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The Hidden Nature in the materials used to produce the Royal Pavilion’s Chinese Wallpaper

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Our latest Heritage Open Day Hidden Nature post looks at how nature has provided the materials for the Royal Pavilion’s elaborate decoration.

When one looks at the Chinese wallpaper in the Pavilion, it is impossible not to get drawn into the wonderful colours and designs on the paper and the sheer scale of the papers in the rooms. My job as a paper conservator is to look at the detail and if you look closer than the design of the paper, not only do you see beautiful scenes of birds and flowers on the paper design, but you see the true natural world used to create the whole object.

One of my favourite things about being a paper conservator is the material that the art work is upon; paper. Paper is an incredibly strong and resilient material, although this changes a lot with the beginnings of machine made, mass produced paper, but that is a very different story. The Chinese wallpaper in our collections largely date from around the end of the 18th century until the mid19th century and when you look at these amazing, beautiful Chinese wallpapers around the Pavilion, spare a thought for the craftsmanship that went into the making of the paper support.

Section of Queen Victoria’s Apartment during recent restoration

The paper making starts with the stripping of the wood, usually using the inner bark of the tree (a variety of paper making specific trees are used here). This is then soaked in water to soften it and then pounded and or boiled to a make a pulp. Screens were dipped into the pulp, drained, and the paper sheets produced were left to dry in the sun. Consider all of this work that has taken place on the multiple sheets of paper that make up the long and strong sheets of wallpaper, before any of the decoration has been applied.

In the image below you can see top left to right; boiling/pounding, soaking. Bottom left to right; screens dipped in pulp and sheets left to dry in the sun.

Chinese Paper Making from Northern Han Dynasty

And it is also worth a quick mention that the adhesive used to attach all of these papers is usually a starch (rice) based adhesive, so again harvested from the natural world close by.

Looking past the paper support itself, we have the vibrant and not so vibrant colours remaining to conjure up the vivid garden scenes, and of course many of these are harvested from the natural world around us. Here let’s spend a few minutes looking at just two of these wonderful colours with their origins intrinsically connected to nature.

Gamboge is a pigment used throughout the background of the Chinese wallpaper you can see in the newly restored Queen Victoria Apartments. It is a natural pigment used from the 8th century and is a natural resin produced by trees in southeast Asia. Gamboge is most often extracted by tapping a resin from various species of evergreen trees. The bright pigment was very popular (both as a pigment and later for medicinal purposes; prescribed in the mid-18th century in the UK as a powerful laxative) but proved to be very light sensitive. And so the wallpaper that you see now at the Pavilion is a very muted example of the wallpaper that you would have seen originally.

In the photo below you can see the original colour the wallpaper would have been, it had been protected by something laying over the top of it. The faded area would have been exposed to light hence its much-bleached appearance on the left.

Another very intriguing colour commonly found in some of our Chinese wallpaper is found in the pink or red details. This colour can often be Carminic acid. Again very much from the natural world, this rich crimson colour is surprisingly created from the dried Cochineal beetle, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal, Carmine or Crimson Lake. It is one of the oldest organic pigments. Today, carmine is still used as a colourant in food and in lipstick.

Possible carmine in the Chinese wallpaper in Queen Victoria’s Apartment

Pigments and paper at the Pavilion are all reflections of the natural world they depict. Look closer and there is a wondrous world behind.

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Amy Junker Heslip, Paper Conservator