Chinese Paper-Hangings

Last month I wrote a general article about paper-hangings in the Regency. That was the first in a series of articles I have planned on various aspects of paper-hangings. In this article, I am going to focus on one of the more expensive and fanciful genres of paper-hangings, those imported from China, and the imitations of those papers made in Europe.

The Prince Regent was very fond of Chinese papers, and used them lavishly in his residences. And, of course, only the very best, and therefore the most expensive, papers would do for him. It was one of the reasons he was so heavily in debt for all of his various building and decorating projects. Following the Prince’s lead, Chinese papers began to appear in a number of great houses across England, and retained a certain popularity even into the Regency.

The first Chinese papers were imported into England in the late seventeenth century, but remained popular, and continued to be imported into Britain, well into the nineteenth century. Unlike the English and other European papers at that time, the papers from China were not a simple repeat pattern on each roll. Rather, each roll was a segment of an overall design which was meant to cover all the walls of a room. For a detail and view of an eighteenth-century Chinese paper recently restored and re-hung, visit the Harewood House East Bedroom page. These papers were also called "India" or "Japan" papers, as few in Europe yet fully understood the geography or political organization of countries in the Far East, what they called Cathay or the Orient.

The Chinese papers were made differently than those made in England. As in England, they were made up of smaller sheets pasted together of form lengths of about twelve feet long by about twenty inches wide. But in China, these pasted sheets were then pasted to a thin layer of white mulberry-fiber paper. This "paper laminate" was then painted with a white lead ground color. In the better quality papers, powdered mica was mixed in with the ground color, or dusted over the surface while still wet. This had the effect of smoothing the surface and giving the paper a soft, lustrous sheen. The outline of the design for each roll was drawn onto this surface, and then the outlines were filled in with paint, usually gouache or tempera, which resulted in rich, clear colors. Once this had fully dried, details and highlights were added last. Each roll was then lined with a thin paper made of bamboo, then another layer of mulberry paper. The rolls were then stretched on a wide board to dry, after which they were trimmed to size. Each roll was numbered to show the order in which it should be hung. An additional roll, or loose sheets with extra motifs, was usually included in most sets. These could be cut out and used to embellish the design or to hide poor joins after the paper was hung. All of these extra motifs were usually cut out and applied to the paper after it was hung, as Western taste prefered a busier and more dense design than did that of the East.

There were essentially three different types of designs in Chinese papers. The "bird and flower" type was the most common, and consisted of a plain-colored background over which was painted a lower area of a balustrade or a line of jagged rocks from which sprang flowering trees, with birds and butterflies perching in the upper branches. The next design type is filled with many human figures going about their daily activities. Such papers might include scenes of farming, tea cultivation, silk-weaving, or porcelain production. Most of these papers depict scenes from rural life, but there are a few which depict daily life in an urban setting. The third type is a hybrid of the "bird and flower" type and the figural type, in which the activities of the human figures are set in amongst the flowering trees, often observed by the birds which perch in their branches. Papers with any of these designs would have the bulk of the ornament at the bottom. In that way the papers could be adjusted for the height of the room in which they were hung by simply cutting away the excess paper at the top, which had the least amount of decoration. The "bird and flower" papers were the least expensive, the figural papers next highest in price, while the hybrid papers with both "bird and flower" and figures was the most costly. This last group ran to seven shillings a yard or more, whereas the "bird and flower" papers could be had for as little as four shillings a yard.

Because these Chinese papers were considered so valuable, they were seldom hung directly on the walls of a room. Instead, they were more often pasted to a very heavy paper or canvas foundation, which was then stretched on wooden battens. This framework was then mounted to the wall and could be easily removed if the room was to be redecorated, or if the owner should move to a new house. It is for this reason that so many Chinese papers survive to this day. One set in particular, which was hung in this way, is still in use in the Board Room of Coutts Bank in London. The paper was presented to Thomas Coutts by his friend, Lord Macartney, the first British ambassador to China, probably about 1794. Mr. Coutts had the paper hung on battens in the "Drawing Room" when Coutts Bank stood at Number 59 on the south side of the Strand. This drawing room served the same purpose as a board room does today, but the term "board room" did not come into use until about 1837. This paper hung in the drawing room of Coutts Bank through the decade of the Regency and into the next century. The bank was pleased to discover, in 1904, that since this valuable Chinese paper was mounted on battens, it could easily be moved when Coutts Bank moved to the premises it now occupies at Number 440 the Strand.

Chinese papers were imitated in England soon after they began to be imported. However, they were not hand-painted. Instead, they were printed with wood blocks, using distemper paints, as were most other paper-hangings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This meant they could be produced more quickly and thus more cheaply than imported Chinese papers. As with the Chinese papers, each roll within a set was numbered, but in addition, the better English sets often included a numbered diagram of the overall design showing the placement of each roll to aid in hanging. Most sets of paper also came with a spare roll, or several sheets of motifs, which like the imported papers, could be used to embellish the papers once they were hung, or to cover unsightly joins. These domestic papers tended to have more complex designs, but the lines were not as crisp nor were colors as bright and rich as those of the imported papers. However, since the domestic papers were also less expensive, they were more affordable than the imports.

London was the center of trade for the Chinese papers, both the imported and the domestic versions, during the later years of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, and both were very popular. The imported papers were to be seen in some of the more important rooms of great houses throughout England. The English-made papers were within the price range of the lesser gentry and the middle-class. All these papers were typically used in public rooms such as drawing or dining rooms, where they would be seen by visitors to the house. There was no point in having an expensive paper in your home if no one saw it. However, there were a few cases of very wealthy people who chose to hang Chinese papers in their better bedchambers, as at Harewood House.

Drawing rooms were an especially good place to show off Chinese papers, as by the end of the eighteenth century, and certainly by the Regency, furniture was no longer kept against the walls. Previous to the end of the eighteenth century, all the drawing room furniture would have been pushed against the wall when not in use. When guests arrived, the chairs were all pulled into a circle in the center of the room and everyone sat in that circle to converse. But by the end of the eighteenth century, more intimacy and informality was introduced into the English home, and it became common to keep the drawing room furniture in the center of the room arranged in small groupings. This change allowed for different activities to be enjoyed in different parts of the room at the same time. With the furniture moved into the center of the room, more of the walls were exposed and therefore made an excellent display for the Chinese papers. At about this time, dining rooms were being kept set up for meals at all times, rather than pushing the chairs against the wall and folding away the table, as had been done previously. Thus, the dining room walls were also a prime place to hang the Chinese papers.

Though by the Regency Chinese paper-hangings had declined from the height of popularity they had enjoyed in the late eighteenth century, they were still considered fashionable. Both the imported and the domestic Chinese papers were available in the paper-hanging warerooms of London, and could be found on the walls of well-appointed rooms across England. The Prince Regent retained his interest in chinoiserie right through the Regency, including that for Chinese paper-hangings, which helped to keep them in vogue.

A few short years before the Regency, the Prince of Wales made a gift of a set of expensive Chinese papers to a woman he barely knew. I suspect it was in an attempt to sway a decsion regarding the custody of a young child. Next week I will tell the story of the little girl and how a set of Chinese paper-hangings may have influenced the course of her life.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Chinese Paper-Hangings

  1. Pingback: The Regency Had No Wallpaper | The Regency Redingote

  2. Pingback: Lady Hertford’s Chinese Drawing Room | The Beau Monde

  3. Pingback: Before the Camera:   Bird Prints | The Regency Redingote

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