Chinese wallpaper families

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the Drawing Room at Ightham Mote, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the Drawing Room at Ightham Mote, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

As the work on the catalogue of Chinese wallpapers in National Trust houses progresses, an informal ‘advisory committee’ has sprung up around it consisting of a dozen or so academics, curators and conservators. We bombard each other with information and queries and general enthusiasm – a genuine little liquid network.

The Drawing Room at Ightham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Drawing Room at Ightham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

This morning one member of the group, Dr Clare Taylor, mentioned the similarities between the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote in Kent and the one at at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. They are in fact almost identical, which makes them a good example of how Chinese wallpapers were sometimes produced as multiples, with the combined use of printing and hand-painting resulting in near-identical copies.

Detail ofthe  Chinese wallpaper at Ightham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Detail of the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Another member of the group, conservator Allyson McDermott, then chipped in by saying she had examined the Ightham paper in the past, and found that it had had quite a hard life, with quite a lot of overpainting and restoration over time. This probably explains the difference in colouring between the Ightham and the Felbrigg papers.

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. A pheasant identical to one in the Ightham paper can be seen behind the bell cord. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. A pheasant identical to the one in the Ightham paper can be seen behind the bell cord. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Allyson also mentioned that a Chinese wallpaper that was discovered under later wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, was also rather similar, and indeed it has the same ‘frosted’ palette of a white background, subfusc greens and bright reds, purples and blues.

Fragment of Chinese wallpaper found under later wallpaper in the Little Parlour at Uppark, West Sussex.

Fragment of Chinese wallpaper found under later wallpaper in the Little Parlour at Uppark, West Sussex.

We know that the Felbrigg paper was hung in 1752, and the Uppark paper is thought to have been put up in about 1750, so this appears to be a relatively early type of Chinese wallpaper. The Ightham one is said to have been hung in about 1800, which suggests that it was hung or stored somewhere else before coming to Ightham.

The antiquarian setting of the Drawing Room at Ightham, with its Jacobean fireplace, is in some ways quite incongruous for a Chinese wallpaper, but that is part of the fascination of this subject: to learn more about the different ways people used Chinese wallpaper in different places and at different times.

18 Responses to “Chinese wallpaper families”

  1. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I love these ‘frosted’ papers with a white background. The subtleties of coloration are so beautiful, a nuance lost on too many these days. (I recently visited a dining room where the background of the not-so-old Gracie Chinese wallpaper had been in-painted an eye-popping very flat and even blue to “give it a fresh update”).

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Classicist, it is interesting how some newly made (and not just overpainted) Chinese wallpapers are very bright, reflecting contemporary tastes – but then even the white ones at Felbrigg and Ightham would have been brighter originally I suppose.

    And interestingly my colleague Andrew Bush just told me that the background of the Ightham wallpaper was overpainted too at some point, presumably similarly to ‘freshen it up’. It’s just that with a white background such an intervention isn’t quite as obvious as with a coloured one:)

  3. style court Says:

    Wish I could be a fly on the wall to hear the committee’s discussion.

    Personally, I gravitate to the softer, nuanced backgrounds too. I can’t imagine wanting to cover (paper over) the original panels either. Emile, will we see any interesting x-ray-like studies of the layers?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Exactly, Courtney, and that is why I thought I would reproduce one of our ad hoc and informal conversations in a slightly more structured post 🙂

    Yes it seems mad to cover up Chinese wallpaper with something else, but I suppose changes in taste and fashion can be ruthless. At least they didn’t rip it off but just covered it 🙂 It was discovered after the 1989 Uppark fire, an example of how a disaster can be a catalyst for discovery.

  5. style court Says:

    Ruthless indeed. So this paper has literally and figuratively survived the ravages of time.

  6. Tom Carey Says:

    Emile, does your ‘liquid network’ know whether any of the NT’s properties have examples of English copies of chinoiserie papers? I understand from Gill Saunders’ V&A book ‘Wallpaper in Interior Decoration’ that imitation ‘India’ papers (as they were know)n were produced by English and French paper stainers from c1700 onwards. Saunders says they are usually crudely executed in comparison, as well as being less realistic in the depiction of birds and plants. An early example of a British skills gap..
    She makes the point that Chinese papers were considered to be ‘fanciful’ and imaginative, even grotesque, because English people weren’t familiar with the plants and animals depicted and assumed they were made up. Having said that, it seems to me from the Ightham paper that the Chinese artists were not scientific about the scale, given how large the flowers are compared to the pheasant!!

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Tom, I will ask colleague Andrew Bush, who is the NT’s wallpaper guru if he knows about European Chinese-style wallpapers in our properties.

    Here are a few I have spotted on our collections database:

    Yes initially English wallpapers were quite crude, but they became more refined as the 18th century wore on. And there may be a correlation between that development and the fact that Chinese wallpapers became less realistic and more mannered towards the end of the 18th century, possibly because they were feeling the competition and therefore started to introduce innovations and novelties to keep the customers coming back.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Interesting that you say that the English papers were crude, and drove the Chinese papers to become less refined to compete: I should have thought they would have remained an expensive luxury item and so could complete on quality against the cheaper English equivalent, but perhaps they wanted to appeal to a wider market? To my eye, the Uppark example looks less refined than the Ightham and Felbrigg paper, although you have identified it as having a similarly early date.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, those are intriguing questions, issues which we are in fact still investigating and trying to understand better.

    We know that there were stylistic changes in Chinese wallpaper production during the 18th century, but it is more difficult to establish if there was a corresponding change in quality, or not.

    As you say, Chinese wallpapers generally seem to have been more expensive than their European equivalents, and correspondingly seem to have been regarded as more prestigious (as evident in the houses and rooms where they were used).

    On the other hand, there also seem to have been different ‘price points’ for Chinese wallpapers (as Nixi Cura of Christie’s Education memorably put it), with corresponding subtle differences in quality and complexity – ‘de luxe’ vs. ‘super de luxe’, as it were 🙂

    In addition, the different ‘lives’ that these wallpapers have led, i.e. how much or little they have deteriorated, been moved around and been restored in the past, can also makes it more complicated to asses their original quality.

    • Tom Carey Says:

      Emile, thank you for your reply. I am interested in English wallpapers of the C18th, just to set a parameter when you put the question to your wallpaper guru. Thanks again

  10. mark sandiford Says:

    I know these 3 wallpapers illustrated well and something interesting that they have in common is that they are all partially printed on a plain paper background. The outlines alone are printed and then hand coloured. I find this very interesting as they are all 3 early papers. One would imagine printing coming into use later in the popularity of these papers as a means of reducing production costs, but apparently not!

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, how nice to hear from you. Your reputation proceeds you: Andrew Bush told me about your conservation work on Chinese wallpapers 🙂

    How interesting that all three of these papers have printed outlines. As you say, it is remarkable that this was already occurring in these mid-18th-century examples. I suppose one of the reasons might be that the Chinese already had an established tradition of creating high-quality printed reproductions of paintings by then – the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (Jieziyuan Huazhuan), first published in 1679, being an example of an artist’s manual with high-quality printed illustrations.

    I hadn’t realised that the Uppark fragment is partially printed too. That means there might be other examples of this pattern surviving somewhere – we will need to be on the look-out.

  12. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    A fascinating discussion. Thank you Emile! I can’t decide what’s more interesting: that there is an exact duplicate of part of a Chinese paper, or that it took this long to find it!

    Have a look at this example at the V&A:

    It’s a 1769 English-made single-sheet wallpaper, 36″ wide by about 32″ high. A very similar paper was hung in Quebec around 1765 or so. In each case there are engraved printed lines which serve as outlines and at the same time enhance the appearance of the flowers and such. Yet, I think that it made good sense for the artisan to use these lines anytime a large object like a building or pavilion was being rendered. I’m not sure that this type of “printing” whether from Eastern or Western tradesmen was on a par with block-printing. It seems rather more like stenciling.

    The shimmering grounds have always fascinated me and I agree that many (most?) times the examples that remain have lost this pizazz through age and over-painting. I love the description of it in Beckmann (c. 1790): “‘I once saw at Petersburg a kind of Chinese paper, which appeared all over to have a silver-coloured lustre without being covered with any metallic substance, and which was exceedingly soft and pliable. It bore a great resemblance to paper which has been rubbed over with dry sedative salt or acid of borax. I conjecture that its surface was covered with a soft kind of talc, pounded extremely fine…”

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, thank you for those comments and links.

    I think the colleagues were aware of the fact that the wallpapers at Felbrigg and Ightham were near-identical, but it had never been spelled out in our publications.

    Like you I am wondering if the Chinese craftsmen may have used stenciling as well as printing, or perhaps freehand but accurate copying from a model.

    The Beckmann quote seems to refer to the use of powdered mica on Chinese wallpaper. One also sometimes sees it on Japanese prints.

  14. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    Hi Emile,

    Maybe I phrased it wrongly, I was speaking in a more general sense about the similarities….trying to express that despite this long tradition and hundreds of examples, I know of no other two Chinese export sets that are duplicates (or, close to it). Maybe others have been identified, and I’m just not aware of it!

    It’s difficult nowadays because we see these images flying around the world on flat computer screens with great visuality, yet the nuances of the image (the materiality) can be hard to pick up. The one in Canada, for example, I have not seen in person. Yet, the description mentions “finely engraved lines” which indicates that someone thought there was some pretty careful work being done, in addition to the hand painting. Maybe it was an advanced form of stenciling: not as permanent as a hand-carved block, yet not as expedient as stenciling.

    We also have many overpainted wallpapers here in the States, like the one that used to be in Ashburnham Place. The Phelps-Hatheway house in Connecticut has several Réveillon papers which have had the white backgrounds entirely touched up. This sounds deplorable until you consider the alternatives: unfortunately, most wallpaper was just not made to be enjoyed as long as we would like.

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, yes indeed, and in our little catalogue we hope to clarify some of these technical,material and stylistic issues.

    Just yesterday I had a chance to see the Chinese wallpaper at Coutts Bank in London, possibly dating from the 1790s, allegedly given by Lord Macartney to his banker and acquaintance Thomas Coutts after returning from his embassy to China, and first hung in Coutts’s apartment ‘over the shop’, and later transferred to the bank’s boardroom. At one point it was varnished, which has given it a yellowish appearance which cannot be entirely restored away, and there is evidence of quite a lot of other ‘interventions’ over the years. But conservator Allyson McDermott is currently cleaning and consolidating the wallpaper, a few panels at a time, and has been able to bring back more of the colour and the details, which is great.

  16. Patrick Baty (@patrickbaty) Says:

    I hate to hijack this thread, but I am working on a house where an 18th century Chinese wallpaper needs to be restored and replicated. It was hung in a New York house in the 1920s. I am trying to find two restorers in the UK who might be interested. I have an excellent one already lined up who can deal with both issues, but wondered how to get in touch with Mark Sandiford who might be interested if the client decides just to restore it.

  17. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    It is nice to hear from you Patrick, and that sounds like an interesting project. I have told Mark that you are looking for him and suggested he gets in touch with you.

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