Discovering early Chinese wallpaper at Saltram

See collections website NT 871951

A crowd of figures covers the walls of the Chinese dressing room in Saltram, a magnificent Georgian mansion in Devon. This decorative scheme is a rare survival from the early history of Chinese wallpaper.

At first sight the scheme looks like a single panoramic wallpaper. But closer inspection reveals that it is a giant collage, made up of multiple copies of two different hand-coloured prints that had been imported from China.
 
Europeans began to use Chinese paintings and prints as wall decoration in the seventeenth century, initially inserting separate pictures onto their wall panelling.
 
The English paper hangers who created this particular scheme cleverly cut and pasted the prints onto a textile lining, thereby creating the impression of a continuous scene. They skilfully added cut-out figures, clipping around plant and rock motifs in order to make the scenery flow from one print to the next.
 
This is crucial evidence from the period when Chinese wallpaper was still a new product and different hanging techniques were being tried out. It is also an intriguing early example of the European fascination with Asian design.
 
The collage technique further represents a unique stage in the development of this type of wall decoration, before the emergence of purpose-made Chinese wallpaper in about 1750.
 

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