Chinoiserie Henrietta Marble Hill Revived

The Chinese Wall Paper in the Dining Parlour

The principal display in this room is the Chinese wall paper, which English Heritage installed in 2006. The original wall paper has now been lost. The room had been remodelled by Matthew Brettingham before installation of the wallpaper. We know from the surviving 18th century letters and accounts, that Henrietta Howard installed Chinese wall paper here in 1750s. In particular there is correspondence between Bromwich, a well-known upholsterer, and her steward, in which Bromwich said that if payment of 42 guineas is not made for this wallpaper, a Mr. Hallett, who had installed the paper, will “sue her Ladyship.” In the 18th century an upholsterer was responsible for the overall decoration and the closest modern equivalent is the interior designer.

The first Chinese papers appeared in London in the late C17th. The earliest papers to arrive in Europe were the figure subjects, with scenes of daily life and industry in a variety of landscape settings, such as at Bickling Hall, where Henrietta was born. The taste for oriental exotica dates back to the beginning of the C17th when the East India and Dutch East India companies were founded. There was a growing taste for such goods in the latter part of the C17th. However, Europeans made little distinction between what was Chinese, Japanese or Indian. These were used indiscriminately. So the same wallpaper might be described as Indian or Chinese without regard of where it came from. There was additional confusion caused by the fact that the term ‘Japan’ also meant the European method of imitating Chinese lacquer. The name “India” was probably used because the East India Company had the monopoly of the China trade. The degree of confusion is summarised by the comment of the diarist Lady Mary Coke, who said that the Indian Room at Richmond Lodge looks like Japan.

These hand-painted papers, and the home-grown Chinoiserie styles they inspired, sparked a fashion which lasted more than a century. In due course most of the greatest country houses had at least one room decorated with a Chinese paper. The Chinese papers were a novelty in many respects. With their exotic subject matter such as scenes of Chinese life and landscape, or flowering trees populated with birds and butterflies and their rich colours and fine detail, they were quite unlike the wallpapers then available in England. No doubt their rarity made them even more desirable. Chinese wallpaper was costly in comparison to locally manufactured wallpaper, so it tended to be mostly hung in the homes of the upper classes. However the playfulness and informality about Chinese styles made them popular decorations for the apartments used by women, thus Chinoiserie was seen as essentially feminine.

When English Heritage installed this wall paper, they ensured that the same techniques were used as their predecessors would have done in the 18th century. English Heritage commissioned the leading expert De Gournay who used local Chinese artists in their studio in China. Paper here is composed of white mulberry paper backed with another layer of mulberry paper. All the painting is done with two brushes, one to hold the paint and the other to hold water. Before hanging the wallpaper, the wall was lined with battens of timber. Superfine unprimed linen was stretched over the battens and linen paper was then pasted to the linen It was decided to use the bird and flower decoration, which was based on an amalgam of different styles from Chinese wall paper in various English country houses of the early and mid 18th century.

This article is based in part on book by Gill Saunders “Wallpaper in Interior Decoration” and also on notes supplied by Cathy Power of English Heritage.