There has been so much activity over the past couple of months in the build up to the opening that we were unable to blog. Now that the exhibition is open, the intention is to post a weekly blog covering what has been happening and focussing on the different elements of Chinoiserie at Woburn as well as the variety of events that will be taking place during the summer.
We were very honoured that Mr Cong Peiwu, Minister of the Chinese Embassy in London, opened the exhibition and planted a tree peony in the area around the Chinese Dairy to commemorate this, reinstating a planting scheme recorded in 1833. We invited everyone who had contributed to the exhibition to the opening as so many people have helped in different ways and we wanted to acknowledge this and celebrate everyone’s efforts. The event was filmed by ITV Anglia and if you click on the following link you can see the television footage.
This exhibition is enriched by the generosity of the lenders, and all the loan exhibits are being shown publically for the first time. These period wallpapers reveal previously unknown decorative history in the rooms that they have come from at Woburn Abbey and two other houses once owned by the Dukes of Bedford. They help to illustrate that Chinoiserie was widely used by the 4th, 5th and 6th Dukes and an important element of their decorative taste.
The V&A have loaned a sheet of a Chinese wallpaper circa 1810/20 which was formerly at Woburn. We discovered the existence of this wallpaper last year as well as a family photograph showing it hanging in Lady Ermyntrude’s Sitting Room in January 1884. Lady Ermyntrude was the younger daughter of Francis, the 9th Duke of Bedford, known as Hastings. She was 28 years old when her elder sister Ella took this photograph of their younger brother Herbrand aged 26 standing in front of the wallpaper which is significant as it establishes without doubt that the wallpaper came from Woburn. This wallpaper is characterized by the white flowers and foliage of the upper sections of the larger trees which would have appeared as a bright, shimmering white contrasting with the coloured areas.
Hotel Endsleigh has lent a sheet of a Chinese wallpaper from around the same date, circa 1810/20, which was formerly in the Chinese Room, at Endsleigh Cottage, the family residence on the Tavistock estate. This was the main guest bedroom, situated above the dining room and the room is still hung with the original Chinese wallpaper and used as a bedroom today. A number of Chinese wallpapers were hung at Endsleigh when the house was built which must have given this English idyll an exotic and luxurious character. The main feature of this wallpaper are the large, flying, perching and ground birds with vibrant and extensive plumage.
Oakley House have loaned two sections of wall paneling covered with a Chinese wallpaper which we have discovered was hung by the 5th Duke circa 1790 and was still in situ in the hall in 1935. This wallpaper is quite different to the others as it has fewer Oriental motifs and the main element of the pattern shows floral sprays tied with ribbons. In the process of our research we discovered that circa 1920 a dolls house was made as a replica of Oakley house, and a hand-painted replica of this wallpaper is hung in the hall. This is the only dolls house that we are aware of depicting Chinese wallpaper and we are hoping to be able to include this as a loan exhibit in the exhibition in the summer.
The National Portrait Gallery have generously loaned the four, large, display cabinets which has enabled us to create complementary displays and interpret how Chinese wallpapers were made and are conserved today.
Conservator Mark Sandiford has lent a selection of brushes, pigments and Oriental papers to show the materials and equipment that he uses to conserve Chinese wallpapers.
Three sheets of Chinese wallpaper have been recreated by de Gournay who have worked with us to draw on the original fragments discovered in the 4th Duke’s Bedroom and the designs of the wallpapers at Felbrigg Hall and Ightham Mote which are related to this. These panels give an impression of how fresh and vibrant the colours were and how striking the wallpaper would have looked. The period viewer would have been amazed and entertained by the exotic flowers, birds, animals, figures and landscape, which are familiar to us, but would have been novel for them. De Gournay have made this wallpaper using materials and methods that have remained almost unchanged over the three centuries since the original was block printed and hand painted, giving a fascinating glimpse into the past. They have also lent a selection of materials and equipment that they use in making hand painted Chinese wallpaper today and it is interesting to see how similar they are to those used in the conservation process which are traditionally based on those that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Working closely with a variety of organizations and individuals has broadened the scope of the exhibition and shows how many different skills are represented. We will focus on some of the other people and companies who have supported and worked with us in future blogs as well as looking at these wallpapers in more depth.
Her Grace, The Duchess of Bedford and Lucy Johnson (Historic Interior Consultant)