The British taste for Chinese wallpaper

As trade between Europe and China flourished in the 17th century, Europeans developed a strong taste for Chinese art and design. The stunningly beautiful wall coverings now known as 'Chinese wallpaper' were developed by Chinese painting workshops in response to western demand.

Some of the most significant Chinese wallpapers surviving in the British Isles are found at our places. Emile de Bruijn shows how these wallpapers became a staple ingredient of the British country house while always retaining a touch of the exotic.

Chinese wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk

A unique resource

We have 25 different Chinese wallpapers at 15 different Trust houses - the largest collection on permanent public display in the world. Discover some of the most notable.

Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese bedroom at Belton, depicting a garden party

Rhythm and elegance at Belton House 

This wallpaper at Belton House balances on the cusp between art and design. The culms and leaves of the bamboo have been painted in minute detail, but they are arranged in a deliberately rhythmical and elegant pattern. The figures in the foreground are depicted on a smaller scale than the bamboo. They have been beautifully painted, but like the birds and bamboo above, they are more like a pattern than a realistic scene.

Chinese Wallpaper depicting life in a suburb

Landscape as wallpaper at Blickling 

In China, wallpapers were not normally decorated with landscapes. However, landscape paintings played a prominent role in the Chinese artistic tradition, illustrating the dynamic harmony between man and nature. The European taste for using Chinese pictures as wall decoration may have prompted Chinese painting workshops to produce landscapes in a wallpaper format. This example at Blickling Hall shows a suburban setting of mansions and gardens against a backdrop of mountains.

The Chinese Room at Erddig

Erddig's picture room 

In response to the European demand for Chinese pictures, Chinese painting workshops began to produce sets of paintings on paper which could be pasted on the walls against plain backgrounds. The group of pictures depicting aspects of rice cultivation and silk production at Erddig 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.

Chinese wallpaper depicting ducks

Fine printing at Felbrigg 

Full-scale Chinese wallpapers, that is to say sets of tall paper sheets, seem to have been introduced in Europe in about 1750. These early wallpapers were woodblock-printed in black ink, with the colours added by hand. The printing blocks appear to have been very large, and the skill of the carvers was considerable, as can be seen in these vividly observed ducks in the wallpaper at Felbrigg Hall.

Chinese wallpaper with shrubs, trees, birds and insects

Mythical birds 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.

Chinese floral wallpaper with rocks, birds and insects against a blue background

Picturesque at Penrhyn 

The eclectic interiors of Penrhyn Castle include several Chinese wallpapers. By the time the castle was built in about 1830, these originally ‘exotic’ wallpapers had become an accepted part of high-end British interior decoration. This wallpaper in Penrhyn's Lower India Room represents a garden dotted with a number of picturesquely eroded ‘scholar’s rocks’. In the foreground the stone edging of a canal or pond can be seen, placed by the paper-hangers, perhaps deliberately, at the height were a dado rail might have been expected.

Chinese bird-and-flower wallpaper

Penryhn's original palette 

This section of wallpaper in Penrhyn's State Dressing Room was kept in store for many years and was only recently put up, to replace damaged sections. The colours are extraordinarily bright and saturated, reminding us that many Chinese wallpapers probably looked much less subdued and ‘tasteful’ than they do now.

A collage of about 60 Chinese paintings on paper and prints arranged symmetrically as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram

Symmetry at Saltram 

Saltram contains rare early schemes of Chinese ‘wallpaper’ consisting of collages of paintings and prints, probably created in the 1740s or 1750s. 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 must have been brought from Guangzhou (Canton) to Europe by an enterprising ship commander or merchant.

Chinese wallpapers at Saltram showing four carpenters making tea chests

Saltram's scenes of productivity 

One of the Chinese wallpapers at Saltram is a landscape showing scenes of the growing, harvesting, treating and packaging of tea. These images are derived from illustrated encyclopaedic treatises commissioned by Chinese emperors, recording and celebrating the industries and products of the realm. They promoted the ideal of a harmonious Confucian society, in which the emperor’s subjects are all happy and productive. In this section four carpenters, two young men and two older ones, can be seen working together making tea chests.

Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote, Kent

The craft of paper-hanging

Until recently, it was assumed that Chinese wallpapers were entirely painted by hand. But they were in fact partly woodblock-printed. The wallpapers had to be extensively cut and pasted in order to fit the panoramic scenery onto the walls of European mansions. Paper-hangers were highly skilled, removing sections to shrink the paper, or using artfully placed offcuts to make the paper taller or wider, or to hide awkward joins.