimate to me.

  4. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I’ve enjoyed looking at the details of the wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall. I see that there are several pairs of birds, male and female, and I’m wondering if they’re all paired. The Chinese wallpaper at the Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg, as I recall, is blue, with dozens of paired birds. The guides always enjoy pointing to an owl, who is the only lone bird.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, yes that is the tally at the moment, but it may go up, and in the case of ‘non-NT’ British and Irish examples almost certainly will go up.

    I am also plotting the locations of the known Chinese wallpapers, to help to visualise their ‘reception’. Inevitably there is a slightly greater density in the home counties, and a lesser density in the south west, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Bit nevertheless I find it remarkable how relatively evenly spread they are/were. If and when we manage to firm up more of the dating it will also be interesting to see if there is any kind of discernable chronological-geographical pattern to how the fashion for Chinese wallpapers spread.

    Mark, that is a very interesting observation. I seem to remember that depicting male/female pairs of animals has an auspicious yin-yang symbolic significance in Chinese art – I must check that, and I will be looking out for other such pairs in our other wallpapers. Also I have just added an image of the Williamsburg paper to my Chinese wallpaper Pinterest board. Many thanks.

  6. robert Says:

    I’ve always suspected I could live in a room with filtered light coming through large casement windows, hardwood floors, a futon on the floor for sleeping and marvelous Chinese wallpaper from the 18th century on the walls. I’ve gone through changes in taste from point (A) to point (Z) over the decades, but this passion never changes. I suppose because it’s classic and works with nearly any decor.
    Forgive my writing the obvious here but one of the classic interior photographs of the twentieth century is of la baronne Pauline de Rothschild peering into her bedroom at the Albany where the walls were so papered and the background of which was a near celadon green. Such rare taste.
    Emile, you could write about this topic ad infinitum. As always, you do it great justice!


  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, thank you for your kind words. Your taste reminds me of Bruce Chatwin, who also liked to combine the grand with the austere 🙂

    Yes that is a beautiful photograph – I wonder if one could characterise Horst as a photographer who photographed people as if they were beautiful interiors and interiors as i they were glamorous people?

    And the wallpaper in that photograph is intriguing too: a deep green backgound darkended with age, most of the foliage apparently left white, and with some additional features like balustrades, pots and bird perches. I wonder if anyone knows where it had been before Baronnne de Rotschild acquired it?

    It appears to be quite similar to a Chinese wallpaper at Temple Newsam, Leeds, which was given to Lady Irwin by the Prince of Wales in 1806 ( apart from the fact that the background is blue, not green, the motifs used are of the same type, i.e. white leaves, pots, baskets, perches and balustrades. But that comparison also brings out the difference between those two interiors: opulent Regency clutter vs a kind of minimalist style Rotschild 🙂

  8. columnist Says:

    I do like the lighter coloured wallpaper you show from the bedroom at Felbrigg. The colour combinations, no doubt faded over time, seem to work very well in today’s state, using a beautiful orange, (which may have been very vibrant originally).

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes and that seems to say something interesting about mid-18th-century English taste, that such bright colours and contrast were quite acceptable – at least in the privacy of one’s home 🙂

  10. style court Says:

    Emile — I’ll be first in line to buy a copy of the catalogue if/when it becomes available!

    To add to Robert’s comment, there’s a wonderful contemporary example of sumptuous de gournay paper used in absolutely dressed down surroundings: fashion designer Erica Tanov’s bedroom. Of course, so many examples have appeared in the last 8-10 years but hers is fast becoming the icon for this decade (used on the cover of Ngoc Minh Ngo’s flower book).

    And to echo Columnist, I’m in love with the mix of creams, faded oranges and yellow/golds in the detail above.

    Please keep us posted as the research progresses.

  11. downeastdilettante Says:

    I’ll be second in line for the catalog—mad for the subject.

    Emile—you might want to check out the pictures in this old post of mine, speaking of Chinese papers:

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thank you. Yes that is a beautiful Chinese wallpaper. Andrew Bush told me that some antique Chinese wallpapers have mica applied to the background to achieve a similar shimmer.

    Dilettante, yes that is a fascinating post. That wallpaper you show in Condé Nast’s penthouse came from Beaudesert, a house in Staffordshire. Then it went to America and was in Nast’s penthouse by 1924, and in about 1960 it was acquired by Gracie. It is now in Michael S. Smith’s apartment, as shown in the September 2012 edition of Architectural Digest – an amazing ‘biography’ of a wallpaper.

  13. Andrew Says:

    Dilettante – you may have missed the comments from about a month ago on Emile’s post about Saltram, which discuss the Beaudesert/Conde Nast wallpaper –

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andew, thanks very much. I have not so far seen any other examples of Chinese wallpapers with complete garden walls in them (rather than just balustrades), and I wonder if any other survive?

    In response to Mark’s earlier comment about pairs of birds, I have just found a description of such pairs in Chinese art as symbolic of conjugal fidelity, and by extension of traditional Confucian social order:

  15. Andrew Says:

    Sorry, Emile, I don’t know, but I’m sure your research puts you in a better position to know than me!

    I’ve just been browsing the AD website (I don’t have a subscription unfortunately) and your pinterest page. The different styles of chinese wallpaper are fascinating, but I was somewhat surprised how small the Smith dining room appears to be. Either the photograph does not do it justice, or there must be lots of paper left over somewhere. I also wonder if the roundel containing the hexagonal pattern is original, or was made from the similar rectangular area to the right of the doorway in photograph of the Conde Nast ballroom. It would be a shame if these antique papers were chopped up to be rehung… or perhaps it is better that they are displayed and loved rather than being left in a storeroom or a museum?

  16. Andrew Says:

    Smith’s apartment certainly looks somewhat different after its redecoration! There is a “before” article in Elle Decor –

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, I think the round window is likely to have been part of the original design of the Chinese wallpaper, as that seems to have been a kind of playful object lesson in how to divide a Chinese garden while preserving its visual unity, by using balustrades and trellises and ‘openwork’ walls.

    As you say the room it has been used in is quite small, although in a way that does nicely reinforce the conceit of being in a small garden courtyard.

    In the printed article it says that not all of the available paper was used. I agree that in some ways it seems regrettable that such a paper gets divided up, but you cannot really put a preservation order on a wallpaper that is no longer in its original setting. Also, movement and reuse seems to be very much part of the story of this particular wallpaper, and it has clearly added value to all three of the interiors it has so far been part of (and has been recorded each time).

    And yes the current incarnation of the Smith and Costos apartment does look much grander and more historicist than its original look – interesting to see the processes of interior decoration at work.

Leave a Reply to columnist Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: