The work on our catalogue of the Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust is progressing well. Over the next few months I will be featuring a few sneak previews here.
One of the striking things about Chinese wallpapers is that they force you to look at them in a multi-channel, multi-layered way. They are simultaneously art and decoration, eastern and western, realistic and fantastic. They relate both to the history of interior design and to the history of global trade. They document subtle shifts in social and cultural attitudes, but also illustrate the techniques of Chinese paper making, printing and painting, and of European wallpaper hanging.
Mirroring this complexity, we have had a lot of help in our research from a diverse group of academics, curators, conservators, historic interiors specialists and present-day Chinese wallpaper manufacturers. In an article just published in issue 50 of the National Trust’s Views magazine, entitled A Multi-Channel Approach to Chinese Wallpaper, I have tried to chart the development of the project so far, and the way it has drawn in a multiplicity of experts. We hope that we can build on this informal Chinese wallpaper study group following the publication of the catalogue, perhaps resulting in further events and publications.
The Chinese wallpaper at Blickling Hall is a good example of how new insights can be gleaned by combining family history, art history and material evidence. At the outset we already knew that Henrietta Howard, Lady Suffolk, had helped her nephew John Hobart, 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire, to redecorate Blickling in the run-up to his marriage in 1761.
This was confirmed when Mark Sandiford and Philippa Mapes removed the Chinese wallpaper from the walls for conservation treatment in 2002. On the back of the border papers they found inscriptions mentioning ‘1758’, ‘Suffolk’ and ‘Lott 30’, suggesting that Lady Suffolk had purchased these borders at auction, and possibly the wallpaper as well. She also had Chinese wallpaper at her own house, Marble Hill, in Twickenham, and this has recently been recreated.
One of the Chinese border papers at Blickling was also found to have a faint Chinese stamp on the reverse – perhaps the name of the paper manufacturer, although it has proved difficult to decipher so far. Yet another intriguing discovery was the fact that the sky of the landscape wallpaper is separate and not Chinese. It was probably added by the paper hangers, perhaps to extend the height of the wallpaper to fit this particular room. Recently we discovered that some other Chinese wallpapers surviving in Britain also have added skies, for instance the one at Harewood House.
Much remains to be discovered about this wallpaper, and Chinese wallpapers in general, but by combining all the physical and documentary evidence, and by comparing wallpapers in different houses (and even different countries), we are beginning to gain a greater understanding of their make-up, significance and development.