Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Multi-national screens

April 20, 2016
Six-fold incised lacquer screen decorated with scenes of Europeans hunting, one half of what was originally a twelve-fold screen, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Six-fold incised lacquer screen decorated with scenes of Europeans hunting, seventeenth century (NT 1140102), one half of what was originally a twelve-fold screen, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I have just returned from speaking at a stimulating study day at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. As I mentioned earlier, I was talking about ‘Sino-Dutch’ interiors in late seventeenth-century England.

The other half of the twelve-fold incised lacquer screen, in a different room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

The other half of the twelve-fold incised lacquer screen (NT 1139776), in a different room at Ham. ©National Trust/Christopher Warleigh-Lack

While I was there I also visited the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. I discovered that among the rich holdings of the MFA is a Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans out hunting. This reminded me of a screen with a similar subject at Ham House (separated in two parts, documented here and here), which had previously puzzled me.


Twelve-panel Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans in a landscape, about 1700, height 244 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1975.333, Keith McLeod Fund. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This kind of depiction of westerners, with big noses, prominent moustaches and wide, pantaloon-style trousers, is known from Japanese screens, where the subject was called ‘namban’ or ‘southern barbarians’ – since the western ships arrived in japan from the south.

The Japanese were clearly fascinated by these exotic foreigners. But here this subject and style of depiction has been transposed to incised or kuan cai lacquer, which as far as we know was only made in China.


Detail from the Chinese incised lacquer screen depicting Europeans in a landscape. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1975.333, Keith McLeod Fund. © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

So what was going on here? In their Arts of China handbook the MFA curators suggest that this type of screen was made in China, to be exported to Japan and to be sold there to the Dutch merchants based in Nagasaki.

That certainly sounds plausible, but I wonder whether there could also have been a market in China itself for screens decorated with quaint barbarians – a kind of chinoiserie in reverse? Either way, it is great to discover that the Ham screen is not an odd one-off but seems to have been part of a particular genre.

Chinese wallpaper: trade, technique and taste

April 11, 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

A Chinese romance

February 16, 2016

Chinese porcelain teapot, early eighteenth century, decorated in blue and white with a scene from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Erddig, NT 1145624. ©National Trust/Susanne Gronnow

I recently supplied a little feature on the theme of ‘romance’ in our collections for the Spring 2016 issue of the National Trust Magazine. My colleague Gabriella de la Rosa has now added a version of this feature to the collections pages of the National Trust’s website.

One of the objects in this feature is a Chinese blue and white porcelain teapot at Erddig. It is decorated with a scene from a famous Chinese play, The Romance of the West Chamber, written by the Yuan-dynasty playwright Wang Shifu.

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One of a pair of Chinese porcelain baluster-shaped vases, Kangxi period (1662-1722), decorated in blue and white with scenes from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Lyme Park, NT 499329.1. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

The Romance of the West Chamber is the story of Zhang Sheng, a poor young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of the Prime Minister, who fall in love without their families’ approval. The scene on the Erddig teapot shows Yingying in a garden at night waiting to meet her lover.

The plot is a kind of Chinese Romeo and Juliet, except that it ends happily, with Zhang Sheng doing well in the civil service examinations, rising to high office, and being able to marry his sweetheart.

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Chinese porcelain bowl with everted rim, Kangxi period (1662-1722), decorated in blue and white with scenes from The Romance of the West Chamber, at Polesden Lacey, NT 1245606, ©National Trust/Andrew Fetherston

All this would have been lost to eighteenth-century British tea drinkers and porcelain collectors. It was only in the 1980s, with Craig Clunas’s article on the West Chamber as a decorative theme on Chinese porcelain (see this bibliography under 1982), that these scenes began to be properly understood in the west.

Gabriella has assembled a few more Chinese ceramics with ‘West Chamber’ imagery in our collections.

Chinese wallpaper conference

February 5, 2016
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Detail from one of the prints used as wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram. NT 872998 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Regular readers of this blog may remember me mentioning the possibility of a conference on Chinese wallpapers in historic houses. I am happy to announce that this conference is going ahead and will take place in London on 7 and 8 April, with an optional excursion on 9 April.

The Dressing Room with hand painted wallpaper from China at Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Section including a phoenix from the painted bird-and-flower wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Nostell Priory, supplied by Thomas Chippendale in 1771. NT 959651 ©National Trust Images/J. Whitaker

Day one will be hosted by Coutts & Co, who still have an eighteenth-century landscape wallpaper in their boardroom that was owned by the founder of the firm, Thomas Coutts.

Day two will be at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and will include the viewing of sections of Chinese wallpaper from their collection and a visit to their paper conservation studio.

The optional excursion on day three is a visit to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, to see the role Chinese wallpaper played in the Prince Regent’s decorative vision (and again including the viewing of some archived wallpaper).

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Figure of a labourer in the landscape wallpaper painted on silk in the Chinese Bedroom at Saltram. NT 872999 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

The conference will look at Chinese wallpaper in the round, including Chinese, European, art-historical, economic, social and conservation perspectives.

We are fortunate in having been able to assemble an authoritative group of speakers from from Europe, America and China, who will be sharing some of their latest research.

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Detail of a bird of prey in the painted bird-and-flower wallpaper at Erddig, probably hung in the 1770s. NT 1153114 ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

More information about the conference papers and the speakers can be found on the conference website, which includes a booking link.


Sharing a taste for Chinese prints

December 22, 2015
The Chinese Bedroom with wallpaper depicting scenes from daily life, at Saltram, Devon

Various Chinese prints depicting female figures, cut out and combined to form a decorative scheme in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, near Plymouth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A few weeks ago I attended a conference at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna about Chinese-style interior decoration in Europe in the eighteenth century.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure in the Study at Saltram, part of a collage of Chinese prints and paintings. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

This conference was organised by Dr Elfriede Iby, head of research at Schönbrunn, and Professor Gabriele Krist of the Universität für Angewandte Kunst Wien.

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Fragment of a Chinese print depicting a female figure found at Oud Amelisweerd, near Utrecht, almost identical to prints at Saltram. ©MOA

This conference brought together curators, conservators and academics from across Europe. For me it was a great opportunity to learn about the issues that the colleagues in central Europe are grappling with (very similar to the issues we in the National Trust are grappling with, predictably enough).

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Chinese print of a female figure, installed as an overdoor at Kasteel d’Ursel, near Antwerp, between 1761 and 1764. ©Provincie Antwerpen

And I very much enjoyed seeing more examples of Chinese-style interior decoration on the Continent.

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Chinese print depicting a female figure hung at Schloss Wörlitz, Anhalt-Dessau, in about 1772. ©Bildarchiv Foto Marburg

I presented a paper about the rapid spread of certain types of Chinese prints and wallpapers, which popped up in palaces and country houses across Europe in the mid eighteenth century.

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Chinese prints combined as a collage, probably hung by 1751 at the Badenburg pavilion, Nymphenburg Palace, Munich.

Occasionally the same or very similar Chinese prints have survived in different European countries. At the Schönbrunn  conference we heard about Chinese prints and wallpapers at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, the Wilanów Palace in Warsaw and Schloss Wörlitz in Anhalt-Dessau, some of which are clearly connected to examples in Britain.

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Locations of some of the early Chinese print and wallpaper schemes, installed c. 1725-1775.

In addition, scholars like Christer von der Burg and Anita Xiaoming Wang are also investigating aspects of these prints, as is evident from their respective blogs. There is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that the research is as international as the subject.


The lost world of Fu Bingchang

July 13, 2012

Min Chin with a camera, Northern Hot Springs, February 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Photographs taken in China before about 1950 are relatively rare. During the Cultural Revolution many Chinese destroyed their collections of photographs, as any evidence of a ‘bourgeois’ past could get you into serious trouble.

Fu Bingchang and Sun Ke, 1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

Some collections of photographs of China have been preserved elsewhere, but until recently most of those were fairly difficult to access. Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol has been instrumental in making a number of those collections available through the Visualising China website, where more than 8,000 images can now be explored.

Woman sitting in a cane chair, 1910s-1920s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

These pictures include views of cities which have since completely changed, portraits of individual Chinese both eminent and humble, and records of everyday life. Some of the collections came from British people who were working in China as part of mercantile, imperial or missionary enterprises. Others are photographs taken and collected by Chinese that somehow ended up outside China.

Fu Bingchang with two women, 1930s – early 1940s, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

One of these collections comes from Fu Bingchang (1895-1965), who held various posts in the Nationalist government and was also a keen amateur photographer. His snaps provide a very personal glimpse of elite life in China between the 1920s and 1940s.

Fu Bingchang and Wang Chonghui standing in front of a motor car on a country road, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

The images show a society poised between tradition and modernity. As well as cameras, motor cars and bathing suits, they include traditional architecture, gardens and furniture. Exemplifying this period of huge change in Chinese society, women are often portrayed wearing the cheongsam (or qipao) dress, based on male Manchu dress but adopted by women from the 1920s onwards as a modern, progressive fashion and accessorised with scarves and handbags (as was recently explained to me by WESSIELING). Fu Binchang himself is sometimes portrayed in traditional dress and sometimes in up-to-the-minute plusfours and co-respondent shoes.

Jiang Fangling with round window, c. 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

An image of a Fang Jiangling next to a round window to me exemplifies this fascinating hybridity: the window is of a type that had been used for centuries in Chinese garden walls to provide enticing and nicely framed glimpses of greenery and vistas beyond. At the same time, Fang Jiangling’s pose next to it is somehow very moderne, as she grasps the edge of the window like an Art Deco sylph playing with a ball or a Bauhaus mannequin manipulating a cog in a machine.

Fu Bingchang in the dormitory of the Legislative Yuan, Sichuan, 1940, from the Fu collection featured by Visualising China

This image database is yet another example of the opening up and linking of online collections that I have mentioned in previous posts. Thanks to Visualising China Fu Binchang’s world can now be reappraised and studied in greater detail.

A slideshow of images from Visualising China with audio commentary is available on the BBC website, and a programme on BBC Radio 4 about the project can be accessed through the BBC iPlayer.

Chinese visitors

June 22, 2012

Portrait thought to be of Tan Che Qua, by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1770-1. ©The Royal College of Surgeons of England, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

I have just heard that another large group of paintings from the National Trust’s collections in the West Midlands, the North West and Northern Ireland have been added to the nationwide Your Paintings database. They include works by old masters such as Canaletto, Van Dyck, Chardin and Hogarth, as well as modern artists including Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson. More paintings from other National Trust properties will be added by the end of 2012.

Your Paintings is a remarkable database that aims to provide access (eventually) to almost all publicly owned paintings in the UK. On doing a search for ‘Chinese’ I found the above portrait of Tan Che Qua by John Hamilton Mortimer, which is in the Hunterian Museum, London. Simon Chaplin originally alerted us to this picture in a comment on my first post about the contemporary portrait of Huang Ya Dong at Knole, but it is great to now have a decent image of it readily available.

Portrait of Huang Ya Dong by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1776, at Knole, Kent. ©National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Tan Che Qua arrived in London in 1769 and established himself as a portrait modeller in clay, charging ten guineas for a bust and fifteen for a whole-length statuette. He exhibited work at the Royal Academy in 1770 and he is included in Johann Zoffany’s 1771-2 group portrait of Royal Academicians (third from the left at the back). Tan is thought to have returned to China in 1772, and his accounts of England and the English inspired Huang Ya Dong to make the same journey in 1774.

Another portrayal of a Chinese person in an English eighteenth-century painting that I found on Your Paintings is the group portrait by John Hoppner of Lady Staunton with her son George Thomas Staunton and a Chinese servant, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on loan from HSBC.

Portrait of Lady Staunton and her son George Thomas Staunton with a Chinese servant, by John Hoppner, 1794, ©School of Oriental and African Studies, supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

As a young boy George Thomas Staunton accompanied his father on Earl Macartney’s diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1792-4. He learned Chinese on the way there and impressed the Qianlong Emperor with his grasp of the language (he can be seen in a sketch by William Alexander of Lord Macartney’s presentation to the Emperor). In view of the date of the picture (1794) it seems to have been painted shortly after the return of father and son Staunton to Britain, possibly bringing the Chinese servant with them.

Later in life Staunton had a career in the East India Company based at Guangzhou, and he was a member of another diplomatic mission to the Chinese court in 1816. He assembled a library of 3,000 Chinese books and a collection of Chinese works of art and artefacts. He stocked the garden of his country house, Leigh Park, near Portsmouth, with Chinese plants interspersed with chinoiserie pavilions. Staunton may have known James Bateman, the owner of Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire (both were members of the Royal Society at about the same time), and the example of Leigh Park may have influenced the garden at Biddulph, which similarly included Chinese plants and pseudo-Chinese structures and pavilions. Staunton’s own garden has, sadly, disappeared.

Cataloguing the Duchess’s teapot

January 17, 2012

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou white ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

At Ham House, Surrey, there is an old and rather iconic Chinese teapot, which normally lives on a tea table in the so-called Duchess’s Private Closet. It has traditionally been called the Duchess of Lauderdale’s teapot, as it is thought to have been owned by Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and later Countess and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698).

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139789). ©NTPL/John Bethell

The Duchess of Lauderdale played an important role in creating the appearance of Ham House as we can still see it today. Her husband John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, was an intimate of Charles II and was given the powerful post of Secretary of State for Scotland. At Ham the Lauderdales created grand suites of apartments with sumptuous furnishings sourced from across Europe and even from the Far East.

Chinese porcelain vase, Zhangzhou white ware, Kangxi period (1662-1722), height 334 mm, in the British Museum, on loan from the Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (inv. no. AN569782001). ©Trustees of the British Museum

We don’t have absolute proof that the Duchess owned the teapot, but it is thought to date from about 1650-1670, so the period fits. In the past it has been variously described as ‘celadon’ or as Ge, Tongqi or Dehua ware. However, the National Trust’s ceramics adviser Patricia Ferguson recently noticed that a vase with a similar glaze in the British Museum had been recatalogued as white Zhangzhou ware.

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, with the Chinese teapot on the Javanese tea table. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This is a rare type of underfired porcelain produced at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian province during the seventeenth century in imitation of the famous white-glazed Ding ware. Zhangzhou white wares were not generally made for export and this particular teapot must have come to Europe in the private cargo of a European merchant. At Ham House it sits on another late-seventeenth-century exotic rarity, a low Javanese table raised on a European base to serve as a tea table.

The Chinese wallpapers at Saltram

November 29, 2011

Chinese picture used as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram. ©NTPL/John Hammond

After the recent flurry of posts about Chinese wallpapers and related subjects, both on this blog and on Style Court and Little Augury, I wanted to show a few of the intriguing eighteenth-century papers that have inspired the ones being created today by Fromental and De Gournay.

The Study, showing the astonishingly varied arrangement of papers used to decorate the walls. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Saltram, in Devon, was rebuilt and redecorated in the 1740s for John Parker and his heiress wife, Lady Catherine, daughter of the 1st Earl Poulett. They introduced high-quality plasterwork and also a variety of Chinese wallpapers.

A garden scene, in the Study. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The walls of the Study have a collection of sections of wallpaper and decorative pictures on paper of widely differing sizes and subjects divided and framed by (European) key-fret strips. It has the phantasmagoric feeling of a room-size picture book.

The Chinese Chippendale Bedroom. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Chinese Chippendale bedroom has a panoramic ‘wallpaper’, which in fact is a painted silk hanging showing people engaged in various occupations and industries. Mid-eighteenth-century Chinese paintings on glass hang on top of the wallpaper, and the chairs and hanging shelves with chinoiserie fretwork further enhance the exotic feeling of the room.

The Chinese Dressing Room. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room, painted on mulberry paper, is probably the oldest at Saltram, dating from the early eighteenth century, and depicts elegant people in a garden setting.

A number of the panels are repeated, and various birds and other elements have been cut out from other papers and pasted in, showing how the decorative value of the pattern was valued more than its realistic content.

One of the mirror paintings in the Mirror Room, with the panoramic paper behind. NTPL/Rob Matheson

The paper in the so-called Mirror Room was moved here in recent times from a room not on view to the public. It is made up of sections of a panoramic wallpaper, again augmented by glass paintings, fretwork furniture, lacquer and porcelain.

Many grand houses would have had more than one Chinese wallpaper in the past, but Saltram is one of the few where so many of them survive.

Chinese wallpaper: a living tradition

November 22, 2011

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Mahogany' colourway. ©Fromental

At the recent panel discussion about chinoiserie at Christie’s Education I met Lizzie Deshayes of Fromental, who held us spellbound with stories about how her company designs and makes bespoke Chinese wallpaper. I have since also met her husband and fellow director Tim Butcher, with whom she set up Fromental in 2005, and who is equally passionate about the subject.

Customised 'Nonsuch' pattern, part-embroidered, in 'Warrington' colourway on silk. ©Fromental

Fromental employs Chinese painters and embroiderers, based in a studio in Jiangsu province, who are skilled in using traditional materials and techniques. Fromental’s craftsmen can produce traditional Chinese wallpapers, as seen in historic houses, but they are equally adept at realising the contemporary designs created by Lizzie and Tim and their team.

Wallpaper in 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Kelly' colourway. ©Fromental

This uninhibited mixing of tradition and modernity gives Fromental’s wallpapers real design integrity: the papers are ‘now’ and yet at the same time you get the sense that they are part of a tradition. 

Part-embroidered 'Paradiso' pattern, 'Old Gold' colourway. ©Fromental

This also gives you a flavour of what the production process of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese wallpapers must have been like. Those earlier designers (about whom virtually nothing is known) were operating within a similar matrix of constraints and opportunities: a traditional pictorial language, the availability of craftsmanship, trends in taste and the economics of consumer demand.

Wallpaper in 'Sylvaner' pattern, 'Bolero' colourway. ©Fromental

What is fascinating too is that there is now a Chinese market for these wallpapers, which were originally made purely for export to the west. International interior designers have been introducing them to Chinese clients, who recognise the traditional motifs and techniques but also appreciate the sense of ‘western’ style that these wallpapers exude.

'Sylvaner' pattern on gold leaf, 'Burnish' colourway. ©Fromental

Here we have yet another twist in the long history of chinoiserie: what was once created in China for a western market is now being re-designed in the west and being adopted by the Chinese as an emblem of international taste.

As it happens, Fromental has also contributed to the joint National Trust – BBC project at Avebury Manor, which I hope to post about shortly.


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