REVIEW: Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses

by Robert M. Kelly

link to buy "Chinese Wallpaper": (cost of the book is about £10, or $16.33)






In 1988, paper conservator Catherine Rickman wrote in a journal article that "there is no information to be had in China about the watercolour paintings, albums and lengths of handpainted paper exported in their thousands from the country over the last two centuries. To find out how such artifacts were made we must study the paintings themselves....." Twenty-five years later this remains largely true, but enormous strides have been made by the National Trust and the cadre of paper conservators in England and other Western European countries through their periodic work on these marvels of decorative design. This in-the-trenches practice has now been documented with the publication of a catalog, "Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses," which gives great detail for each of the 45 some-odd Chinese wallpapers that beautify the walls of homes belonging to the Trust. The authors are Emile de Bruijn, Andrew Bush, and Helen Clifford.

Late-17th century prototypes in country houses included lacquer screens inserted into wall paneling. References to Chinese pictures at Versailles in the late 1660s and at Whitehall Palace in 1693 establish that oriental wallpaper was an influence long before the tax of 1712. This helps to explain the ads of tradesmen like George Minnikin (1680), and Edward Butling (1690), who traded in both Chinese wares and  English chinoiserie adapted from them. By 1700 Chinese paintings were being substituted for the lacquer screens as noted in Wappenschmidt's 1989 book (p. 19). In 1722 the memoirist John Macky related that Wanstead was "…finely adorn'd with China paper, the figures of men, women, birds and flowers, the liveliest I ever saw come from that country." 

"Chinese Wallpaper" begins with a short but concise essay which creates a framework for the hundreds of details to follow as each assemblage of wallpaper is discussed in turn. Distinctions are made from the beginning between so-called Indian pictures (generally small) and wallpaper proper (generally large panels which came in sets). The authors report that one art authority (John Winter) found that shimmering grounds were not usually present in Chinese fine art pictures. This prompts the authors to speculate that shiny wallpaper grounds sprinkled with mica may have been specially made for the West. The catalog is strong in technical details like these. The text is so dense that a number of entries note that "the paper was trimmed at the top" — in every instance these are the full width panels, which ranged from 44 inches to 48 inches wide. No doubt the foreshortening was a result of the installers adapting a twelve-foot strip to a ten-foot wall. 

This distinction between pictures and wallpaper proper is made throughout the book, and wisely so, because the differences between the two types are still not completely understood. Within this first grouping, pictures could be enclosed in borders, as in the Chinese Room at Erddig, or they could be put up in a collage, as in the Study at Saltram. At least now with this vast amount of detail we have a laboratory to work out some of the problems and solutions that were faced by 18th century patrons and paperhangers. Did the patrons perceive pictures as art objects in the home, even when they were put up in collages, or enclosed in Greek key designs? Were the larger sheets of wallpaper thought by them to submit more gracefully to the demands of the architectural environment? Or, did any of the patrons regret (or complain) that any of these beautiful things needed to be cut? Is the cutting of the top elements a sure indication that the paper was not "made for the room" and came in "off the rack" so to speak? Were the dimensions of the room ever sent to China prior to the making? Could the use of stacks of similar Indian pictures indicate a money-saving or time-saving strategy on the part of the homeowners? Or simply a preference?  

Although the bulk of the entries consist of the later scenic types, the book makes a strong case for the importance of the rarer and less-celebrated Indian prints: "The strong demand for sets of pictures to be used as wall decorations eventually prompted the development of Chinese wallpaper proper…" by which is meant the panoramic type. The Indian prints and pictures (here documented to have dominated the first half of the 18th century) were certainly more difficult to install than the latter. To borrow a phrase from David Pye, the Indian pictures were an exercise in the "workmanship of risk" while the scenics represented the "workmanship of certainty". After all, the installer of a set of prints needed to construct a narrative — to make decorative sense out of the India pictures in the context of a particular room. In contrast, the furnishing of a strong narrative was one of the built-in benefits of the larger sets.


Three techniques for producing the imagery on Chinese wallpaper: (left) printed outlines with color added by hand; (center) printed outlines with additional details and color added by hand; (right) entirely hand-painted.

It's helpful to know that "drops" in this text means "strips." It comes as a bit of a surprise that block printed outlines were used so often by Chinese artisans around mid-century. It's good that the authors include so many qualifications of the general description "hand-painted" which, although not wrong, has sometimes left a false impression. Far Eastern artisans seem to have turned naturally to stencils and block printed outlines to speed the work, where possible, just as was done throughout this period in the workshops of English paperstainers, who were busily engaged in supplying chinoiserie, sometimes known as "mock India papers." Not addressed here, perhaps because of space limitations, is the question: How did the chinoiserie products of factories such as the Blue Paper Warehouse or Dunbar's differ from their inspiration?

The catalog scours the history of each installation. Whether it was framed by fillets or turned corners to explode away the very architecture of the room, the Chinese papers owned a power which repetitive Western design could not match. There is much here about the decorative traditions of China as well. In this connection the contributions of Anna Wu to the catalog cannot be overstated. She brought Chinese books, research and historic sites to the attention of the writing team — to cite one example, the decorative schemes in the restored Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service). This curiously-named retirement lodge of an emperor is once again awash in silk hangings painted with tromp l'oeil scenery and offers "...a high-end, customized parallel to the wallpaper produced for export to the West."

Although non-Trust properties are not scrutinized, they are not ignored. In addition to the 45 catalog entries, 125 "other" installations are included in the fine map of locations coded by era, so that, in all, 170 Chinese wallpapers are documented. The bibliography is sparkling and includes the most up-to-date (Peck's Interwoven Globe from last year) as well as an assortment of fairly recent titles. Catalog # 29 (a c. 1750 firescreen at Osterly Park) shows the age of that quaint tradition for decorating fireplaces. In retrospect, it's astonishing that most of these installations predate the American Revolution and the founding of the American trade. Yet what could be more "early American" than to display a flower pot in your fireplace all summer? 

This information is specific to English conditions but no doubt will help Americans understand wallpaper better. That American rooms tended to be squat rather than tall, and that our decorative traditions tended to be democratic rather than aristocratic, helps to explain why Chinese scenics in the domestic interior are practically unheard of in our nation's early history. The best treatment about Chinese wallpaper here remains Carl Crossman's Chapter 15: "Decorative Painted Wallpapers to 1850" in his Decorative Arts of the China Trade (1991). Our two older books, McClelland and Sanborn, have just a few photos of Chinese wallpaper. We must not forget that many Chinese scenics formerly in English country houses were auctioned off to a new home in the US, the most prominent of which may be the former Ashburnham Place wallpaper now at Blair House, the president's guest house. 


Saltram stands out. There are four rooms extant, and signs that even more rooms may have been done up with Chinese wallpaper. Even when little wallpaper remains, as at Osterly Park, the scents of tea and perfume of the exotic East seem to linger in the air. A particular effort is made to untangle and understand the identification of Chinese wallpaper with femininity and sociability. It seems to have been no accident that most of the known locations for Chinese paper were dressing rooms, bedrooms, and drawing rooms. The authors quote a revealing statement by the salonist Elizabeth Montagu: "I assure you the dressing room is now just the female of the great room, for sweet attractive grace, for winning softness, for le je ne sais quoi it is incomparable". Those indefinable qualities are still being debated. 

Who were the patrons who made this all possible? The homeowners turn out to be various MP's, landed gentry, and (in a later age) heirs to marmalade-manufacturing fortunes: in other words, those who possessed the resources, the patrimony, the tall and large rooms, and the nerve to order such exotic wall treatments. 

[all photos in this post copyright National Trust 2014]

link to buy "Chinese Wallpaper"

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