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.

Consuming luxury: Asia in Amsterdam

March 18, 2016
Japanese lacquer cabinet on a Dutch gilt stand, c1630-50, in the Long Gallery at Ham House, Richmond-upon-Thames

Japanese lacquer cabinet (c. 1650) on a Dutch gilt stand (c. 1675), at Ham House, Surrey, NT 1140084. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is currently showing the major exhibition Asia in Amsterdam, about the impact of Asian luxuries on Dutch art and life in the seventeenth century. The museum is also organising a public study day on the same topic, on Saturday 16 April.

A close up of a mirror and curtains in the Queen Anne Room at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire

A state bed in the style of Daniel Marot, a japanned cabinet, marquetry table and Delft glazed earthenware vases, in the Damask Bedchamber at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

I will be giving a talk at this study day about what I am tentatively calling the Sino-Dutch interior in seventeenth-century England. There was quite a lot of Dutch cultural, influence in Britain at that time, with gardening styles, Delft pots and the occasional Prince of Orange being brought across the North Sea. As Amsterdam was probably the most important European entrepot for Asian goods, the Asian and the Dutch inevitably mingled in the English interior.


Group portrait of Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, his wife Amalia van Solms and three of their daughters, by Gerard van Honthorst, c. 1647, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. SK-A-874

As I am preparing my talk, I am becoming increasingly aware of the pivotal role of Amalia van Solms, the wife of Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange. Frederik Hendrik was Stadtholder or ruler of most of the provinces of the Dutch Republic between 1625 and 1647.


Late-seventeenth-century tapestries inspired by Asian lacquer, made by the Soho workshop for Belton House, Lincolnshire, in about 1691, NT 436999. ©National Trust/Robert Thrift

Frederik Hendrik and Amalia projected an almost royal political and cultural aura, acquiring and decorating a number of residences. Amalia pioneered the practice of taking apart lacquer coffers and cabinets and using the panels as wall decoration, juxtaposed with liberal quantities of Asian porcelain.

This taste spread across Europe and influenced the subsequent history of chinoiserie and interior decoration in general. Without Amalia’s initial moment of creative destruction we would probably never have had Coco Chanel’s Coromandel rooms at her rue Cambon apartment.

The well-travelled pagoda

March 9, 2016


The Japanese pagoda in the Water Garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire.

The Pagoda in the Water Garden at Cliveden. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The garden pavilion called the Pagoda, at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, has recently been restored. Its stone pillars had become eroded, the paint was flaking and its dragon finial was corroding.

Investigation of the paint layers by Lisa Oestreicher had revealed six successive decorative schemes. It was decided to recreate the third one, which was thought to date from shortly after the pavilion’s arrival at Cliveden in 1900.

Golden Dragon Weathervane on the top of the Chinese Pagoda in the Water Garden at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

View of the painted decoration on the Pagoda in the Water Garden at Cliveden. ©National Trust Images / Rob Stothard

Decorative artist Saskia Huning was commissioned to recreate the painted decoration and gilding. Several tones of green were used, as well as polychrome decoration, to give the Pagoda back its delicate sparkle. The colouring of the trompe l’oeil fluting on the columns was graded to suggest the effect of sunlight towards the outside and shadow towards the inside.

The sinuous zinc dragon (or is it a sea monster?) on the roof was repaired by conservator Anna-Lena  Adamson and its tongue welded back in place by Rupert Harris Conservation. The restoration is described in detail in the winter 2013-14 issue of ABC Bulletin.

Illustration from William Chambers 'Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils' (London 1757) at Springhill, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

Plate showing Chinese ting garden pavilions, from William Chamber’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings. (1757, from a copy at Springhill, County Londonderry). ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

As I mentioned previously, the Cliveden Pagoda was originally part of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. After the close of the exhibition it was purchased by the Marquess of Hertford and set up in the garden of his Paris residence, Bagatelle, in the Bois de Boulogne. In 1900 it was bought by William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor, and brought to Cliveden to provide added oriental ornament emphasis to the newly created Water Garden.

In fact its history goes back even further, as it is a copy of a pavilion that was erected in the garden of the château de Romainville, near Paris, in the 1780s. That pavilion, in turn, was based on the designs of ting-type garden pavilions in William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, published in 1757.

That just goes to prove that a pavilion is never just a pavilion.

Space for contemplation

February 25, 2016
The Oval Pavilion at Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire.

The Oval Pavilion, built in the 1740s, at Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire. Images/Chris Lacey

Fellow Twitterer K. Alexander (亞天恩, @thian_un) just mentioned how nice it would be to have a hermitage where one could retreat for a bit of sustained thinking and writing. In response I suggested this charming structure, the Oval Pavilion at Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire, as a model for the ideal retreat.

c18th domed ceiling at Farnborough with rococo plasterwork possible by W Perritt in the oval pavilion

Rococo plasterwork decoration inside the Oval Pavilion, Farnborough Hall. ©National Trust Images/Nick Meers

In good weather you could sit on the open lower level, admiring the landscape and perhaps doing a bit of sketching. The contemplation and writing could take place in the cosy and yet light-filled room upstairs.

The only problem might be that the exuberant rococo decoration would be rather distracting and might lead to frivolous thoughts.

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.

The Country House: Material Culture and Consumption

February 11, 2016

Country House cover FINAL 4

Historic England has recently published a volume of essays entitled The Country House: Material Culture and Consumption, edited by John Stobart and Andrew Hann.

A Chinese white porcelain teapot,  c.1650-70, at Ham House, Surrey

Chinese porcelain teapot in European silver mounts (NT 1139006), on a Javanese lacquer table (NT 1140034), both late seventeenth century, at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

As Jon notes in his introduction, the book is essentially about looking at the country house as ‘a nexus of complex flows of goods, people and ideas.’ The volume contributes to the burgeoning debate about ‘material culture’, considering art history, social history and economic history not as separate realms but as an interrelated matrix.

The various essays extend this matrix well beyond the shores of Britain, including Finnish, French, Irish, Dutch and Spanish perspectives on the country house.

Cup of cappucinno and a pot of tea on a tray in the Orangery Cafe, Ham House and Garden, Surrey.

Coffee and tea as served in the Orangery Café at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

I contributed an essay on the changing significance of Asian and pseudo-Asian objects and styles in British country house interiors and gardens.

The debate is brought into the present through discussions about how the country house is ‘served up’ and ‘consumed’ today.

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.


Fashion and style

January 22, 2016
Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples (1782-1839), by Louis Ducis (1775-1847), c. 1810. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Caroline Murat, Queen of Naples (1782-1839), by Louis Ducis (1775-1847), c. 1810, NT 608957, at Attingham Park. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I took part in a panel discussion at the Royal College of Art yesterday, part of their History of Design programme. The theme of the seminar was ‘research in action’, exploring the benefits and challenges of interacting with the public.

This reminded me of my previous linking with Unmaking Things, the lively blog run by second-year students of the History of Design course. I was inspired then by the observation made by Marilyn Zapf that the internet has the effect of making any object into a ‘found object’ – whether it is an ephemeral piece of packaging or a fine art masterpiece.

In a recent post Connie Burks writes about the difference between fashion and style – the former being more about historical trends, whereas the latter is more about individual choice, and is therefore more difficult to reconstruct. Connie mentions how style is often revealed by the way an individual combines different garments, patterns, textures and colours.

That, in turn, reminded me of the above portrait of Caroline Murat, who was something of an early-nineteenth-century style icon. The sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and married to one of his generals who became King of Naples, she channeled both French and Italian elements in her surroundings and her dress.

As Brittany Dahlin mentions in her recent thesis on Caroline Murat, she deliberately wore black velvet because of its associations with traditional Neapolitan female dress. At the same time the dress is tailored and cut in the high-waisted ‘Empire’ style, which of course had associations with French cultural and political dominance.

So perhaps this picture provides a glimpse of the fluid boundary between fashion and style.


The plan for Clandon

January 19, 2016
The Marble Hall, 1, photo James Dobson-National Trust Images

The Marble Hall at Clandon, following the removal of the debris and the stabilisation of the remaining wall surfaces. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

An announcement was made yesterday about the plans to bring Clandon Park back to life following the devastating fire last April.

Crates with salavaged items from the Saloon, photo James Dobson-National Trust Images

Crates with salvaged fragments in the Saloon. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Over the last nine months, the colleagues involved with Clandon have reviewed a number of options, ranging from leaving it as a ruin to a full restoration. They considered the architectural significance of what had survived the fire, the items salvaged from the building and what was technically possible within it.

Cleaning the leg of a marble topped table in the Marble Hall, photo James Dobson-National Trust Images

Conservator cleaning the remains of a side table in the Marble Hall. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The criteria guiding the decision-making process reflect the National Trust’s core purpose. They include making sure that Clandon remains open to the public, considering Clandon’s historic and cultural significance and generating enough income to maintain its long-term conservation.

We are now confident that a number of principal rooms on the ground floor, including the Marble Hall, the Speakers’ Parlour and the Saloon, can be restored – and should be, given their architectural and historical significance.

Statue of Venus in the Marble Hall, photo James Dobson-National Trust Images

A plaster cast of a statue of Venus, still in situ in the Marble Hall. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The fact that so many features survived the fire, and that items from the rooms have been recovered from the ashes, makes the case for restoration compelling. We will be able to draw on a wealth of relevant expertise from within the National Trust and from elsewhere.

But we are not looking to recreate the rooms as they were the day before the fire. The enduring significance of architect Giacomo Leoni’s original designs means that we can go back to the original eighteenth-century decorative schemes and layout of the house.

The Marble Hall, 2, photo James Dobson-National Trust Images

View of the Marble Hall, with a protective temporary roof visible above. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The rooms on the upper floors were less architecturally significant and had been considerably altered over the centuries. So it has been proposed to transform those rooms into flexible spaces which could be used for exhibitions, events and performances.

Recent research has also given us a better understanding of the original eighteenth-century gardens. If resources permit we hope to bring those back to life as well, in the spirit of a project that will both look back to the best of the past and create an exciting future for Clandon.

More information, images and updates can be found on our website.

Remastered at Petworth

January 8, 2016

Titian, An Unknown Man in a Black Plumed Hat, c. 1515-20, at Petworth, possibly acquired by the 10th Earl of Northumberland, accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust in 1956, NT 486242

The painter John Constable, in awe of the collections assembled at Petworth House, the seat of the Percy, Seymour and Wyndham families in West Sussex,  once called it ‘that house of art’. Following several successful winter exhibitions featuring loans from other museum, Petworth curator Andy Loukes has now drawn on the house’s own collections to put together a show of major old master paintings.


Paris Bordone, Portrait of a Young Woman, c. 1550, at Petworth, collection of Lord Egremont.

Petworth House was given to the National Trust by the 3rd Lord Leconfield in 1947. To meet the inheritance tax due following his death in 1952, his nephew John Wyndham, later the 1st Lord Egremont, brokered a pioneering agreement with the Treasury to pay part of the tax in the form of works of art, which were then allocated to the National Trust.


Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1550-5, at Petworth, in the collection of the 3rd Earl of Egremont by 1835, collection of Lord Egremont

This kind of arrangement has now become a well-established system called the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme, which is hugely beneficial to UK museums.

The current Lord Egremont still owns part of the Petworth collection, and some of those paintings are also on view in this exhibition.


Sir Anthony van Dyck, Portrait of Anne Boteler, Countess of Newport, later Countess of Portland, c. 1637, at Petworth, in the collection of the 10th Earl of Northumberland in 1652, accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust in 1956, NT 486238

Petworth is already well known for its British pictures, so for this exhibition Andy has focused more on Continental European paintings. Some of the works have not been on public view before, while others have recently undergone conservation work, revealing new detail and depth.


Anglo-Netherlandish School, Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, 1530, at Petworth, in the collection of the 3rd Earl of Egremont by 1835, accepted in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the National Trust in 1956, NT 486204

The exhibition also celebrates the successive collectors who made Petworth into ‘that house of art’, including Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland (1602-68), and Charles Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837).