The first Chinese wallpapers appeared for sale in Europe in the late 17th century. These hand-painted papers, and the chinoiserie (use of Chinese motifs and techniques) decorative styles they inspired, sparked a fashion that lasted more than a century. Most of the great houses of Europe had at least one room decorated with a Chinese paper, original or imitation.
Chinese wallpapers were supplied in sets of 25 or 40 pieces, each different in design, which could be hung to form a continuous mural decoration around the room. With their exotic subject matter – scenes of Chinese life and landscapes, or flowering trees populated with birds and butterflies – and their rich hand-painted colours and fine detail, they were unlike the wallpapers available in England at that time. Costly in comparison to locally-made wallpapers, they were bought and hung by the wealthy.
Chinese wallpapers arrived in England as part of the larger trade in Chinese artefacts, such as lacquer, porcelain and silks, that were imported by the East India Company – the British company formed to trade with East and Southeast Asia, India and China.
The popularity of these Chinese papers, despite their cost, was part of a wider ‘Sinomania’ – a fashion for all things Chinese. The appetite for oriental exotica was fed by the import of Chinese decorative goods and written accounts at the time that presented China as a sophisticated model society to rival Greece or Rome.
The enthusiasm for Chinese styles was reflected in their widespread use in 18th-century decoration. There was a playfulness and informality in the style that made them popular decorations for bedrooms and apartments, especially those used by women.
The earliest papers to arrive in Europe depicted scenes of daily life and industry in China in a variety of landscape settings. Another main class of Chinese paper was the so-called ‘bird and flower’ type, characterised by sinuous flowering trees, with birds and insects among the branches, all silhouetted against a coloured ground. Later modifications of this design introduced figures in the foreground, flowering shrubs in pots, and birdcages suspended from the branches above.
Chinese papers were relatively expensive and orders for specific designs or colourways could take up to 18 months to be delivered. It was not surprising then that English and French manufacturers sought to capitalise on this new fashion by producing imitations. The earliest examples demonstrate a poor understanding of the conventions of the Chinese designs. One early attempt from about 1700 and was found in Ord House, Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland. Unlike the Chinese originals, it is a repeating pattern with Chinese figures dwarfed by parrots and red squirrels, all set haphazardly amongst crudely drawn branches.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/chinese-wallpapers-and-the-chinoiserie-style