The global appeal of historic Chinese wallpaper

A team consisting of two specialists from the National Trust, Emile de Bruijn and Andrew Bush, V&A PhD candidate Anna Wu, Royal Pavilion curator Alexandra Loske and our paper conservator Amy Junker-Heslip welcomed experts and researchers from around the world to the  Royal Pavilion.

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Conference organisers and delegates from Europe, Asia and America in the Royal Pavilion

Emile, Andrew, Anna and I had been working for more than a year to organise the first conference looking at Chinese wallpapers in the round, which took place in London and Brighton, 7-9 April 2016, and presented some of the ground-breaking work and research now being carried out in this area. It is increasingly being acknowledged that Chinese wallpaper wasn’t just a form of Chinese export art or European Chinoiserie, but a global product rooted in both east and west.

Chinese wallpapers were particularly popular between the middle of the eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth centuries and many great houses contained a Chinese drawing room or a Chinese bedroom. These papers were imported from Canton as ‘private trade’ by captains of East India Company ships. Hand-painted and/or printed in ink and distemper-like colours, they were produced solely for export and were not used in China. They were usually supplied in sheets, each with a different scene, pasted together to form sets of 25 or 40 rolls, designed to fit the dimensions of European houses and to be hung in a numbered sequence. From around 1802 the Royal Pavilion account books list many sets of Chinese wallpaper (often referred to as ‘India paper’) being purchased and hung in many rooms, as for example in the Saloon.

Colour. Royal Pavilion Collection, Brighton
The Saloon in c.1815, decorated with Chinese export wallpaper

The bank Coutts & Co hosted day one of the conference at their premises at 440 Strand, where delegates were given guided tours of the Chinese wallpaper from the McCartney Embassy to China in 1792, which was originally acquired by banker Thomas Coutts in around 1800.  The focus of this day was on the taste for and trade in Chinese wallpapers, with speakers from Europe, America and China and subjects ranging from the earliest uses of Chinese pictures as wall decoration in the west to the continuing popularity of Chinese wallpaper today.

The second day of the conference was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 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.  In the afternoon the V&A made a number of Chinese wallpapers from their extensive collection available to view.

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In the paper conservation studios of the V&A, unrolling 18th century Chinese wallpaper following conservation
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Royal Pavilion paper conservator Amy Junker-Heslip carefully removing tissue paper

By coincidence Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums’ paper conservator Amy Junker-Heslip was attending a course on the conservation of Chinese wallpaper at the V&A and we watched her help unroll a large piece of late 18th century wallpaper from Moor Park in Hertfordshire, which had just been re-lined. The rich azurite blue-ground paper looked particularly beautiful just after the damp tissue paper had been removed. With regard to motifs – rocks, birds and exotic vegetation – it bears a strong resemblance to the Royal Pavilion’s yellow-ground paper that was recently removed for conservation from the Saloon.

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Detail from the blue-ground paper from Moor Park
Wallpaper bird detail
Detail from the yellow-ground paper previously in the Royal Pavilion’s Saloon

On the third day the Royal Pavilion hosted an optional excursion, which around a third of the conference delegates attended, to see actual examples of the use of Chinese decoration in a British historic interior. Delegates had a chance to see the only Chinese wallpaper still in its original place in the palace, in the Adelaide corridor on the chamber floor. The paper dates from c.1790 and was supplied and hung by the royal warrant holders Robson and Hale of Piccadilly, London, but was not placed in in corridor until either 1815 or 1821.

Among the speakers at the conference was Dutch conservator Thomas Brain, who has worked the restoration on a near identical set of wallpaper at the Museum Oud Amelisweerd near Bunnik in the Netherlands, and was able to help us understand our set better.

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Delegates inspecting wallpaper fragments from the Royal Pavilion archives
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Experts discussing a fragment of silvered Chinese wallpaper from the Prince Regent’s private apartments

The tour of the Pavilion was followed by a viewing of rare and fragile fragments of wallpaper and related objects from the archives. Amy had helped the conference organisers greatly to select suitable wallpaper fragments, in order to show the wide range of Chinese wallpapers that once decorated many of the walls of the Royal Pavilion, including green-ground, yellow-ground, lilac-ground and early silvered examples, while I showed a copy of the so-called Nash’s Views of the Pavilion from 1826.  We also decided to show wallpaper that was designed and produced in Britain but strongly influenced by export ware, for example a fragment of the blue on pink paper from the Long Gallery, which was probably hand-painted in distemper by Frederick Crace in c.1815, and some unused and end-of-roll printed bamboo-style borders.

A fragment of the Long Gallery paper. designed by Frederick Crace, c.1815
A fragment of the Long Gallery paper. designed by Frederick Crace, c.1815

We showed these objects in the William IV room on the chamber floor of the Pavilion, against a backdrop of reproduction wallpaper that was begun in the early 1970s at the behest of the then Director, John Morley, who wanted to create a new function room in order to protect original surfaces in other rooms. The bird, tree and flower pattern on a grey ground was painted in acrylics by Roy Bradley and his assistant Derek Smith, and later finished by artist and conservator Gordon Grant.

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Conference organisers Andrew Bush, Anna Wu, Alexandra Loske and Emile de Bruijn in the William IV room

It was a great privilege to have so many experts in the field of historic Chinese wallpaper visit the Pavilion and share their knowledge with us. The organising team is hoping to publish the papers given at the conference in due course. If you are interested in the speakers’ biographies and abstracts of their papers, please have a look at the conference website. We are also currently discussing making recordings of some of the papers available on this page. Emile de Bruijn is the author of the excellent blog National Trust Treasure Hunt, where he frequently writes on Chinese export art and Chinoiserie designs. A catalogue of Chinese wallpaper in National Trust houses, compiled and written by Emile, Andrew Bush and Helen Clifford, can be downloaded here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/chinese-wallpaper-in-national-trust-houses.pdf

 

Dr Alexandra Loske, Curator, Royal Pavilion Archives