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

Belton House contains little known Chinese treasures

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (101)

Belton House is an outstanding 300 year-old mansion located in Lincolnshire, England   Photo by Paul Harris

It is not known as being one of the foremost English country houses, but, in fact, Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, has been described as ‘the perfect country house estate’ and also harbours a very fine collection of Chinese treasures, some of them put together by the 1st Earl Brownlow during the early part of the 19th century.

He created a Chinese bedroom with 18th century Chinese wallpaper specially imported for the purpose. Brownlow’s passion for things Chinese was inherited from his 17th and 18th century ancestors, all of whom made significant acquisitions. The bedroom was designed by Jeffry Wyatt (also known as Wyattville). The wallpaper is important in historical terms and has been well catalogued by The National Trust who own and operate the property.

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (141)

‘Combined figural/floral wallpaper with small human figures and birds on an undulating foreground and much larger bamboo and flowering plants towering above against an originally pink background and with birds and butterflies among the branches. National Trust Inventory No. 433859

The birds include ducks, magpies, parrots and pheasants. The mannerist juxtapositioning of small-scale figures with large-scale flora was a relatively late development, seen in Chinese wallpapers dating from the 1790s until about 1840.4 A further note of fancy is evident in the climbing plant growing through the bamboo sprouting a variety of different flowers, a motif that may have been influenced by Indian chintz designs.5 A floral wallpaper with bamboo and climbers on a white ground, with a similar visual rhythm and some almost identical details, but without the human figures, is in the Ballroom at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. Another very similar wallpaper, but with peonies along the bottom, is at Penrhyn Castle (cat. 34). In addition, a wallpaper fragment painted in a different style, but with a similar disposition of bamboo culms, is in a private collection in Bangkok.

‘The design is painted on paper, with Chinese numerals visible along the bottom of the individual sheets, presumably as an aid to the production process.6 Similar numerals occur on wallpapers at Belton (cat. 4), at Ickworth (cat. 19), at Nostell Priory (cat. 27), in the Ballroom at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. In certain places butterflies cut out from other sections of wallpaper have been pasted on, especially along the joins between sheets. The wallpaper was pasted onto decorator’s lining paper, which in turn was pasted directly onto the plaster. The pink background of the wallpaper has largely faded to white due to light damage. Some areas have been affected by detachment from the wall, water staining and retouching. Conservation treatment by Catherine Rickman (1988) and by Sandiford and Mapes Ltd. (2002) has been limited to in situ surface cleaning, re-attachment of small lifting areas, reinforcement of tears and consolidation of some dark-green pigments in the bamboo leaves.

The wallpaper hangs in the Chinese Bedroom. It appears to have been installed in about 1840 for John Cust, 1st Earl Brownlow (1779–1853) and his third wife, Emma Sophia, née Edgcumbe (1792–1872). It is framed by a European paper border in two separate parts, comprising a latticework pattern printed in silver, now tarnished to black, on green machine-made paper, which is banded by strips of possibly machine-made paper block-printed with a representation of bamboo. The use of machine-made paper dates the production of the border to 1830 at the earliest, and it appears to have been hung at the same time as the wallpaper. The wooden cornice, dado and door surrounds are painted in imitation of bamboo, a Regency-period decorative conceit also seen at, for instance, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. The curtains, bed hangings and seat covers are made of a European chintz with an orientalist design of vases filled with flowers which is probably contemporary with the wallpaper.’

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (130)

A special display area was constructed for the Brownlows’ Chinese porcelain collection Photo by Paul Harris

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (128)

Wrongly described in the National Trust literature as a lion dog, this is, in fact a luduan (Chinese unicorn) censer on display at Belton House. The horn of the luduan projects from the back of the head in Chinese lore.    Photo Paul Harris

Cambridge, Ely, Belton House (157)

17th century Chinese dehua porcelain collected by Sir john Brownlow (1659-97) on display at Belton House   Photo Paul Harris

Unusual Chinese art image no 73 Magnificent Chinoiserie interior

The Chinese Room with its elaborately carved doorcase and Pagoda.

The Chinese Room with its elaborately carved doorcase and Pagoda.

One of the most elaborate Chinoiserie interiors in Britain is the Chinese Room at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. The plasterwork and carved pine wood decorations were designed by Luke Lightfoot (1722?-1789) in 1769, a remarkable stonemason and woodcarver. There is a pagoda motif with Chinese figures above each door, faces carved among the flowers around the chimney-piece, and the painted latticework with intricate Chinoiserie details in the tea alcove. The Chinese export furniture and statuettes date from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Sources: The National Trust, Simon Quinton’s Flickr, Orientally Yours (Tumblr)

British National Trust’s little known cache of Chinese porcelain


Wallington, home of the Trevelyan family in Northumberland.  Photo Paul Harris

In the far north of England, at Northumberland’s Wallington Estate, can be found what is possibly the National Trust’s largest collection of Oriental porcelain to be found anywhere in Britain. The remote location has probably ensured that this is something of a well kept secret.


The large porcelain cabinet in the dining room at Wallington. Photo Paul Harris

Here there are hundreds of Chinese and Japanese porcelain items ranging from large baluster vases to tiny cups. Most of the pieces are late Ming or early Qing dynasty and came to the 17th/18th century Greek revival house as a result of the marital union between Sir John Trevelyan (1761-1846) and his wife Maria Wilson (1772-1851), later Lady Trevelyan. She was a woman of great wealth, the daughter of General Sir Thomas Wilson, who owned land and properties in Hampstead and Greenwich. Indeed, it was his wife, a serious collector, who brought with her a large collection of porcelain from the East, as well as some English and Continental ware She later inherited her mother’s substantial collection.


In the former China Room, now part of the entrance hall to Wallington, are large cases containing porcelain predominantly drawn from the Far East during the early 18th century.                        Photo Paul Harris

The collection is particularly rich in late Ming and Transition Period blue and white porcelain, as well as Kangxi famille verte, displayed in the dining room, as well as famille rose and imari ware.


Large blue & white baluster vase, one of a pair, Transitional period, late 17th century.


Chinese Imari design porcelain, Wallington.