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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E3): Emile de Bruijn on Chinese Wallpaper, 1.28.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E3): Emile de Bruijn on Chinese Wallpaper, 1.28.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.


Season 3, Episode 3 explores a woodblock-printed wallpaper from 1750 (which survives in three magnificent British houses), that tells the story of the beginnings of China’s trade with the West, as well as the impact of Chinese design from the 18th century to today.

Emile de Bruijn is one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese Wallpaper. He worked in the Japanese and Chinese departments of the auctioneers Sotheby’s in London before joining the National Trust, where he is now a member of the central collections management team. Emile has lectured and published on many different aspects of chinoiserie in historic houses and gardens. He is the author of Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland (2017), and a co-author of the catalogue Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses (2014).

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 3:

Why are you so fascinated by Chinese wallpaper?

EB: It is one of those amazing aspects of British and Irish country houses that are hiding in plain sight. Often they have been ignored in the past but they are amazingly produced works of art. When I started working for the British National Trust…I started to research them.

It is a great example of a precise date for the installation of the wallpaper, which is rare. You can see the skill of the paper cutter as he has added several fragments at the bottom to extend the wallpaper. …The [design includes] pheasants representing beauty and the peonies symbolic of wealth and rank.

In the Autumn of 1751, the owner of this house…William Wyndham II, was grumbling about the cost to get a London paper-hanger to come all the way to rural Norfolk in order to install this Chinese wallpaper. You needed a specialist to hang these large sheets and panoramic scenery, and he mentioned that at 3 shillings sixpence per diem, and sixpence per mile traveling charges, he said ‘this is a cursed deal.’ This is a wonderful example of a client worrying about the cost of a redecoration project…”

Here you can see the wonderful wallpapers are not painted but woodblock printed. The blocks would be more than 2 meters in length.

We think these wallpapers came from Suzhou because that was an important center for printing- illustrated books and print. And it was a very sophisticated and wealthy city.

The Chinese were making plainer wallpapers for [their homes] but these were inspired by the demand in Europe. So it really becomes a global product. This painting here shows where the imagery came from as it has a really long tradition in Chinese art- this bird and flower imagery. In the Book of Songs, bird and flower imagery were appearing in the 10th century.

Dinda Elliott: It was the classical literati painters were viewed as artists. But these workers were considered more lowly, even though their work was exquisite.

EB: Yes, this kind of painting had relatively low status.

Dinda Elliott: This is beautiful art but it is fascinating to think of it as a business.

Yes, it was a luxury product and, in a way, it was art but it also shows how our conceptions of art were different.

These printed wallpapers spread throughout Europe after 1750, from Poland to Ireland and from Italy to Sweden. Very fashionable!

Why did printed wallpapers disappear? It seems odd that something handmade replaces something that was printed. But in 1757, the emperor restricted all foreigners to Guangzhou/Canton for various political and economic reasons, so it may have been less economical to get the printed wallpapers from the North in Suzhou. So painters in Guangzhou ramped up production of hand-painted wallpapers.

Chinese wallpapers became antiques from the end of the 19th century and onwards. They moved between houses and moved to America as well. It has become a composite cultural product.

Dinda Elliott: This really traces the story of East-West trade. The earliest pieces were the manifestation of that. And in the modern day, deGournay took a piece of this antique wallpaper to China several decades ago and asked if they could copy it. That was the beginning of the more contemporary producers of Chinese wallpaper.

Yes, this product is reincarnating itself. Companies like deGournay and Gracie are selling Chinese wallpapers to Chinese clients, and they appreciate the Chinese heritage that it represents, but it has also acquired an international chic. At its infancy it was a hybrid of East-West and it still is that today and that is part of its appeal!


Full Video of Pieces of China with Emile de Bruijn


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