It is worth having a closer look at the glorious Chinese export wallpaper that was painstakingly removed from the Royal Pavilion’s Saloon by experts Allyson and Andrew McDermott last November. The six large panels are a remarkable survival from the late 1790s or early 1800s. They were probably produced by Chinese art and craft workshops in Guangzhou, near western trading ports along the waterfront, and then imported to Europe, often as ‘private trade’ by captains of East India Company ships. Hand-painted in ink and distemper-like colours, they were produced solely for export and became increasingly popular in European Chinoiserie interiors throughout the eighteenth century. The majority of these papers were hung in bedrooms and drawing rooms and are mostly associated with ‘feminine’ spaces and taste. Many of the patterns show Chinese flowers, trees, birds and stylised garden or landscape scenes, with most botanical elements clearly identifiable. More expensive varieties included architectural motifs and Chinese figures at work or play. Wallpapers of both varieties survive in the Royal Pavilion, with the Adelaide Corridor wallpaper (dating from around 1790) still in its original location. The sheets of paper were usually numbered and hung in a sequence, often with the addition of cut-out birds, flowers and figures, either to disguise blemishes or cover edges.
The Pavilion account books and inventories are full of intriguing entries relating to these so-called ‘India papers’ (in reference to the East India Companies). The earliest entry dates from 1802, for £2.5.0 “expended For 12 pieces of Fine India Paper”. George IV is known to have attended the hanging of Chinese wallpaper on several occasions, for example in August 1815, which shows how important these exotic and precious papers were to him: ‘Mr Crace and his men attending His Royal Highness in arranging the hanging of the India Paper and birds in Saloon, Prince Regent’s Bedroom and other rooms.’ The papers were supplied by the paper hangers Robson & Hale of Piccadilly, London, who, in October 1821, also charged for ‘A full Sett of India Paper on purple ground by Command of His Majesty’.
Around the time Chinese wallpapers were in high fashion, many exotic plants and seeds were being imported from the Far East, especially China. In the very early 1800s, when the Pavilion interiors received their first oriental make-over, newly-arrived Chinese plants were being successfully propagated at Kew. By 1813 the Royal Gardener at Kew, William Townsend Aiton, recorded a total of 120 species that had recently been introduced from China. In the same year Aiton planted the garden at Carlton House for the Prince Regent. Two years later the Brighton gardener John Furner met with the architect John Nash and Aiton in London to discuss the new planting of the Pavilion gardens, which included many of the newly imported and propagated Chinese plants. In his beautifully illustrated and researched book Set for a King (2005) Mike Jones describes the challenges of importing live plants and seeds and identifies many of the plants painted on the yellow Chinese wallpaper from the Saloon. Many of them could be found in the Pavilion gardens in the early nineteenth century, for example the Hydrangea, now common in British gardens, but first brought to Kew only in 1789. Others are autumn-flowering chrysanthemums (1795), the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa, 1787) and several types of camellia (mid to late 18th century), while the Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi) had been known in Britain since the 16th century. It is very likely that the inclusion of exotic plants in the Pavilion gardens, which could also be seen on the Chinese wallpaper inside the palace, was entirely deliberate. It is easy to imagine Regency guests marvelling at the flowery wallpaper or walking through rooms that emulated Chinese courtyards later trying to spot the same exotic flowers in the garden.
The yellow-ground Chinese paper removed from the Saloon was initially hung in Queen Victoria’s first floor bedrooms and was only installed in the Saloon in the 1930s. It was not part of the 1823 design scheme by Robert Jones that is currently being restored, although there was similar Chinese wallpaper in the room between c1802 and 1820. Assessment by Allyson McDermott found that the panels required urgent and immediate conservation work.
The Royal Pavilion Foundation is delighted to announce that many private sponsors and donations helped save the historic Chinese wallpaper. Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, David Beevers, would like ‘to thank everyone who donated and helped save this important chapter of Royal Pavilion history. If we hadn’t removed the wallpapers when we did, leeching acid from the lining and residual glues would have permanently ruined the papers forever.’ Now that the paper is stable and secure it is ready to return to the Royal Pavilion. We still need to raise funds to reinstate the paper in its original home in Queen Victoria’s bedroom. If you would like to help this beautiful wallpaper to return home, please follow this link or contact Abigail Wilde at the Royal Pavilion Foundation on 01273 292789. www.pavilionfoundation.org
If you would like to find out more about Chinese export wallpaper, you may want to follow this blog about a conference on the subject planned for April 2016: https://chinesewallpaper2016.wordpress.com/ The three-day conference is co-organised by Alexandra Loske and experts from the V&A Museum and The National Trust and will include a visit to the Royal Pavilion with a focus on our wallpaper.
Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator
A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Viva Brighton magazine.