Silk and paper crossovers


Chinese painted silk coverlet, 1760-1800, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © V&A Images

On her ever-inspiring Style Court blog Courtney Barnes has just posted images of a delicately painted Chinese painted silk coverlet in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is thought to date from the second half of the eighteenth century.


Chinese wallpaper hung at Nostell Priory in 1771 by Thomas Chippendale. ©National Trust Images/J. Whitaker

As Courtney writes in her post, this coverlet has some striking similarities with Chinese wallpaper, particularly in the way the trees and flowers, birds and rocks have been combined in artful vignettes against a neutral background. The picturesque rocks – and the basket and the lantern hung in the tree in the V&A coverlet – indicate that we are looking at carefully arranged garden scenes rather than untamed nature.


Detail of the Chinese painted silk coverlet in the Victoria and Albert Museum. © V&A Images

The floral borders in the coverlet also have parallels in Chinese wallpaper. They appear in the borders which were supplied as separate strips to be fitted around the edges of the larger paper drops.

Chinese wallpaper border, hung in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle in the early 1830s. ©National Trust/Andrew Nush

Chinese wallpaper border, hung in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle in the early 1830s. ©National Trust/Andrew Nush

These borders are clearly idealised representations of ‘floweriness’: various different flowers appear to grow from the same stem or tendril.

771874 OST 2013AB (7) cropped

Pole screen decorated with Chinese painted paper at Osterley Park, probably second half eighteenth century. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The same serpentine floral patterns sometimes also broke free from their restricted border role, filling entire panels of paper or silk.


Chinese painted silk upholstery at Attingham Park, first half nineteenth century. ©National Trust

You could almost call this an example of ‘the periphery taking over the centre’.


Detail of the Chinese painted silk coverlet in the Victoria and Albert Museum. © V&A Images

Stylistically, the garden scenery on the V&A coverlet seems to have elements of both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wallpapers.

bird PEN Lower India 2009AB (6)

Detail from the Chinese wallpaper in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, hung early 1830s. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The scenery looks fairly realistic and ‘painterly’, which tends to be a characteristic of earlier, eighteenth-century wallpapers. But the tufts of grass in the foreground have something of the stylised look, and the colouring, of grass in nineteenth century wallpapers.


Some of this will be included in the forthcoming catalogue of Chinese wallpapers in the historic houses of the National Trust, due to be published in early March. But this coverlet in the V&A was new to me and the fascinating relationship between painted papers and painted silks clearly needs further research.

13 Responses to “Silk and paper crossovers”

  1. style court Says:

    So exciting to finally see the catalogue cover!

  2. lynnerutter Says:

    wonderful! I can’t wait for this catalogue!

  3. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I’ve never seen Chinese painted silk used for upholstery — that chair is exquisite!

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thank you, and thanks for the tip-off about the amazing coverlet.

    Lynne, yes we hope the catalogue will appeal to artists and designers as well as to curators and conservators 🙂

    Mark, yes most of them have perished, but some survive here and there. There are some chairs at Woburn Abbey upholstered in similar painted Chinese silk, but possibly of an even earlier date, c. 1750. The original appearance of some of these rooms must have been extremely rich, with Chinese wallpaper, Chinese paper or silk on chimney boards and pole screens, and Chinese silk as bedhangings and upholstery – plus of course the odd lacquer cabinet and screen and a few porcelain vases and statuettes thrown in 🙂

  5. Christopher Gallagher Says:

    Hi Emile, I have been following this thread with some interest, and was discussing with Jane over the weekend, the Chinese / Old Indian wallpaper(s) at Croome.

    It occurs to me that the stylistic similarities you refer to in this post, may simply result from these different items being produced for the same (i.e. a western) market. Is there any evidence that items produced for Chinese consumption also had these characteristics? Or were they completely different again?

    Best wishes
    Chris Gallagher
    Historic Landscape Consultant
    The Laurels, Church Pulverbatch, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY5 8BZ
    01743 718439, 07766 726396,

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Chris, those are very pertinent questions. Interestingly, the scenery on Chinese wallpaper and silk made for export to the west tends to be more ‘Chinese taste’ than, for instance, export porcelain, which included lots of European motifs. The floral scenery on silk and wallpaper as seen above is quite close to traditional Chinese ‘bird and flower’ paintings. And the landscape scenery on Chinese wallpapers, as for instance in the lost Croome wallpaper, is similarly based on traditional depictions of agriculture and manufactures and on bird’s-eye-view urban panorama handscrolls.

    However, these types of scenery were indeed subtly adapted for use on export silk and wallpaper. Especially in the later, nineteenth-century wallpapers we see the scenery becoming more stylised (an interesting apparent shift from ‘art’ to ‘design’). And the wallpapers and silks may have been produced by the same painters or workshops based in Guangzhou (Canton) – as yet we know frustratingly little about them.

    And although it is true that the Chinese didn’t use the ‘export-style’ wallpaper, they did in fact have various types of ‘wallpaper’ and other decorative and pictorial wall surfaces.

    So yes there were differences between products made for the Chinese market and those made for export, but there were also many similarities: it was more like two ends of a spectrum rather than a clear-cut division.

  7. David Miller Says:

    I absolutely adore Chinese wallpaper and I dream of the moment when we can really indulge silk fabric in our living room. We do have a lovely Chinese lacquered chest so silk wallpaper would really set it off.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    David, yes and Chinese wallpaper goes well with western-style furniture too. Indeed, to some Chinese this kind of wallpaper is suggestive of the ‘European antique country house’ look.

  9. Debbie prosser Says:

    Hi Emile I am delighted to follow your thread. Will get the new publication to send to girlfriend… for feed back from China. She runs ceramic insitute, she a painter in her own right.
    I for years have been inspired by Chinese the ‘approach to nature’ in painting for my ceramics and was lucky enough to see great examples on Chinese journey in 2004.
    Many thanks for your sharing of interest. Debbie Prosser( part time gallery assistant at Trelissick)

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Debbie. Yes we would very much welcome feedback from China – we still need to learn a lot more about the Chinese economic, social and art-historical contexts in which these wallpapers were produced.

  11. marina Viardo Says:

    I love this chinese wallpaper so much. I was wondering if anybody know the family name of the two small birds inside the round cage?
    Do you know? Thanks in advance

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Marina, I don’t, but I will have a look in my Chinese bird guide and ask some colleagues, and get back to you. Generally we have found that birds on Chinese silks and wallpapers are fairly accurately represented, but there is often also an element of stylisation, and sometimes there is also a bit of myth thrown in – as in the case of the occasional phoenix 🙂

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Marina, I have been looking in McKinnon and Phillips’s Field Guide to the Birds of China. None of the birds shown there match these two exactly, which may indicate that they are somewhat stylised, as I suggested above. I will list the nearest matches below, with McKinnon and Phillip’s numbers:

    630 Azure-winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyanus)
    705 White-collared Blackbird (Turdus albocinctus)
    772 Siberian Blue Robin (Lucinia cyane)
    1123 Black-headed Sibia (Heterophasia melanoleuca)
    1293 Yellow-billed Grosbeak (Eophona migratoria)

    But as it happens I saw a painting at the British Museum yesterday depicting a Mongol prince holding a branch with blossom and hanging from it a cage with blackbirds, which seems to be more or less the same motif.

    The museum label stated that that motif represents the joy of spring and regeneration. So it would seem likely that that is also the intended meaning of the cage with birds on the blossoming branch in the V&A coverlet.

    And perhaps that indicates, in turn, that the birds on the V&A coverlet are intended to represent some kind of blackbird, or a similar bird from the thrush family.

    So not a conclusive answer, but I think we are a bit closer 🙂

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