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Chinese wallpaper highlights in National Trust collections

Written by
Emile de BruijnAssistant National Curator, Decorative Arts, National Trust
A close-up of the Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese dressing room at Saltram depicting human figures, with an early 18th-century Arita porcelain figure visible on top of the mantel.
The Chinese wallpaper at Saltram | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

As trade between Europe and Asia grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans developed a taste for Chinese art and design. From the mid-18th century, Chinese wallpaper became a staple ingredient of the British country house. Discover some of the rare and significant Chinese wall coverings at the places in our care.

National Trust Chinese wallpapers

In the early 18th century, Europeans increasingly used Chinese prints and paintings as wall decoration. In response, Chinese artisans began to supply pictorial wallpapers to Europe, probably from the 1740s.

The National Trust looks after the largest collection of historic Chinese wallpapers on permanent public display in the world. Discover some of the most notable examples here.

Belton House: bamboo
The wallpaper at Belton has been painted with an intricate and rhythmical pattern of bamboo, climbing plants and birds against a pink background. The culms and leaves of the bamboo are painted in minute detail and arranged in a rhythmical and elegant pattern. The figures in the foreground are on a smaller scale and are more like a decorative frieze than a realistic scene.See the bamboo wallpaper at Belton
A close-up of Chinese wallpaper at Belton House, depicting bamboo, climbing plants and birds, with human figures in the foreground.
Chinese wallpaper at Belton House | © National Trust Images/Martin Trelawny
Suburbia at Blickling Hall
In China, wallpapers weren’t normally decorated with landscapes, but when Europeans began to use Chinese landscape paintings and prints as wall decoration, Chinese artisans responded by painting wallpapers with landscapes. This example with a suburban landscape of mansions and gardens survives at Blickling.See Blickling's landscape wallpaper
Erddig's picture room
In response to the European demand for Chinese pictures, Chinese painting workshops produced sets of paintings on paper which could be pasted onto walls. This group of pictures at Erddig, depicting aspects of rice cultivation and silk production, was probably installed in the 1770s. The taste for these Chinese ‘picture rooms’ may have influenced the fashion for ‘print rooms’, the practice of pasting European prints onto walls in symmetrical groups.See Erddig's Chinese pictures
Fine printing at Felbrigg Hall
Full-scale Chinese wallpapers seem to have been introduced in Europe around 1750. These early wallpapers were woodblock-printed in black ink, with the colours added by hand. The skill of the woodblock carvers in rendering naturalistic birds and plants is evident in this printed wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall.See Felbrigg's woodblock-printed wallpaper

Silk wallpaper at Saltram

Saltram is home to rare early schemes of Chinese ‘wallpaper’ consisting of collages of paintings and prints, probably created in the 1740s or 1750s.

The fireplace in the study at Saltram, Devon, surrounded by Chinese wallpaper
The study at Saltram, Devon | © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

In the study at Saltram

The pictures used in the Study, originally a private sitting room, show landscapes, cityscapes, human figures and deities. They appear to have been made for the Chinese market and may have been brought from Guangzhou (Canton) to Europe by an enterprising ship commander or merchant.

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Chippendale’s choice at Nostell
At Nostell Priory the cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale did not just supply the furniture, he also sourced and hung the Chinese wallpaper. In the state bedroom, Chippendale’s green and gold Chinese-style furniture harmonises beautifully with the luscious foliage depicted in the wallpaper. The birds and flowering trees appear to be realistic, but they also include a mythical phoenix.See Nostell's Chippendale collection
Penrhyn’s eclectic interiors
At Penrhyn Castle, Chinese wallpapers were combined with neo-Norman architecture and furnishings: in the eclectic taste of the 1830s, European medieval and Chinese were evidently compatible. The wallpaper in the Lower India Room represents a Chinese garden dotted with picturesquely eroded ‘scholar’s rocks’.See Penrhyn Castle's Chinese wallpaper
The carved oak bed and tables de nuit designed in the 1830s by Thomas Hopper in the Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle, with the Chinese wallpaper visible on the wall.
The Lower India Room at Penrhyn Castle | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel
Original colours at Penrhyn Castle
There’s an area of the Chinese wallpaper in Penrhyn’s State Dressing Room that was kept in store for many years and only recently hung to replace damaged sections. The colours are bright and saturated, demonstrating how much more colourful Chinese wallpapers looked when they were first hung.See the original wallpaper at Penrhyn
Adding colour at Ightham Mote
The Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote is another example of a woodblock-printed paper, and some sheets even used the same blocks as the paper at Felbrigg. The paper depicts birds, flowers, trees and rocks, and while the outline was woodblock printed, the colour was added by hand.See the wallpaper at Ightham

The craft of paperhanging

Until recently, it was assumed that Chinese wallpapers were always entirely painted by hand. In fact, the early examples made around 1750, like the paper at Ightham Mote, were partly woodblock printed. The Ightham paper also shows how Chinese wallpapers had to be extensively cut and rearranged to make them fit onto the walls of European mansions.

Close up of the mid-eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper, fireplace and mirror in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg House

Chinese wallpaper collections

Visit the National Trust Collections website to discover more Chinese wallpapers in our care.

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