Last edited 08 Sep 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland

Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland.jpg
Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland, Emile de Bruijn, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017, 272 pages, 154 colour and 15 black and white illustrations, hardback.

This book represents a long-awaited discourse on these beautifully produced, colourful wallpapers which were manufactured in China for the European export market and became fashionable forms of decoration in the homes of the British and Irish gentry and elite from the 17th century onwards. For several decades this subject has been touched on by decorative art and country house historians as well as conservators, who have all contributed vital information to its study, while at the same time raising further tantalising questions in the search to more fully understand these beautiful objects.

De Bruijn, who has a background in Asian art, currently works at the National Trust, which owns the largest single collection of Chinese wallpapers in the UK. This book represents several years of work spent comprehensively collating the cross-disciplinary information, and the addition of the author’s own input to the scholarship. The work also helps elucidate the previous seminal work on the subject, Chinesische Tapetenfür Europa; vom Rollbildzur Bildtapete by Friederike Wappenschmidt (to whom de Bruijn’s book is dedicated), and which remains a largely untapped resource to non- German speaking scholars.

De Bruijn’s book is highly readable, with plenty of appropriately sized, full-page colour illustrations of these exquisite wallpapers, which serve to extend the appeal of the book beyond the academic and professional to a much wider readership. There is also a map of the known locations in Britain and Ireland where these wallpapers still survive. The chapters themselves are organised in chronological order, starting in 1600 and ending in the present day.

Within this, they broadly (if sometimes with inherent difficulty) divide into the traditional historiographic groupings based on their exotic imagery – for example, those depicting Chinese architecture, Chinese flora and fauna, or Chinese traditions. Along the way, the chapters explore fascinating issues relating to the wallpapers, including the links between East and West that made the trade in Oriental goods possible, the Oriental symbolism behind the imagery, and the attitudes, cultural associations and status that both the Chinese wallpaper manufacturers and their European consumers each ascribed to these decorative luxury goods.

The book also tackles the less well understood revival of interest in Chinese wallpapers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this, de Bruijn describes the vogue for the acquisition, rehanging and reinterpretation of antique Chinese wallpapers within contemporary decorative schemes, in particular the art deco interiors of the 1920s and 1930s. The book ends with a chapter on today’s burgeoning luxury market in reproduction Chinese and chinoiserie wallpapers, indicating the enduring commercial value, cultural connotations and associations with prestige that these stunning wallpapers represent.

This article originally appeared as ‘Oriental images’ in IHBC’s Context 155, published in July 2018. It was written by Phillippa Mapes, historic wallpaper conservator and research consultant.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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