Leftovers from a wallpaper project


Two fragments of Chinese wallpaper found at Kingston Lacy. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Kingston Lacy, Dorset, is not known for its Chinese wallpaper. It is largely the creation of the wealthy aesthete William Bankes (1786-1865), who transformed it into a showcase for his collections of antiquities and art between the 1830s and the 1850s.


Another fragment of Chinese wallpaper from Kingston Lacy, showing a camellia. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

None of the rooms at Kingston Lacy are known to have been decorated with Chinese wallpaper. And yet the fragments shown here were found by one of our libraries curators, Yvonne Lewis, tucked inside a seventeenth-century atlas in the library at Kingston Lacy. So who put them there and why is a bit of a puzzle.


Further fragments – it appears they are leftovers from larger sheets which were cut up, perhaps to obtain small motifs to cover the joins between the wallpaper drops. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Stylistically these fragments appear to date from the nineteenth century. The flowering tendril growing around a thicker branch or trunk is a motif often found in nineteenth-century Chinese wallpapers, probably derived from Indian chintzes.


Small fragment of Chinese wallpaper showing part of what appears to be a magnolia, and also illustrating the fibrous nature of the paper. NT 1257039 ©National Trust/Simon Harris

Having been kept in the dark, the colours of these fragments are very well preserved, reminding us of the almost garish appearance that these wallpapers originally had.

The white leaves represent another puzzle. Were they left white on purpose, to inject a element of monochrome chic? Or were they originally painted with ultra-fugitive pigments – perhaps light greens to illustrate fresh new growth – which have disappeared in spite of the fact that the fragments were kept inside a book?

2 Responses to “Leftovers from a wallpaper project”

  1. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    I surprised myself by loving the examples. Thank you.

    You noted the flowering tendril growing around a thicker branch ws a motif often found in C19th Chinese wallpapers, probably derived from Indian chintzes. Does that mean that Chinese homes of the era displayed similar wall papers? Or that these papers were made by the Chinese specifically for a European export market?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, the Chinese did use wallpapers as well, but they tended to be plain, monochrome or patterned. Pictures of various kinds were hung or even pasted directly on top of the wallpaper.

    So upper class Chinese interiors were certainly full of bird-and-flower and landscape imagery – also in the form of carved screens, decorated objects and views through to real gardens – but the wallpaper tended to function as the foil for the images rather than as the image carrier.

    In this eighteenth-century album in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris you can see some images of such multi-layered interiors (in particular images 67-87): http://bit.ly/1PWp881

    The Chinese wallpaper made for the west effectively combined these two formats – wallpaper and pictures – into one product.

    Another factor that seems to have influenced the development of Chinese export wallpaper was the European taste for Chinese pictures, from the seventeenth century onwards. These pictures were hung or pasted on walls in European interiors and therefore effectively became ‘wallpaper’, just as wallpaper was being developed as a product in Europe.

    Curiously some European pseudo-Asian wallpapers seem to predate the earliest surviving Chinese export wallpapers – so the ‘copy’ may have influenced the ‘original’ – but we still need to understand that better.

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