Phoenix hunt

Phoenix (fenghuang)  in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The omens must be favourable for my colleague Andrew Bush, our paper conservation adviser, because he has recently reported a number of sightings of the elusive and auspicious Chinese phoenix, or fenghuang.

Andrew found one in the Chinese wallpaper at Nostell Priory, which was hung by Thomas Chippendale in 1771.

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Erddig. The bird was cut out and moved (to allow for a chimneypiece), which accounts for its slightly awkward position on the peony branches.©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Erddig. The bird was cut out and moved (to allow for a chimneypiece), which accounts for its slightly awkward position on the peony branches.©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Then he recognised the same bird in the Chinese wallpaper at Erddig, which is thought to have been hung during the 1770s.

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Cobham Hall. ©Mark Sandiford

Phoenix (fenghuang) in the Chinese wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Cobham Hall. ©Mark Sandiford

And lo and behold there it was again in the Chinese wallpaper at Cobham Hall, where Bromwich, Isherwood and Bradley supplied Chinese wallpaper in 1773.

These phoenixes are more than just vaguely similar: they share the same stance, shape and disposition of feathers, suggesting they are all based on the same master design.

British printed cotton with a chinoiserie design, c. 1775-80, possibly used as a curtain, at Winterthur. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

British printed cotton with a chinoiserie design, c. 1775-80, possibly used as a curtain, at Winterthur. ©Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

But to top all that Andrew has now spotted the same phoenix in a different medium, produced on the other side of the world: it also appears on a British printed cotton, dated to the late 1770s. This textile is now in the Winterthur collection, and is illustrated in the splendid new book Printed Textiles by Linda Eaton. In spite of the more western appearance of the design, the bird is clearly related to the fenghuang in the Chinese wallpapers at Nostell, Erddig and Cobham Hall.

It is tempting to speculate about the exact relationship between these Chinese painted wallpapers and that British printed cotton design. As yet we only have this limited visual evidence, but it is clear that there was some kind of cross-cultural, cross-medium exchange going on.

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