Felbrigg's Global Collections
Felbrigg Hall, close to the Norfolk coast, turns its stone and brick façade away from the sea. Yet to step into its rich interior is to encounter the wide world beyond rural East Anglia. Here are a multitude of objects that were crafted by people or fashioned from materials sourced far from Britain’s shores.
The price of elegance
Some of the rarest and most exceptional of these furnishings were acquired by the landowner William Windham II (1717–1761). Upon inheriting the estate in 1749, he set about transforming the mansion according to the period’s ideals of modernity and elegance with the help of his architect, James Paine (1717–1789).
This was a moment when cosmopolitanism – an outward-looking curiosity about the world – was a sign of distinction that wealthy gentlemen sought to display in their houses. Italy, the Netherlands, France, but also East Asia and the Caribbean Islands, are evoked in his changes to Felbrigg. Originating in many different parts of the world, its contents are assembled with an eye for refinement, detail and luxury.
Yet such fine things were not to be had without a cost. As Britain grew more prosperous in the 18th century, so too did the demand for foreign goods that were secured by ever-more penetrating and extensive trading and colonial activities. An understanding of Felbrigg’s precious contents is incomplete without an understanding of the history of conflict, and sometimes violence, that made them available.
Wallpaper from China
Windham included the art of East Asia in his new vision for Felbrigg. Fine ceramics and lacquered furnishings from that region are found throughout the main rooms of the house. This Asian presence is most apparent in the decoration of a dressing room on the first floor. Its walls were lined in 1752 with an exquisite Chinese block-printed and hand-coloured wallpaper depicting a flower garden inhabited by real and imaginary birds.
In China, these combined ‘bird-and-flower’ motifs had special significance. A pheasant evoked ‘beauty’, for instance, and an egret ‘incorruptibility’. Such connotations would have been lost on Windham, but that does not mean that these papers had no resonance beyond their surface attraction. At a time when an idealised vision of China was often contrasted with the perpetual conflicts of Europe, such an immersive interior could evoke a distant world of stability, prosperity and virtue.
By the mid-18th century, Britain’s East India Company, which held the monopoly on Asian imports, was importing large quantities of silk, tea and porcelain from China. Exceptional goods like wallpaper, however, were still rare. The Felbrigg paper marks a transition in the manufacture of Chinese papers. Prior to this, the papers used to line walls in Europe were pieced together and repurposed from rather small printed images intended for Chinese domestic consumption. At Felbrigg almost the entire height of each ‘drop’ was printed from a very large, single block, implying that they were made specifically to cater to this foreign fashion.
A few years after the Felbrigg papers were hung, the Chinese imperial authorities set new trading limits on the export market to restrict external influence on the county’s affairs. This seems to have curtailed European access to these large printed wallpapers, making the Felbrigg survival all the more remarkable.
Windham’s redecoration of the house included custom-made items of mahogany furniture. Prominent among these commissions was the large library table made in 1753 to a design by Paine. Like the rest of the new library, it was Gothic in style to fit with the pre-existing windows of the Jacobean façade. But if this table’s form was dictated by the Felbrigg’s past, the choice of its material was influenced by contemporary fashion and made possible by distant colonial exploits and slave labour.
Mahogany at this date was sourced from Britain’s Caribbean territories, primarily Jamaica. Though the conquest of the island took place in 1655, this tropical hardwood had only become desirable for furniture within Windham’s lifetime. As demand for mahogany grew, expeditions of enslaved Africans – the island’s workforce – were sent into virgin rainforest in search of ever-scarcer trees. Doubly destructive, this enforced labour was not only dangerous but wrought ecological damage that has yet to heal.
It was no secret that the Caribbean colonies were a slave economy, nor that mahogany was being harvested to virtual extinction. This knowledge did not diminish demand for the product, much less evoke widespread scandal. Instead, attention focussed on its remote tropical origins, the strength of its grain and the richness of its hue.
Though scant acknowledgement was made of the people whose forced labour supplied Britain’s imports of mahogany, a trace of their experience was unwittingly carried every time its name was uttered by Windham and his contemporaries. ‘Mahogany’ most likely comes from the word used in the Caribbean by enslaved Yoruban people from West Africa, whose word for ‘king of trees’ was M’Ogwano.
The Grand Tour
The Cabinet Room and Drawing Room at Felbrigg Hall are the epitome of mid-18th-century cosmopolitan opulence. Though elements have been altered, these interiors remain, in essence, as envisioned by Windham and Paine. The combination of swirling French-style gilt carving, East Asian ceramics, and Dutch and Italian pictures was precisely what you would expect to see in up-to-date interiors all across Europe. The goal was to create an atmosphere of modern sophistication rather than anything strictly classical or distinctively English.
Windham acquired these worldly credentials in the usual way for a wealthy young man of his time – by making a Grand Tour. This was a journey through continental Europe designed to round off a gentleman’s education by exposure to famous sites and foreign cultures. Windham’s was a long Tour, lasting between 1738 and 1742. An extended stay in Switzerland resulted in an engagement to Elisabeth de Chapeaurouge, daughter of the First Syndic of Geneva, which he broke after eleven years and considerable expense.
No Grand Tour was complete without a stay in Rome, the epicentre of European artistic culture and classical scholarship. In that city, ancient Roman history, which would have been the backbone of Windham’s boyhood education, took physical form in its array of antiquities and excavations. He marked this experience by acquiring architectural books and 32 views of Rome and its surroundings by Giovanni Battista Busiri (1698–1757). These eventually took pride of place in the Cabinet Room, which was hung according to Windham’s precise directions.
Dutch paintings and global expansion
Windham visited the Low Countries on the final leg of his Grand Tour. It is possible that it was during this stay that he acquired a taste for 17th-century Dutch painting, and perhaps some of the pictures that now feature prominently in the Cabinet and Drawing Rooms. His preference was for maritime scenes, particularly grand depictions of sea battles. As an art-lover and amateur boatbuilder, Windham was probably drawn to these painting by the fame of their artists and the range of vessels they depict. Today, they also speak pointedly of the global advance of European commercial and colonial interests.
A large painting in the Cabinet Room depicts an allied fleet of Dutch East India Company ships and Chinese junks attacking pirates in the South China Sea, close to the port of Xiamen. It was painted in the Dutch Republic in 1650 by Simon de Vlieger (1601–1653) but depicts events that occurred 20 years earlier.
At that time, the Dutch were combating piracy in the region in order to secure their sea routes and colonies, having supplanted the Portuguese as the world’s leading maritime trading power. By co-operating with the Chinese, the Dutch East India Company also hoped to increase its access to their vast market. They were to be disappointed however.
Another of Windham’s impressive sea battle paintings is a depiction of the Battle of Texel by Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611–1693). Fought in 1673, this was the concluding battle of three successive wars waged between the English and the Dutch over the course of the 17th century.
The causes of the conflict included English ambitions to supplant the Dutch as the leading power in global trade. Near the North Sea island of Texel, the Dutch navy successfully defended the return of a huge shipment of spice from South East Asia from interception by the English and their French allies. Although 100 years of peace with the Dutch followed, Britain’s East India Company and its other trade monopolies substantially outcompeted their Dutch counterparts, supporting Britain’s emergence as an imperial superpower in the 18th century.
A window on the world
The works of art that Wyndham brought to Felbrigg demonstrate the sheer range of high-quality international goods available to the wealthy consumer in the middle of the eighteenth century. The rooms in which he lived announced a sophisticated taste that encompassed everything from Chinese wallpaper to Old Master paintings to tropical hardwoods.
But the elements of these cosmopolitan interiors were not obtained at an equal cost. While European works were obtained through the art market, East Asian goods came through trade routes that were secured through armed conflict and colonial expansion. Prized mahogany furniture was fashioned from timber felled by the enforced labour of enslaved, dislocated people in a land obtained through conquest.
Felbrigg is both a remarkable survival of 1750s luxury, and a precious insight into the complex, often painful, global situation that made it possible.