Chinese design, English interiors

Alison Cooper, Curator Alison Cooper Curator
Wallpaper in the Chinese dressing room at Saltram

Saltram house contains four different types of Chinese wallpaper. They are undoubtedly beautiful but also extremely rare. Made in China in the 18th century, such wallpapers were exported specifically to Europe. Saltram’s wallpapers were probably put up in the 1750s or 60s at around the time John Parker and Lady Catherine were extending and remodelling Saltram.

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

Making wallpapers

The wallpapers were made by printing figures or scenes onto paper (in black and white). These were then coloured in – painted by hand. If you look closely, you can start to see how the wallpaper was cut to fit the room. Some of the scenes repeat and different styles of borders have been added. Look even more closely and you might be able to make out some of the figures and birds cut out by hand and pasted over the top – a real collage.

The Study at Saltram in Devon is decorated with a symmetrical arrangement of Chinese prints and paintings
A collage of about 60 Chinese paintings on paper and prints arranged symmetrically as wallpaper in the Study at Saltram
The Study at Saltram in Devon is decorated with a symmetrical arrangement of Chinese prints and paintings

Long Elizas

There are some really beautiful elements of design. In the dressing room, you can spot the tall, swaying figures often described as ‘long Elizas’ amongst porcelain vases, birds and flowers. In the study (which would have been a sitting room) a collage of these figures as well as landscape scenes are pasted together.

Early Chinese wallpaper at Saltram
Early Chinese wallpaper at Saltram
Early Chinese wallpaper at Saltram

Tea drinkers

My favourite has to be the wallpaper in the Chinese bedroom which depicts the manufacture of tea in all its different stages. You can see men collecting tea leaves or packing up tea crates whilst others stamp the tea down with their feet. Drinking tea had become very popular in England by the 18th century though it was very expensive. Only the rich could afford tea and so tea ‘parties’ were a chance to show off wealth and good taste. It was kept under lock and key in a tea caddy and only served in the finest china. To be able to show the process of tea manufacture on the very walls of the room, and in such a beautiful way, must have made a very impressive statement.

Close view of detail of eighteenth century Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram, Devon. The scene shows tea merchants in foreground and labourers treading the leaves in large baskets.
Close view of detail of eighteenth century Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram, Devon. The scene shows tea merchants in foreground and labourers treading the leaves in large baskets.
Close view of detail of eighteenth century Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Chippendale Bedroom at Saltram, Devon. The scene shows tea merchants in foreground and labourers treading the leaves in large baskets.

Public and private

Along with porcelain and items such as mirrors and lacquer furniture, traditionally private rooms like bedrooms and dressing rooms (mostly associated with women) were created ‘in the Chinese style’ known as chinsoierie. These rooms were the location for small, intimate gatherings of women. At such gatherings, tea drinking from fine porcelain would surely have featured and you can imagine how the wallpapers would have provided a fascinating talking point.

A close-up of a mid 18th century Chinese mirror painting of a woman in a blue silk robe with a child.
A close-up of a mid 18th century Chinese mirror painting of a woman in a blue silk robe with a child in a pink robe beneath trees. It hangs in a contemporary English rococo giltwood frame.
A close-up of a mid 18th century Chinese mirror painting of a woman in a blue silk robe with a child.