Writing the biography of a Chinese wallpaper

Unusual Chinese wallpaper painted with garden walls and trellises, in the Ballroom of Condé Nast’s penthouse at 1040 Park Avenue, New York, in 1924 (image via The Down East Dilettante)

Sometimes beautiful objects disappear from view for a while, and when they re-emerge part of their history has been forgotten. This happened with the Chinese House at Stowe, but it also seems to have happened to an unusual Chinese wallpaper which has just been published in Architectural Digest.

A while ago I spotted this Chinese wallpaper in a post by the Down East Dilettante. It had been painted with garden walls and trellises, which seems to be a rather rare feature. It had been hung in the ballroom of the penthouse of media tycoon Condé Nast, at 1040 Park Avenue, New York, by decorator Elsie de Wolfe in 1924.

The walls-and-trellis wallpaper in Michael S. Smith’s New York dining room. ©Architectural Digest/Björn Wallander

The Dilettante also mentioned it in a comment on my post about the Chinese wallpapers at Saltram, which in turn elicited a reply from Jennifer Gracie, director of the eponymous New York family firm which has been supplying furnishings, wallpaper, painted decoration and antiques since 1898. Jennifer told us that Gracie had acquired the paper after Nast’s penthouse was sold and dismantled in 1943. And very recently they had supplied sections of it for the New York apartment of interior designer Michael S. Smith and James Costos, which has now been published in the September 2012 issue of Architectural Digest.

The wallpaper illustrated in Nancy McClelland’s 1924 book ‘Historic Wallpapers’

Jennifer also sent me an image from Nancy McClelland’s 1924 book Historic Wallpapers which showed the wallpaper when it was owned by Ida Weaver, the wife of coal and railroad baron John Heisley Weaver of Merion, Pennsylvania. Various sources indicate that it had come from Beaudesert, the Staffordshire country house of the Paget family, Marquesses of Anglesey. As much of the contents of Beaudesert was sold in 1921, the wallpaper may have then made its way to Mrs Weaver, but it probably wasn’t hung, as it turned up very soon afterwards in Condé Nast’s penthouse.

The state bed in Lord Anglesey’s bedroom at Plas Newydd, Anglesey, upholstered with Chinese silk. The bed was originally at Beaudesert and came to Plas Newydd when the 6th Marquess gave up the former house in the early 1920s. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Beaudesert had then only recently been comprehensively redecorated by the interior designer Captain Harry Lindsay for the 6th Marquess of Anglesey. Between 1909 and 1912 Lindsay created sumptuously historicist interiors at Beaudesert which included as many as five rooms with Chinese wallpapers. The house was published in Country Life in two articles by Henry Avray Tipping in the issues of 22 and 29 November 1919. But following the First World War the economic outlook for landed families worsened and the Paget family gave up Beaudesert and concentrated on their other country house, Plas Newydd.  

There is a tantalising reference in the McClelland book to the wallpaper having been in the attic of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire – presumably unused and in storage – before it came to Beaudesert. So thanks to the Dilettante and to Jennifer Gracie we can now propose the following tentative ‘biography’ for this wallpaper:

  • Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, unused?
  • Beaudesert, Staffordshire, hung 1909-12, sold 1921?
  • Mrs Ida Irona Weaver, Maroebe, Merion, Pennsylvania, pre-1924?
  • Condé Nast’s penthouse at 1040 Park Avenue, New York, installed by Elsie de Wolfe by 1924
  • Acquired by Gracie after 1943
  • Supplied by Gracie for the apartment of Michael S. Smith and James Costos, New York, 2011

31 Responses to “Writing the biography of a Chinese wallpaper”

  1. Anida Rayfield Says:

    I was interested to read of the the chinese wallpaper at Beaudesert as the Paget family have a link with Saltram which of course as your previous articles have shown has a rather splendid array of Chinoiserie. I am a Tour Guide and Researcher at Saltram and have always been interested in the fact that given that there are copious amounts of family correspondence I have yet to discover a single reference to this decoration. However, the first Earl Morley was married in 1804 to Augusta Fane, daughter of the Duke of Westmoreland. She eloped with Sir Arthur Paget whom she eventually married the day after her divorce in 1809. It set me to musing whether it was she who had some influence in the decor, even though the wallpapers at Saltram pre-date their marriage. An interesting thought but probably simply a co-incidence.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Anida, thank you for those comments. Yes isn’t it frustrating that there is such a lack of documentation about the Chinese wallpapers at Saltram, especially since they constitute such a wonderfully diverse group.

    Some of the Chinese wallpapers at Beaudesert predated the 1909-12 redecoration, and could have been put up during the tenure of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (Sir Arthur Paget’s eldest brother), perhaps in the 1820s when he commissioned various redecorations in the house. Maybe the Paget family papers can provide more answers.

  3. David A, Novak Says:

    Thank you for your rich & varied blog about so much of what is splendid.
    In the recently published “Rose Cumming Design Inspiration” there are pictured a number of old and modern Chinese wallpapers, I am amazed at the large panels painted with a silver ground. Do you know about them, their origins or history?
    Thank you again for your work.

  4. Christopher Gallagher Says:

    Hi Emile, Really interesting pictures – I’ve never before seen Japanese wallpapers like these ones. I was struck by the similarities between the scenes shown here and some of the wall paintings inside buildings in ancient Rome (e.g. in the House of Livia) and at Pompeii (e.g. the House of Marine Venus), which show ‘garden scenes’ complete with trees & shrubs, birds, trellis, statuary and other features. Do you know how common these sorts of scenes actually were in Japan, or were they attempting to reproduce notions of more familiar ‘western’ gardens in these papers that would be attractive to their clients at that time?

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    David, you are very kind. Thanks for mentioning that interesting-sounding book about Rose Cumming. It is fascinating to discover how a number of American designers in the 1920s and 1930s used Chinese wallpaper, including Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham and – as I have learned now – Rose Cumming. It seems to have been a proper chinoiserie revival, linked both to Art Deco and to the historicist styles of the period.

    The question of silver backgrounds is very interesting too, and as yet I don’t know much about it. My colleague Andrew Bush has told me that some antique Chinese wallpapers have mica powder applied to their backgrounds in order to make them shimmer, but applying real silver would presumably be a slightly different technique. It sounds like something that would fit with 1920s/30s taste, doesn’t it? And of course it is popular now again too, as seen in some of the new Chinese wallpapars being produced by Gracie, Fromental and De Gournay.

    Following on from the National Trust Chinese wallpaper catalogue we are preparing, Andrew and I have been contacted by Dr Helen Clifford, a scholar participating in the East India Company at Home project, by Anna Wu, an Assistant Curator at the V&A who is doing a PhD on Chinese wallpapers, and by Allyson McDermott, a conservator who has worked externsively with Chinese wallpapers. We have formed an informal Chinese wallpaper study group and we hope to help each other find answers to some of the questions posed above.

    Christopher, presumably you mean ‘Chinese’? But yes this particular wallpaper does indeed reflect aspects of Chinese urban garden design, where there would be such walls punctured with decorative windows to create a varied and tantalising sense of flow (one such window can be seen in this previous post, sixth image from the top: http://bit.ly/LUhXrz). Anna was very interested to see the images of this particular paper, as part of her research is about investigating the Chinese art-historical context of Chinese wallpaper.

  6. style court Says:

    The power of the internet collective! Emile, this post should be the springboard for a magazine story. Or perhaps it will have a place in the future book. Anyway, the image from McClelland’s 1920s book is wonderful. Thanks for pulling this together for us.

  7. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    A fascinating story, and I agree with style court that this has a place in a future book. I find it interesting that Condé Naste had the wall furniture painted to blend into the wallpaper. Perhaps somewhere there’s a record of that as well. Great post!

  8. Down East Dilettante Says:

    I simply can’t get enough of Chinese wallpaper.

    And I can never get enough of this particular paper. I’m riveted by your research (as I am always). This, to me, is one of the most interesting of all the Chinese papers.

    But one question remains—where is the rest of the Condé Nast paper? As I understand the AD article, what Smith has is a small remaining portion.

    I rely on you, Detective de Bruijn, to fine the answer!


  9. Down East Dilettante Says:


    I’ve lost track, but I assume that you are familiar with the Morris set of Chinese paper hangings? The legend is that they were imported
    for Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. He started, but never completed, a large French style house in Philadelphia. After his bankruptcy, as the story goes, the papers wound up in an attic in Marblehead, Massachusetts, far from Philadelphia, where they were eventually discovered by decorator Henry Davis Sleeper, who put part of the set in his famous house, Beauport, in nearby Gloucester, Massachusetts (the room is pictured in my blog post referenced above. The remainder of the set wound up in the hands of Henry Francis duPont, who installed then in his house at Winterthur, Delaware, now a museum of American Decorative Arts. There is another Chinese set in the Port Royal Hall in the duPont House.

    And, of course the set purchased for the reconstruction of the Colonial Governor’s palace at Williamsburg—since sold by the Williamsburg foundation after a later re-interpretation.. I believe that set had history of ownership in England before installation there.

    I just bring these well-known examples in support of your mention of the widespread use of Chinese papers in American houses in the early 20th century.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney and Mark, thank you – yes hopefully this particular story can be developed further.

    Mark, yes presumably that was Elsie de Wolfe pulling off one of her smart decorating tricks, by painting the furniture to match the wallpaper – ever so slightly over the top but appropriate in such a glamorous setting 🙂 – and of course quite similar to what Michael S. Smith has done in painting his blinds to match the wallpaper!

    Dilettante, yes I haven’t yet seen any other Chinese wallpaper quite like this one – although garden or yard walls do appear, albeit on a smaller scale, on some of the landscape wallpapers.

    Thank you very much for those American examples. I didn’t know that the Morris set was divided between Beauport and Winterthur. These examples may also be of interest to Anna Wu, who is also looking into the twentieth century taste for Chinese wallpapers.

    As to where the rest of the Nast set went, this might be something that the Gracie archives can tell us…

  11. Down East Dilettante Says:

    I may have misspoken about the set at Winterthur, which duPont purchased from Nancy McLelland, as part of the Morris set—or maybe not. I’m off for further research!

    As you probably know, Sleeper was duPont’s decorator for a time.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I didn’t know that about Sleeper. Great name for a dealer/decorator, by the way – I don’t know if the meaning is the same in American English, but in British English ‘sleeper’ means an object being offered at auction that is more valuable than the auctioneer has realised 🙂

  13. Down East Dilettante Says:

    Indeed I was mistaken. Here is the article, too quickly read, too long ago, comparing the two papers—which in my muddled memory made the papers the same. Apologies for the mistake:


  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that link – the analysis of the subject and the dating of those two wallpapers is really interesting – dating being such a tricky issue with these papers.

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    I have just found a description of (apparently) the entire original length of the Beaudesert/Nast/Smith wallpaper, in a book I bought through Abebooks and received yesterday: Friederike Wappenschmidt, ‘Chinesische Tapeten für Europa: vom Rollbild zur Bildtapete (Chinese papers for Europe: from scroll painting to pictorial wallpaper)’, Berlin, 1989, p. 59.

    It says there that the scene starts with a terrace and then moves right to a garden wall punctured with decorative windows, in front of which stands a bench with little trees in pots, and then to the right of that is a bamboo trellis, behind which can be seen more little trees in pots on a balustrade, with various flowering trees and birds in front and behind the entire scene.

    Wappenschmidt dates this paper to the 1770s-1780s, and she says this type evolved in response to the European demand for more realistic depictions of Chinese gardens, perhaps stimulated by the descriptions in Chambers’s 1772 ‘Dissertation on Oriental Gardening’. She says similar examples are at Kilkenny Castle and in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

  16. Hammond-Harwood House Says:

    I blogged about the Beauport Chinese paper earlier this summer, after seeing it in person: https://hammondharwoodhouse.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/wallpaper-galore/

    The paper is stunning, as is everything else at Beauport. The story I heard about Henry duPont and Henry Sleeper was that duPont fired Sleeper because they kept butting heads, and that he was quite jealous of Sleeper’s Chinese wallpaper even after he got a set of his own. When Sleeper died and the McCanns purchased Beauport, duPont told Mrs. McCann that the rest of the house was fine, but that she needed to do some redecorating in the Chinese room. Luckily he didn’t recommend removing the wallpaper, but he had her take down the pagoda that Sleeper had erected to go with it.

  17. Andrew Says:

    I think the Kilkenny paper is in the Withdrawing Room – http://www.kilkennycastle.ie/en/TouroftheCastle/ATouroftheCastle/TheGroundFloor/TheWithdrawingRoom/

    There is more Chinese wallpaper at Kilkenny, in the Chinese Bedroom – http://www.kilkennycastle.ie/en/TouroftheCastle/ATouroftheCastle/TheFirstFloor/TheBalconyBedroomTheChineseBedroom/

    The Met paper is proving a bit trickier!

  18. Down East Dilettante Says:

    Someplace, somewhere, there is another vintage photo of the Conde Nast Ballroom, which I haven’t been able to locate online, a wide view of the room looking toward the fireplace, which gives a much better idea of the full set of hangings.

    Also, I just remembered that J.A. Lloyd Hyde, a noted dealer in Chinese Export wares, who was a favorite dealer of du Pont,’s , had a gorgeous Chinese paper in his own New York apartment. Off to find a picture of it..

  19. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Allison, thanks very much for that link with that image – a wonderful landscape wallpaper with fascinating associations. Great to learn about Henry Dupont’s ‘wallpaper envy’ 🙂

    Andrew, thank you for those very useful links. From the contextual evidence, the hanging of the ‘Chinese garden’ wallpaper in the Withdrawing Room seems to date from the refurbishments carried out by William Robertson for Grace Louisa Staples, Countess of Ormonde, between 1824 and 1843. Also interesting to see it was given a dainty ‘valance’ paper border at the top.

    Dilettante, those images would be extremely interesting to see.

  20. Andrew Says:

    I meant to say that there seems to be only a handful of items described as “Chinese wallpaper” in the Met’s online catalogue:

    * http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/90004841 (via Lorraine Yerkes)
    * http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/90040334 (via Lorraine Yerkes)
    * http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/90057611 (16 items by the look of it, funded by the Cadwalader Fund)
    * http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/90057317 (possibly one of the 16 items)
    * http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/120058918 (from Bowood, via Gacie)

    Unfortuantely no images are online. Is it possible to work out from Wappenschmidt which one he is referring to?

    I also just stumbled across an account of the the Chinese wallpaper at Harewood, discovered in an outbuilding 20 years ago and recently rehung – http://www.harewood.org/conservation-estate/conservation-projects/chinese-wallpaper

  21. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, it is so kind of you to provide these links. Wappenschmidt illustrates the sections of ‘Chinese garden’ wallpaper in the Met (figures 87 & 88) and says that they are ‘aus einem englischen landhaus’ – from an English country house, so perhaps they are the sections from Bowood donated by Gracie, the last item on your list above.

    The scenes are on a smaller scale than on the Beaudesert wallpaper, and they are stacked vertically – as if in a bird’s-eye-view – as well as linked horizontally, but they do include the same elements: terraces, pots, walls punctured by decorative windows and trellises, and similarly with an absence of human figures.

    Thank you too for that link to the Harewood site. As it happens our little informal Chinese wallpaper study group has been joined by Allyson McDermott, who conserved that particular paper. In some ways it seems to be similar to the Beauport wallpaper referenced by the Dilettante and Allison above, with scenes of agriculture and industry in a landscape with mountains on the horizon.

  22. Down East Dilettante Says:

    Back to Chinese wallpaper for a second—although the vogue for antique Chinese papers in America was huge in the second and third decades of the 20th century (England’s Syrie Maugham imported more than a few for clients here), very few documented examples are known to have been used in the 18th and 19th centuries. It flashed through my fevered brain a few seconds ago that what I believe to be the only surviving set in situ from early the early 19th century is this set in the Carrington House in Providence RI (although color pictures do exists, I could not find one online). The sapphire blue curtains in this photograph pick up color from the peacocks in the paper, and were original to the room. Sadly, the house, for some years a museum, went back to private ownership, and one pair of the curtains, and a previously unused sheet of the paper, are now at Winterthur. The house itself was re-decorated by John Stefanides a decade or so ago, and when that job was published in Architectural Digest, the paper still survived in the Drawing Room.

    The Carrington House drawing room here: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/ri/ri0300/ri0340/photos/145919pv.jpg

    The Harrison Williams’s Palm Beach drawing room, with a very spectacular antique set imported by Syrie Maugham here:


    On a related note, you might be interested to know, if you don’t already (I always assume that you know everything!) that Zuber started manufacturing a printed knock-off of Chinese paper in the mid-19th century. Concurrent with the fad for Antique Chinese papers in the early 20th century, this paper became wildly popular here in the States, and was widely used, including by Edith Wharton for her New York dining room, and Henry Sleeper used it to great effect in a bedroom at Beauport. I posted about ‘Decor Chinois’ here:


  23. Down East Dilettante Says:

    I’ll try the last link again: http://thedowneastdilettante.blogspot.com/2009/12/amazing-wallpaper-zubers-decor-chinois.html

  24. Nikki Frater Says:

    Dear Emile
    This is a fascinating post. Did you know of Rex Whistler’s ‘faux’ Chinese wallpaper that he painted for Samuel Courtauld’s bedroom in North Audley Street in 1932? Apparently Samuel Courtauld had the walls decorated with a chinoiserie paper, from Bath, but there wasn’t enough to cover the chimney-piece. He commissioned Whistler to paint in the rest – as you probably know Whistler was adept at trompe l’oeil – which was intended to frame one of his paintings, Picasso’s ‘L’Enfant au Pigeon’. Rather a clash of (visual) cultures but it must have looked rather splendid. Let me know if you’d like a link to a photo, from memory it is in the V&A archive.

  25. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Nikki, no I didn’t know that, thanks very much for telling me. I have just searched for it and found this post by the Devoted Classicist: http://bit.ly/Z9Wgx2

    What a wonderful decorative scheme – rococo chinoiserie with a 1930s flavour. I think the Picasso would have fitted in well – it brings out Picasso’s decorative, playful side. I wonder whether he was too macho to admit to having a rococo side to his character ? 🙂

  26. Andrew Says:

    There is an exhibition of his work in London on now, finishing this Friday – http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/visual-arts/the-unseen-rex-whistler-colefax-and-fowler-w1–review-8367665.html

    Here is the panel at the V&A – http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O124340/oil-painting-whistler-rex/

  27. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Andrew. And a biography has just come out too: http://amzn.to/S4Il9y

  28. Nikki Frater Says:

    Emile and Andrew
    The exhibition is charming and the new biography is a welcome addition to the very few books extant on Whistler. I am a post-graduate researcher writing a thesis on him, so the positive response given to these has been encouraging. Just to let you know that there will also be a much bigger exhibition of his work at Salisbury Museum next summer. Sorry to hi-jack the thread with Rex Whistler info – I am also interested in chinoiserie!
    And yes Emile the thought of Picasso playing around with some delicate Rococo motifs is very intriguing…

  29. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Nikki, it is often through these ‘lateral’ discussions that interesting facts and insights come to the surface 🙂

    And my sincere apologies to the Dilettante, for appearing to ignore your interesting comment above about Carrington House – a very interesting wallpaper with those big peacocks and what appears to be foliage in two different colours.

  30. Jean Says:

    I am amazed wallpaper can be moved and reused so many times. How is that done?

    • Emile de Bruijn Says:

      Yes that is a good question. The Chinese paper itself is relatively tough and flexible (long fibres, three layers. Also when Chinese wallpapers were hung in Europe they were often mounted on textile which had been stretched on a wooden framework and then set against the wall or into the paneling. This allowed air to circulate behind, helping to minimise damp and mould, and it also meant the wallpapers wcould be reomoved relatively easily.

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