Chinese wallpaper: trade, technique and taste


Section of a Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper, late eighteenth century, showing a small citrus tree in an ornamental pot on a stone stand. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.2854-1913

I am just looking back on the conference on the subject of Chinese wallpaper in the west that took place between Thursday 7th and Saturday 9th April. It has been a frenetic but extremely productive and enjoyable few days.

It was the first ever conference looking at Chinese wallpapers in the round, presenting some of the groundbreaking work and research now being carried out in this area. It is becoming more and more clear that Chinese wallpaper wasn’t just a form of Chinese export art, or a just form of European chinoiserie, but that it was (and is) a global product firmly rooted in both east and west.

Ch ex3 DR rm

Chinese prints used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, near Plymouth (NT 872998). The shading on the clothes, trees and architecture is a stylistic feature adopted from western art.

Coutts & Co generously hosted day one of the conference, at their premises at 440 Strand in London. The conference delegates were given guided tours of the Chinese wallpaper originally acquired by banker Thomas Coutts around 1800.

The focus of this day was on the taste for and trade in Chinese wallpapers. We were fortunate in having been able to secure speakers from Europe, America and China. The subjects ranged from the earliest uses of Chinese pictures as wall decoration in the west all the way to the continuing popularity of Chinese wallpaper today.


Conservation work revealing a European wallcovering underneath a Chinese landscape wallpaper at Oud Amelisweerd, near Utrecht, The Netherlands. This discovery helped to date the introduction of the Chinese wallpaper.

The second day of the conference was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where we were the guests of the Asian Department. During the morning there were talks on the technical side of Chinese wallpapers, with insights into how they were made and examples of how they have been conserved, provided by some of the foremost conservation practitioners in the field.


A section of the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper from Moor Park, Hertfordshire, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (E.533-1937), which was being treated as the conference delegates visited the conservation studio. It is closely related to Chinese wallpapers at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, and Temple Newsam, Leeds.

Then in the afternoon the colleagues at the V&A made a number of Chinese wallpapers from their extensive collection available to view. It was hugely exciting to see these beautiful and fascinating wallpapers up close and to discuss them with so many knowledgeable people. We also had the privilege of being able to witness one section of wallpaper being worked on in the paper conservation studio.


The Saloon at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, with the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper on a cream ground that hung there between 1816 and 1822. After Augustus Charles Pugin, Royal Collection, RCIN 918161. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

On the third day there was an optional excursion to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. This was a chance to see an actual example of the use of Chinese decoration in a British historic interior. Although the Pavilion is unique in its exuberance and opulence, the creative use of Chinese objects and materials is a thread that runs through the history of western design and decoration between the sixteenth century and the present.

Unused  PEN6 2010AB (1)

Unused section from the Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper hung in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, in the early 1830s. The unused sections have been kept in store at Penrhyn ever since and retain their original, almost shockingly bright colours. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

We are extremely grateful to everyone at Coutts, the V&A, the Royal Pavilion and the National Trust who have made this event possible. The speakers have been very generous with their time and expertise. And personally I want to pay tribute to my good-humoured, indefatigable and generally brilliant co-organisers Andrew Bush, Alexandra Loske and Anna Wu.

A few more images and conversations relating tho this conference can be found on Twitter via @ChineseWP2016.

7 Responses to “Chinese wallpaper: trade, technique and taste”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Wow – those Penryn colours! Like an image from a 20th century comic book.

    The garishness reminds me of reconstructions of classical sculpture with strong colour added back.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Quite – our Regency ancestors weren’t afraid of a bit of colour. And interestingly this was when the taste for sculpture seems to have been rather monochrome (Canova etc). Perhaps you need the one to appreciate the other.

  3. Gabriella Says:

    Congratulations Emile on what looks like an amazing conference. I really wish I had been able to attend. I’m curious… do we know if the birds in these wallpapers are naturalistic depictions of real species or are they more fanciful renderings?

  4. Steven Says:

    Hi, love your blog. Could you please provide details of the items recently accepted in lieu at Plas Newydd. The reports thus far have been very sketchy. Even the amount of tax covered has not be noted in the press. I did read that 35 paintings made up part of the arrangement. I’m just hopeful that some of the wonderful grand manner portraits were included. Many thanks in advance.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gabriella, we have indeed checked some of the birds and flowers in these wallpapers against natural history reference books, and asked our naturalist colleagues. They are accurate up to a point, in that you can clearly distinguish between pheasants, peacocks, magpies, etc.

    But we also found that the depictions are slightly stylised, generalised and idealised. In a way this is not surprising, as these wallpapers came out of an art tradition, not a scientific tradition.

    Also these motifs usually had some kind of symbolic meaning, which again led to a degree of idealisation. This is comparable in a way to our neoclassical decorative tradition, in which the motifs are stylised and harmonised in a similar manner.

    Steven, thanks for your kind words. I do have some more details about that Acceptance in Lieu allocation to Plas Newydd. I will provide more information as soon as I can.

  6. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Cool conference. “Chinese wallpaper wasn’t just a form of Chinese export art, or a just form of European chinoiserie, but that it was a global product firmly rooted in both east and west”. That is true but the examples seem to be entirely Chinese, uninfluenced at all by developments in Europe. What might a wall paper influenced by both traditions look like?

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, that is a very good point. What I meant by that is that the Chinese themselves tended to use monochrome or patterned wallpaper, not this kind of panoramic wallpaper. They certainly used paintings and prints as wall decoration, but those were hung or pasted on top of monochrome or patterned wallpaper. What we call ‘Chinese wallpaper’, i.e. the panoramic type, was in fact a hybrid of Chinese wallpapers and Chinese paintings or prints, which came about due to the western demand for Chinese decorative materials to use as wall decoration.

    We don’t as yet know exactly when this happened, but the earliest documented Chinese wallpapers date from about 1750. Curiously, the oldest surviving European chinoiserie wallpapers are older than that.

    So perhaps it went something like this: first a western taste develops for Chinese pictures and prints (late seventeenth century); then European designers and craftsmen begin to produce wallpapers with imitation-Asian motifs (c. 1700); then Chinese painting workshops respond to that demand by beginning to produce pictorial wallpapers (1730s-40s?).

    This is just a hypothesis and we need more hard evidence!

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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: