‘Chinese Wallpaper: Trade, Technique and Taste’: Part 1

International conference, London, 7-8th April 2016

The subject of Chinese wallpaper was the basis of a two-day conference jointly held by the National Trust and the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. A variety of speakers discussed the history, production and conservation of Chinese wallpaper, focusing on the western market’s appreciation of this luxurious product.

Chinese wallpaper became popular in the West in the 1750s, when it was imported to Europe by the East India Company. The traditional structure of the wallpaper is a laminate of three layers of varying paper thickness adhered with starch paste, on which a design is printed, painted or a combination of the two. Popular designs featured flora and fauna typically found in Chinese gardens, while rarer examples depicted panoramic scenes of industry, hunting or everyday life.

The first day of the conference was held at Coutts bank, whose boardroom at 440 Strand, London features a figural landscape wallpaper depicting scenes of Chinese industry, which was given to Thomas Coutts in 1794. Throughout the day, groups of conference delegates were shown inside the boardroom to see the wallpaper, which had been recently conserved. Its conservator, Allyson McDermott, answered questions on the paper’s conservation and on dealing with the difficulties of working on a project of such scale and importance in a room that was very much still in use. The wallpaper originally hung at Coutts’ former location at 59 Strand and had suffered a lot of damage during its removal and re-installation in the new building in the 1970s. Conservation treatment in early 2015 had successfully cleaned and stabilised the fragile wallpaper.

The speakers during the first session of the day included Emile de Bruijn (National Trust), whose paper ‘Chinese Wallpaper: A Global Product’ looked at the history of Chinese wallpaper’s popularity throughout the world. Anna Wu (V&A and Royal College of Art) described the imagery depicted in Chinese figural landscape wallpaper in ‘The Chinese Wallpapers at Coutts & Co., Mobilising Images of Chinese Life and Industry’. She was followed by Dr Patrick Conner, who spoke on ‘Chinese Wallpaper and Cantonese Export Painting: the Strathallan “Drummond” Wallpaper (Peabody Essex Museum)’.

During the next session, speakers included Dr Xiaoming Wang, whose paper ‘Chinese Woodblock New Year Prints and Paintings Used as Wallpaper in Europe in the Eighteenth Century’ looked at the overlap and influences between the two artistic mediums. Dr Max Tillmann then spoke about the Chinese Baroque style at the Nymphenburg Palace, displayed in its beautiful Chinese-style wallpapers, in ‘Chinese Wallpapers and sensual exoticism at the Badenburg, Munich’. The session was closed by Beate Murr, whose paper ‘Chinese Wallpapers in the MAK Collection, Vienna’ focused on a conservation project in 2013 at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art to stabilise Chinese export wallpaper. Beate spoke about the technicalities and issues of conserving such large and delicate objects.

The conference’s first afternoon session began with ‘Chinese Paper as Commodity’, a presentation by Ming Wilson exploring the limited trade of Chinese paper products to the Middle East and Europe before the 19th century and the reasons behind this. The next speaker was David Skinner, whose paper ‘Using and Marketing “Indian Pictures” in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Dublin’ analysed the history of Chinese export art on paper in Ireland, using advertisements of the time as sources. Dr Claire Taylor followed with ‘”A Large Assortment of Curious India Paper”: the Eighteenth-Century English Market for Chinese Wallpaper’, which looked at the journey of this coveted product from China to the walls of British homes and the role of the English tradesmen in this process.

The final session of the first day began with ‘Red, Black and Gold, and as Glossy as Possible: Modernism, Orientalism, Fashion and Wallpaper’, a paper from Dr Sarah Cheang that explored the popularity of chinoiserie in many aspects of design during the 1920s. Lizzie Deshayes, in ‘Chinoiserie and the Modern Aesthetic’, then demonstrated the enduring popularity of Chinese style in wallpaper, with reference to the designs of Fromental, the interior design company for which she is Design Director. The final speaker of the day was Dominic Evans-Freke, one of the owners of wallpaper designers and manufacturers de Gournay, who gave an overview of current practice in ‘Contemporary Chinese Wallpaper Manufacture: To What Extent Have Modern Materials and Processes Changed the Time-Honoured Methods of Making Wallpapers in China for the Export Trade?’

The second day of the conference was held at the V&A, and the talks had a greater focus on the conservation of Chinese wallpapers. Andrew Bush spoke on ‘Early Full-Height Block-Printed Chinese Wallpapers in the United Kingdom’, examining the characteristics of this popular product in Britain during the 1750s. He was followed by Thomas Brain, who described the conservation of two figural landscape wallpapers, one of a hunting scene and one of a dragon boat race, on the walls of a country house in The Netherlands. His paper was titled ‘Observations Made During the Conservation Treatment of Chinese Landscape Wallpaper at Our Amelisweerd’. T.K. McClintock then presented ‘Chinese Export Wallcoverings: Their Conservation as Western and Asian Works’, which analysed the necessity of incorporating Eastern conservation techniques with Western practice when treating Chinese export wallcoverings.

Allyson McDermott began the next session with ‘The Conservation of Chinese Wallpapers’, in which she drew on past projects that she and her conservation team had worked on, to illustrate the relevant processes and necessary considerations. Pauline Webber’s paper, ‘The Conservation and Restoration of Chinese Wallpapers: An Overview’, presented by Andrew Bush, gave detailed and useful explanations of various conservation methods tailored to Chinese wallpaper, in particular the importance of linings and supports.

After lunch, the delegates were taken in separate groups to visit the V&A’s British Galleries, Study Room and Paper Conservation Studio, in the latter to see a wallpaper lining workshop conducted by Senior Paper Conservator Susan Catcher.

An optional third day of the conference included a visit the Brighton Pavilion to view the Chinese wallpapers in its collection.

The conference was a fascinating exploration and discussion on a prominent element of interior design that highly influenced western taste. The papers no doubt prompted delegates to look out for the impressive examples of Chinese wallpapers found in interiors across the country.

Check back next week for Part 2, which describes the lining process demonstrated in the workshop at the V&A.

Stephanie Jamieson is in the final year of her MA in the conservation of art on paper at Camberwell College of Arts. For her course final project, she has been conserving National Trust wallpaper fragments from Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire.

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