Fascinating fragments at Uppark

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Section of Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

In the collection at Uppark, West Sussex, are some fascinating fragments of Chinese wallpaper, which emerged from beneath a later wallpaper after a fire in 1989. Apart from being stunning examples of Chinese woodblock printing (with colours added by hand), they also contain clues about how Chinese wallpapers spread through Europe in the mid eighteenth century.

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Fragment of Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, West Sussex, showing how parts of various Chinese prints were added at the bottom. NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

This section of wallpaper shows a pair of pheasants on a picturesque rock surrounded by peonies and other flowering plants and trees. These ‘scholar’s rocks’ (gongshi) have long been used in Chinese gardens as sculptural ornaments. In the Chinese visual tradition, pheasants are associated with ‘beauty’ and peonies with ‘rank’.

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Ribbon-tailed bird (shoudainiao) in a print attached to the bottom of a Chinese wallpaper sheet, at Uppark, NT 138490 © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Most of these specifically Chinese references were lost on Europeans, but this did not prevent these wallpapers from being in high demand. To make this rare and expensive material fit specific walls, the paper-hangers deployed various ‘cutting and pasting’ techniques’, shrinking or expanding it as required.

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Head and shoulders of a female figure collaged onto a section of the Chinese wallpaper at Uppark, NT 138490. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Looking closely at this fragment, we can see that parts of various different prints have been added at the bottom edge. On the left is a ‘ribbon-tailed bird’ (shoudainiao) on a scholar’s rock, depicted at a smaller scale than the main scenery, and in the centre we can see the head and shoulders of a female figure. Such prints could be bought in London in the same shops and paper-hanging establishments that offered Chinese wallpapers.

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Section of the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, Kent, NT 825922. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Looking further afield, we find the same pair of pheasants at Ightham Mote, Kent. The wallpaper was clearly printed using the same woodblocks. The difference in colour is due to the diverging ‘biographies’ of the wallpapers: the one at Uppark remained covered up for much of its life, preserving its colours to a greater degree, while the one at Ightham was partly overpainted in about 1900 in an attempt to counteract the effects of ageing and damp.

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Part of the Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, showing how it was arranged slightly differently to the paper at Uppark. NT 825922. © National Trust/Paul Highnam

Yet another identical pair of pheasants survives at Schloss Wörlitz in Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany, and copies of the print with the ribbon-tailed bird (actually showing a pair of birds) are at the Château de Filières, in Seine-Maritime, France. The whole of Europe was agog at these sophisticated Chinese products. More about these wallpapers and prints and other related examples will be revealed in my forthcoming book Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland.

8 Responses to “Fascinating fragments at Uppark”

  1. Pamela Kember -Tong Says:

    Fascinating research…look forward to reading and learning more.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much. I will be featuring more previews on this blog in the run-up to the publication of the book.

  3. Andrew Says:

    Do we know much about the artists who created the blocks or make the prints? No doubt there were other impressions that have not survived.

    There was clearly a workshop somewhere bashing out copies of the pheasants and the ribbon-tailed bird, like Durer’s rhinoceros or Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness.

    Are they just unknown artisans? Or can we identify name and locations where they worked? Are there similarities that allow us to bring together bodies of work and attach a Notname? The Master of the Pair of Pheasants, or the Master of the Robbon-Tailed Bird, perhaps?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, no at the moment we don’t know who designed and produced these Chinese wallpapers and prints. Most of the evidence we have comes from the examples surviving in European historic houses.

    Sometimes groups of wallpapers sheets or prints in different houses have certain sheets or designs in common, enabling us not only to get a better idea of the full sets and series, but also to get a glimpse of how they were disseminated across Europe. And then if some of the groups have an approximate date (such as the 1752 date of installation at Felbrigg) then that helps to date that particular type or style.

    In that way we can gradually build up a better picture of how these wallpapers developed and also how the taste for them developed in Europe. These questions are discussed in the forthcoming book.

    For instance, the specific set of wallpapers shown above, by ‘the master of the pair of pheasants’, as you call that workshop, have survived not only at Felbrigg and Ightham but also at Woburn Abbey, at the château du Fayel and at Schloss Wörlitz (arriving at Wörlitz in about 1772, but already being used at Felbrigg in 1752).

    The Chinese city of Suzhou had a highly developed printing sector in the early eighteenth century, so some or all of these prints and printed wallpapers may have come from there originally. But there were other centres of printing too, and equally we are not sure why it appears that printed export wallpapers ceased to be produced after the 1750s – whether it was an economic or political change in China, or whether European demand switched to painted wallpapers, or some other reason. Plenty of angles to be explored!

  5. jennieck Says:

    It makes sense that part of the patterns in these wall papers use wood block prints – I used to wonder how they could reproduce so precisely identical clumps of vegetation if they were painting freehand – I love the mystery and the exoticism of these fragile and delicate paintings.

  6. jennieck Says:

    Hi again Emile – so you mean that a tool like a paint knife has been used for the clumps of vegetation? Jennie CK

    • Emile de Bruijn Says:

      I am not sure exactly what tool they used, but it must have been something that allowed them to dab on a group of those semi-circular marks in one go, and then to do that repeatedly to create ‘clumps’ of grass or groundcover. Sometimes it was used to represent certain types of tree foliage as well. It would be interesting to find out if that tool or that technique is still used.

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