Conservators at Woburn Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford, have found one of the oldest pieces of Chinese wallpaper in Britain hidden under multiple layers of newer wallpaper. Historic interiors expert Lucy Johnson was researching the decoration of the 4th Duke’s private bedchamber at the behest of the current Duchess of Bedford when she found an invoice from 1752 detailing the purchase of “India” paper, its cost and description. “India” was used as a generic reference to imports from Asia which were brought to England by the East India Company. Johnson also found a reference in the archives to a decorating firm with the excellent name of Crompton and Spinnage having hung India paper in the Duke’s bedroom in 1752.
With the archival evidence pointing to a possible treasure behind the wall coverings in the 4th Duke’s bedchamber, the Woburn Abbey team set about carefully stripping the built up layers in the hope that the first Chinese paper might still be there underneath. Small fragments were found during work in June, but in December they hit the motherlode: a large scene of a male silver pheasant surrounded by pink tree peonies and other flowers and a small bird in the lower left.
The decoration was hand-painted in Canton. The outlines were printed with engraved woodblocks and then colored in by hand with watercolors and gouache. The flora and fauna while native in China would have been exotic novelties in Britain. The fragment is one of the four earliest examples of Chinese wallpaper exported to Europe and it’s the best preserved of the four. Of the three other examples, one had to be extensively restored, once was overpainted and one is very small. The Woburn Abbey piece was covered up only thirty years after it was first hung, so the colors are still bright.
John Russell, the 4th Duke of Bedford, died in 1771. Within a decade or so after his death, his bedroom was converted to a staff room. The elegant Chinese paper was covered with a modest black-and-white block printed distemper paper. A renovation from the 1840s or 50s hung another block printed distemper paper, this one made by machine. The product was inexpensive and indication of the low status of the once-splendid room.
In 1955 Woburn Abbey opened to the public for the first time. The Duke’s former bedroom was converted to the visitor’s entrance and was renamed The Red Souvenir Room. A red embossed flock on pint moiré silk wall covering was installed over the old staff room wallpaper.
It went back to being the 4th Duke’s bedroom in 1977, when a set of 17th century Mortlake tapestries were hung on the walls and the room was redecorated to look like a proper bedroom. It still didn’t look anything like it had when the 4th Duke actually lived there, though.
Now that the all the layers have been exposed, the bedroom is the centerpiece of new exhibition, Peeling Back the Years: Chinese Wallpaper at Woburn Abbey.
The Duke’s private bedroom has been left in its ‘investigative state’ with the various layers of wallpaper on display alongside original documents and items used to make and preserve Chinese wallpaper today.
Visitors can then follow the trail upstairs to the brightly coloured Chinese room with floor to ceiling Chinese wallpaper dating back 1820. [...]
Within the house trail a selection of Chinese related artworks reflecting the collecting tastes of the Duke of Bedford chart the progression through the different rooms and periods. Outside in the gardens the second trail links to the depictions in both the 18th and 19th century wallpaper.
Next to the fragment of the original wallpaper in the Duke’s bedroom is a reproduction of how the whole wall would have looked when it was new. The repro was custom-made for the exhibition using traditional methods and materials in China.
The exhibition and garden trails will be open until September 28th.