China patterns

Shelf Appeal likes a work of scholarly specificity and also likes wallpaper. Having written a chapter for the book The Cutting Edge of Wallpaper in 2006 and co-curated an exhibition on contemporary wallpaper, W is for Wallpaper, at Ruthin Craft Centre in 2015, wallpaper is a medium I feel.

Twitter propinquity bought me to a new book Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland by Emile de Bruijn. The National Trust looks after a lot of grand piles. How nice it is to think of their staff studying the material culture therein. And then writing books on it.

The book gives tasty historical detail about how these sumptuous wallpapers arrived at their grand destinations; even what firms might have hung the papers. Made by professional painters in China, the wallpapers were shipped over ‘in the personal consignments of East India Company officials’ and sold to ‘luxury goods merchants and paper-hangers’. The designs were tailored to mid-eighteenth century European tastes for a certain representation of Chinese life.

Exotic and glamorous and indicative of how rich you were, the initial effect of these wallpapers is quite OMG to contemporary eyes. Very often the main ‘action’ takes place at the lower level of the wallpaper and then the ‘fill’ of flowers and tree branches runs riot up to the ceiling. Pattern writ large. In the photographs we have of the wallpapers in situ today, most of the colours are gracefully and tastefully degraded by time. Not all though – as the picture here of a detail of Chinese wallpaper at Cobham Hall, Kent of 1773, shows. There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing how mad, bad and dangerous to know colours could be in previous centuries.

 

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