Genealogies of taste

Paneling from a room in the town house of the Nassau-Dietz family, c.1695, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-16709. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

Paneling from a room in the town house of the Nassau-Dietz family, c.1695, in the Rijks Museum, inv. no. BK-16709. Image in the public domain, supplied by the Rijks Museum.

As I was browsing the website the of Rijks Museum I found this image of the paneling of a room that was formerly in the town house of the Nassau-Dietz family in Leeuwarden, where it was installed by 1695.

Two tapestries with orientalist scenes taken from Indian, Chinese and Japanese sources and from European illustrated travel books, woven in the Soho workshop c.1691, at Belton House, inv. no. 436999. The backgrounds of the tapestries would originally have been darker and more like lacquer. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

Two tapestries with orientalist scenes taken from Indian, Chinese and Japanese sources and from European illustrated travel books, woven in the Soho workshop c.1691, at Belton House, inv. no. 436999. The backgrounds of the tapestries would originally have been darker and more like lacquer. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

The paneling is a combination of Chinese incised (or Coromandel) lacquer above and Dutch gilded carving below. The lacquer panels started life as folding screens which were originally made for the Chinese market, but became popular in Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century. They inspired the production of European products such as Asian-style tapestries and leather screens and wall hangings.

Chinese wallpaper depicting a landscape, hung at Blickling Hall c.1760. Inv. no. 354141. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Chinese wallpaper depicting a landscape, hung at Blickling Hall c.1760. Inv. no. 354141. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Rooms paneled in this way are now very rare. A more or less contemporary example surviving in Britain is the Chinese Room at Burton Agnes Hall, which dates from the early eighteenth century.

Chinese wallpaper on silk depicting a landscape, hung at Saltram possibly in the 1760s. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Chinese wallpaper on silk depicting a landscape, hung at Saltram possibly in the 1760s. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

I am wondering how this vogue for lacquer rooms fits into the genealogy of Chinese wallpaper, which seems to have appeared in Europe a few generations later, around 1750. The subjects on Chinese wallpaper – architecture, figures, landscapes, birds and flowers – are reminiscent of the decoration of incised lacquer. It would seem likely that Chinese lacquer – along with Chinese silk and porcelain and their European imitations – helped to make the European market receptive for the arrival of Chinese wallpaper.

5 Responses to “Genealogies of taste”

  1. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    Emile, I think your comments are spot-on, if a Yankee may be allowed that phrase. Your examples illustrate the advantages of large-scale Chinese wallpaper over lacquer panels and tapestry. Lacquer panel ensembles like the ones depicted in the Nassau-Dietz townhouse present as permanent, daunting interiors, whereas paper can be easily changed; tapestry rarely turns corners, but this is easily done with wallpaper, especially when it does not have a pattern, as was the case with Chinese scenics. Thus erasing corners. Additionally, wallpaper scenics were no less colorful, but far more versatile, than either paneling or tapestry. For contemporary viewers, Chinese wallpaper may have imparted an overall character to the room more easily achieved than with panels or tapestry — even when the tapestry was strong in character, as in the example from Belton House.

  2. Michael Shepherd Says:

    There is another surviving room panelled in this way – the Lacquer Closet – at Drayton House in Northamptonshire. This dates from c1700 and is inset with Coromandel type panels with garden scenes and china cupboards. On the floor above in the corresponding Closet is a marquetry floor also still in situ.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Robert, thank you for expressing your approbation 🙂 You make a really interesting point about the relative flexibility of Chinese wallpaper in comparison with lacquer and tapestry, especially in view of the fact that skilled paper hangers could cut and rearrange it to further integrate the wallpaper into its setting, something which would have been more difficult and visually awkward with lacquer and tapestry.

    From a design angle you might say that this was in effect a shift from adapting something to a new use (lacquer) to a creating a specifically designed product (wallpaper).

    Michael, thank you very much for mentioning the Drayton Lacquer Closet, which I wasn’t aware of. So that would seem to be the earliest surviving example in Britain, then.

  4. George Quinn Says:

    Unfortunately, when I was younger I left my inclination towards art and followed something else and that is why I cannot relate anymore to what defined art in different cultures.
    Regarding the article, even if this wallpaper depicts something from the Chinese culture, it is still amazing for every art lover. The fact that the scenes come from Indian, Chinese and Japanese sources and from European illustrated travel books, is a symbol of how art brings every culture together. Thank you for the article!

  5. Lord Cowell Says:

    I like the Chinese wall paper at Blickling Hall, which I think is hand painted as opposed to hand blocked like the papers at Fellbrigg Hall and others. The lacquer walls would certainly be more durable and more expensive. I think even the hand blocked wall papers were very costly to buy and also to hang.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: