I have been running around this week on the trail of identical, decorative motifs shared by the Woburn birds and flowers wallpaper hung in the 4th Duke’s private bedroom in 1752, the wallpaper hung in the same year in the Bow Window Room at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, the wallpaper at Ightham Mote in Kent (its secondary hang) in the drawing room and a fragment of the wallpaper hung in the Little Parlour at Uppark in West Sussex before it was re-decorated circa 1770 with a diaper-pattern wallpaper. The image above right is the Ooseley Bird on Chinese wallpaper at Woburn Abbey.
We knew that these wallpapers had many shared elements but I wanted to show without doubt that they were printed from the same woodblocks. So the Woburn Maintenance Team who can turn their hand to anything very carefully traced the outlines of the birds and flowers in the wallpaper onto melinex. Then I headed up to Felbrigg Hall on Monday where I was made very welcome and given as much time as I needed to look at the wallpaper, even though I had interrupted the housekeepers polishing the floor. The ooseley bird was an exact match confirming that the same woodblock was used to print this sheet which means that the wallpapers sharing this motif must have been made in the same workshop in Canton. I tantalisingly found a male, white pheasant hidden behind the bedhead curtain, but frustratingly it is different to the bird in the Woburn paper, although it is repeated at Ightham Mote. As hard as I tried I could not find a match with any of the peonies which was disappointing, but a great leveller as it is very easy to expect too much and we have been very lucky in our findings.
On my way home I popped into the Textile Conservation Studio who are painstakingly removing the old backing from fragments of the painted silk taffety which was used to upholster the beds and seat furniture in the 4th Duke’s private bedroom and the Duchess’s state bedroom. The archer on one of these fragments is reminiscent of those shown in the hunting scenes on the wallpaper at Oud Amelisweerd. I am also looking to see if I can make any connections with the painted taffety bed recorded in the Little Bed-Chamber at Houghton Hall. In 1772 Agneta York wrote that the bedrooms and dressing rooms at Osterley were furnished 'with the finest chintzes, painted taffetys india paper and decker work and such a profusion of rich China and Japan that I could almost fancy myself in Pekin', and maybe the fragment on the firescreen is a remnant of this. I am looking at the painted silk hangings at Saltram silks also, and if anyone has seen any other early examples please let me know.
Ightham Mote very kindly included me in their wallpaper study on Thursday where Andrew Bush, Paper Conservation Adviser, to the National Trust gave a fascinating talk and brought a number of handling pieces. My melinex template of the Woburn ooseley bird fragment was again an identical match proving without doubt that all three wallpapers were printed from the same woodblocks and therefore must have been made in the same workshop in Canton. I spent a fascinating afternoon with Andrew and some of the Ightham Mote staff looking for repeated images to identify the number of duplicated sheets in the wallpaper hang. Out of the 22 sheets, there were 16 individual designs and 6 repeats. There appear to be identical 3 sheets hung at Ightham and Felbrigg, one of which my fragment shows was also hung at Woburn. It is interesting how these drops are arranged to create a pictoral landscape as it is different in each case which infers that the hanger had artistic licence.
So how did sheets of the earliest, known,Chinese wallpaper imported into Europe, which we can now say were made in the same workshop in Canton, find their way to houses in North Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Kent? Crompton & Spinnage a firm of Knightsbridge decorators supplied Woburn and the architect James Paine is thought to have supplied Felbrigg and these wallpapers were hung within a few months of each other. There are no records showing who supplied the Ightham paper or where it had been hung before it was moved to the drawing room circa 1800, another mystery to solve. The next step is to see if I can find where Crompton & Spinnage and James Paine purchased these wallpapers which I suspect would prove that that a large quantity of this design of wallpaper was imported into England at the same time, and reveal how the sheets were grouped together and sold whether at auction or through an agent or other primary supplier. If all the sheets were imported together, I wonder how they were divided, whether this was organised by the importer and a random process based on number of sheets required for a room or if it was more discerning and the secondary buyer was allowed to chose the vignettes he liked best from a large selection.
Lots to think about.
Lucy Johnson (Historic Interior Consultant)