Chinese Wallpaper at Belton House
The Chinese wallpaper at Belton House is a vision of a China that never was. Graceful birds flit among sinuous bamboo culms, while down below elegantly dressed human figures gesticulate charmingly. It all has the quality of a fairy tale.
Such wallpapers were made in China, using Chinese materials and techniques, but with a European market in mind. The paper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton was hung in about 1840, but by then Chinese wallcoverings had already been popular in Britain for 150 years.
In the late-17th-century, the growing trade between Asia and Europe brought goods like tea, porcelain, lacquer, silk and chintz to Britain. China was admired, not just for its advanced and beautiful products, but also for its history and culture. To display Asian lacquer, porcelain and silk in one’s house was to project an image of sophistication and cosmopolitanism.
British craftspeople soon began to replicate elements of Asian art and design. Two tapestries at Belton, commissioned from the London designer John Vanderbank the elder in 1692, are decorated with pseudo-Asian scenes. The overall composition of the tapestries is inspired by Chinese lacquer, but the details are inspired by the illustration in a book about Japan. This was called the ‘Indian manner’ meaning it represented a general evocation of ‘the East’.
Newspaper advertisements from the late-17th-century also begin to mention ‘India paper’ and ‘India pictures’. These appear to have been Chinese paintings and prints, which were pasted on walls as a kind of collage wallpaper. English wallpaper was also developing around this time, and some of it was decorated with ‘Indian’ scenery, like the much more expensive tapestries mentioned above.
News of this European enthusiasm for Chinese wallcoverings must have made its way to China, because in the late 1740s the first Chinese pictorial wallpapers – tall sheets of paper with images of birds and flowers or landscapes – began making their way back to Europe. Initially, these wallpapers were woodblock-printed: amazingly, each sheet of more than two meters tall appears to have been printed off a single carved wooden block.
However, in 1757 the Chinese government banned European traders from all Chinese ports except the southern city of Guangzhou, then called Canton. This seems to have made it less economically viable for the Europeans to obtain the printed wallpapers, which were most likely produced in the cities of the Yangzi river delta, further north. So from about 1760 Chinese export wallpapers were fully hand-painted and probably made in Guangzhou.
Many Chinese wallpapers reflected the longstanding tradition of bird-and-flower paintings. Such pictures celebrated the beauty of Chinese gardens, but they were also full of auspicious symbolism. For instance, ducks stand for ‘fidelity’, egrets for ‘incorruptibility’ and peonies for ‘rank’. However, Europeans appear to have generally been unaware of these hidden meanings and to have appreciated the wallpapers mainly for their sheer visual beauty and finesse.
Like any savvy producer, the wallpaper painting workshops added new elements to the scenery from time to time, to keep the western consumers interested. Towards the end of the 18th century, we see different colours being used for the backgrounds, and embellishments such as birdcages hung in the trees and jardinières placed on rockwork pedestals.
The wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Belton shows one of these stylistic innovations, namely the addition of human figures in the foreground. These figures were copied from genre paintings depicting the different Chinese classes, trades and occupations. The prominent bamboo in the Chinese Bedroom wallpaper was also a new feature that appeared in the early-19th-century.
As time went on Chinese wallpapers became more stylised – more like design than art – although they were still skilfully hand-painted. This can also be seen in the wallpaper in the Bamboo Bedroom at Belton (not normally open to the public), with its elegantly poised trees and almost abstract, white-painted bamboo.
Chinese wallpapers were generally hung in bedrooms, dressing rooms and drawing rooms in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were rooms associated with women, where the ladies of the house could receive members of their family and their more intimate friends. In this sense, the use of Chinese decoration had definite feminine connotations and it was hardly ever used in the more formal or ‘male’ rooms such as hallways, saloons, dining rooms or libraries.
Over time Chinese wallpapers turned from being exotic rarities into becoming an accepted, almost expected element of the British country house. Their inherently strong visual integrity, based on centuries of Chinese painting practice, made them adaptable to many different styles of interiors, from rococo to neoclassical and from Victorian to Art Deco. Chinese wallpapers are now recognised as an import element of both Chinese and European heritage.