The hidden meaning in Chinese design at our places

Half of a Chinese incised lacquer screen decorated with birds and flowers, late 17th Century, at Ham House

There’s a lot more than meets the eye with Chinese design, which is what makes it so fascinating. Emile de Bruijn, our expert in Chinese design, explores the story behind some of the designs at the places we look after.

The symbolism of birds and flowers has been used as a visual language in China for many centuries to express wishes and aspirations, as well as reflecting the traditional Chinese view of the world.

Like classical decoration in the West, bird-and-flower decoration provides a kind of symbolic ‘scaffolding’ for Chinese art and design. By using a combination of symbols, an object can create a certain meaning, or a room can be given a particular atmosphere.

In Chinese art, a peony is never just a peony, it is also ‘honour’. Likewise, a gnarled pine tree stands for ‘long life’. When the pine is combined with the bamboo and the plum, they are known as the ‘three friends of winter’.  Since all three plants stay green or flower during the cold months, they convey a sense of perseverance and grace under pressure.

Large Chinese porcelain bowl decorated with peonies and other flowers and birds, mid-18th century, at Wallington / NT 581662
Large Chinese porcelain bowl decorated with peonies and other flowers and birds, mid eighteenth century, at Wallington

The arrival of Chinese design

From the 17th century onwards, Chinese silks, lacquers and porcelains came to Europe in large numbers. The flower-and-bird motifs came with them, although Europeans generally didn’t understand the symbolic meanings ‘written’ into the scenery. The European fashion for oriental design was motivated by an admiration for its elegance and the intricacy of the craftsmanship.

A bird-and-flower product that was particularly popular in Europe in the 18th century was Chinese wallpaper. The Chinese themselves didn’t really have floral wallpaper. However, when the Chinese painting workshops in coastal Guangzhou realised there was a demand, they developed what we now know as ‘Chinese wallpaper’.

Phoenix on a Chinese embroidered silk coverlet, on the state bed at Calke Abbey, early 18th Century / NT 291768
Phoenix on a Chinese embroidered silk coverlet, on the state bed at Calke Abbey, early 18th Century

See bird-and-flower designs at our places

Erddig, Wales

The Chinese wallpaper in the State bedroom at Erddig is great example of this style, as it includes many different birds and flowers. The decorative rocks are a giveaway that the scenery is not just symbolic, but also represents a garden.

Bateman’s, East Sussex

As trade between Asia and Britain took off in the late 17th century, products from India, China and Japan became hugely popular. Asian style also influenced British products, such as embossed and painted leather wall hangings, an early form of ‘wallpaper’. Hangings like the ones surviving at Bateman’s show a mixture of motifs taken from Indian chintzes, Chinese silks and European baroque designs.

Detail of leather wall hangings in the dining room at Bateman's, East Sussex / NT 761029
Detail of leather wall hangings with oriental design in the Dining Room at Bateman's

Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk

The Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall was hung in 1752, and is one of the earliest wallpapers of its kind to survive. At first sight it looks like it was painted, but it was actually made from very tall woodblock prints. The black outlines of the scenery were printed, but the colours were added by hand.

Close-up of the mid-18th century wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg House, Norfolk / NT 1400532
Close up of the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom at Felbrigg House, Norfolk

Saltram, Devon

You can see a beautiful example of the Chinese wallpaper in one of the bedrooms at Saltram. Painted onto silk, the design follows the conventions of traditional Chinese landscape painting, with different types of trees given their own style of foliage, depicted with specific types of brushstrokes.

The Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram, Devon / NT 872999
A young woman in the Chinese Chippendale bedroom at Saltram, Devon.

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset

The popularity of Asian lacquer led to various English imitations. You can see this at Lytes Cary, where a tea caddy was painted in a type of imitation lacquer from the Regency period (early 19th century). The pseudo-Asian motifs were painted in white on a black background, and the details were then added in black Indian ink, with a quill pen.