Magnificent obession: the British and Chinese wallpaper

chinese wallpaper cover

Book Review Chinese Wallpaper in Great Britain and Ireland by Emile de Bruijn, Philip Wilson Publishers 2017   £30 RRP

This is the first volume in a welcome cooperation between The National Trust and Philip Wilson Publishers which, it is planned, will lead to a wider exposure to the public of some of the valuable and unique furnishings and valuables within the properties held by the NT. We are all, of course, aware of the diligent activities of the Trust in their many fine properties.

Probably, you are less well aware of Philip Wilson Publishers, one of the UK’s best publishers of fine art books. Philip Wilson, the eponymous guiding hand, has been producing some of the most beautiful fine art books for around forty years now. It’s a long time since I last met and talked with Philip.. I can remember exactly where and when it was: in the magnificent imperial-style halls of Zagreb’s Hotel Esplanade, once a stop on the Orient Express route. The circumstances in June 1991 were rather less leisurely. Croatia had just anoounced its independence was was suddenly at war with Belgrade. I booked into the magnificent Esplanade reckoning that it was the building least likely to be destroyed by the Serbian tanks advancing on the Croatian capital. Philip, I guess, stayed there a a matter of course. There we planned our escape from the Yugoslav war. In the event, the tanks stopped before Zagreb and we were afforded the opportunity to get back to dear old Blighty . . .

As usual, Philip Wilson Publishers have excelled with their production of this book on the wallpapers within National Trust properties. Up until now, there was just a slim National Trust brochure on this neglected subject. Now we have a proper book in which the illustration is matched by the scholarship.

You might be forgiven for not having realised the passion which developed, mainly in the 18th century, for all things Chinese. China was an object of committed fascination for the upper classes and by that I mean ‘them who had money’. Porcelain, bronzes, scrolls, furniture and, indeed, wallpaper became the rage. It was not just a matter of simple decoration. Whole rooms or suites would be furnished entirely with Chinese things to create an all pervading environment. Shiploads of goods from China flooded into the UK, not to mention Portugal, France and The Netherlands. The map at the beginning of this book shows 169 country houses which contain Chinese wallpapers. And those are just the ones left after the dilapidations of the 20th century.

Of course, in return, we made the Chinese buy a lot of things they did not really want, opium, perhaps, being the most odious. Maybe the wheel now, though, is going full circle. If you examine this magnificent book’s biblio page you will see that it has been printed . . . in China. We can hardly complain about a book like this being made available.

chinese wallpaper cover dtl