The ‘Coromandel’ or incised lacquer screen in the Dining Room at Felbrigg Hall is fairly unusual in that it does not show the more commonly seen bird-and-flower or palace scenery. Instead it depicts a landscape overrun with boys.
The motif of ‘100 boys’ (baizi) has a long history in Chinese art and decoration. As Patricia Welch notes in Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, it is said to originate with the founder of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), who supposedly had 99 sons by his 24 wives and then adopted an orphaned baby boy to round the number up.
Male children were particularly valued in traditional China because of the importance attached to continuing the family line and to the maintenance of filial duties and rites.
The symbolic qualities of the scenery are strengthened by the auspicious objects and animals that the children hold and play with.
One of the side panels of this seven-paneled screen is not Chinese, suggesting that it may originally have been half of a twelve-paneled screen – such large screens were often divided after being exported to the west.
The heyday of these incised screens was in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when they were very fashionable in Europe. This one may have been originally acquired by William Windham I (1647–89), who built the baroque west front of Felbrigg in the 1680s.