Chinese Wallpaper Case Study: The Importance of Gifts

The Importance of Gifts


Burton constable 1 reduced

Figure 6. Detail of the Chinese wallpaper in the Chinese Room at Burton Constable, East Yorkshire. With kind permission of the Burton Constable Foundation.

There was another route which Chinese wallpaper took from the workshops of Canton to the country houses of Britain. The gifting of Chinese wallpaper dominates their history, although it is difficult to verify any of the stories connected with these presents. (See Case Study of William Rattray of Downie Park) It has been suggested, although not substantiated with evidence, that ‘sets of painted wallpaper were specially created by Chinese merchants to give as gifts to finalize deals with their European trading partners’.[1]   Within a culture that placed great emphasis on ritualised gift-giving, this strategy appears possible. Through gifting, these expensive commodities slipped their economic context, and gained a separate and higher level of existence. The reciprocity of a business transaction, for example the purchase of Chinese wallpaper from a London shop, was both immediate and specific, a self-enclosed episode, while acquisition by gift was more complex.

a) Kings, Queens and Royal Mistresses

Although it has been impossible to verify any of these gifting ‘stories’, whatever their truth, the activity indicates that they were given a high status, especially when the gifting was frequently connected with royal favour. It is from the 1780s that the narratives of ‘imperial’ and ‘royal’ gifts of Chinese wallpaper begin to appear, perhaps as a reaction to the increasing prevalence of wallpaper from the 1750s, in an attempt to make some more distinct than others? Charlotte Abrams reporting in a current fashion bulletin makes a note that must have been as appropriate in the eighteenth century as now, ‘that the trend [of hanging expensive wallpapers] is so ubiquitous it is becoming increasingly tricky to keep ahead of one’s paper-buying friends.’[2]

The earliest story of the gift of Chinese wallpaper found so far, is connected with the royal physician Dr John Turton (1735-1806).  Appointed in 1772 as George III’s doctor, Turton had duties which involved delivery of the numerous royal babies. His role made him a great favourite of Queen Charlotte. On his retirement in 1786, Turton left Adam Street, in the Adelphi, where he had been a neighbour of the actor David Garrick, and bought Brasted Place in Kent, which he immediately demolished and began rebuilding and decorating with the assistance of Robert Adam.  Several royal favours included ‘a wall-paper which had originally been sent by the Emperor of China as a present to King George III and was bestowed on Dr Turton by the Queen’.[3] Some accounts say the paper was put up in the billiard room, others in the drawing room, the latter was more likely. The paper was recorded in situ at Brasted by English Heritage, where it is described as ‘2 panels of Chinese wallpaper depicting scenes of everyday life’, some removed to Kent Museum.[4]  Papers depicting this type of scene, and those illustrating Chinese manufactures, were more expensive than other types of Chinese wallpaper, such as those with trees and birds, and the largely forgotten plain and patterned ones. Using data from Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses, it is clear that papers with these patterns were also unusual accounting for only 20, that is 15 per cent of the total of known patterns. ‘Papers decorated with flowering trees and plants, birds, insects and rocks, representing idealised gardens’ were more popular (and more affordable), accounting for 95, that is 60 per cent of all examples collated so far.[5]

The greatest number of Chinese wallpapers seems to survive from the period 1751-1775, although, as discussed earlier, the whole process of dating is complicated.  The second wave of popularity was 1826-1850, coinciding with the impact of Brighton Pavilion. Its creation, between 1787 and 1826, is said to have been inspired by the gift of some Chinese wallpaper to the Prince Regent.[6]  Other decorative goods like Chinese porcelain, furniture and other decorative objects, were acquired via John and Frederick Crace who were responsible for negotiating the Custom House for their importation. Gordon Lang reminds us that Frederick Crace took an ‘almost slavish adherence to original Chinese sources, using motifs from eighteenth century ‘famille-rose’ export ware porcelain, Canton enamel and even Mandarin robes’; and asks whether he was following the wishes of the Prince of Wales?[7]  There are three different Chinese wallpapers at the Pavilion, one c.1790, acquired in 1815, and hung in 1820 in the Adelaide corridor; one c.1815 part of Frederick Crace’s scheme for the Saloon, and one hung in the in Queen Victoria’s bedroom when she resided there between 1835 and 1845 (the wallpaper currently in this bedroom is a recent facsimile). Perhaps it was from the earliest cache of Chinese wallpaper that the Prince Regent made his gift in 1806 to the feisty Frances Ingram, Lady Irwin (?1734-1807) of Temple Newsam in Leeds, as an indication of his affection for her eldest daughter Isabella, Marchioness of Hertford (1759-1834), who became his mistress the following year?  It was she who had the paper hung, twenty years later, in 1827, creating the Blue Drawing Room (also known as the Chinese Drawing Room) out of what had been the best dining room at Temple Newsam. She embellished its design with prints of exotic birds cut from John James Audubon’s famous publication The Birds of America to which she had subscribed to the first issue.   After visiting the Pavilion in the late 1820s, Marianne, Lady Clifford Constable and her sister Eliza were inspired to create their own Chinese Room at Burton Constable, in East Yorkshire. The walls were hung with new Chinese wallpaper, (originally a powdered pink colour) stencilled designs were added to doors and walls, and silvered bells hung from the cornice and doorway.[8] During the removal of the wallpaper in 1992 as part of a conservation project, an earlier Chinese wallpaper of the 1780s was discovered underneath, which relates to bills paid to Thomas Chippendale’s foreman, William Reid in 1783. This reveals a predisposition for Chinese wallpaper that perhaps laid the foundation for the later decoration.

b) Ambassadors, Bankers & Useful Knowledge

The Chinese wallpaper that can be seen in the Board Room at  Coutts Bank on the Strand, in London today is said to have been a gift to Thomas Coutts (1735-1822) from George Macartney (1737-1806).[9] It originally hung in Coutts’s private rooms ‘above the shop’, at 59 the Strand.[10]  Coutts was an ‘old friend’[11] of Macartney’s, who organised remittances for Macartney from India, when he was appointed Governor of Madras in 1781. Macartney had been  appointed the first Ambassador to China, responsible for the trade mission to the Qianlong Emperor in 1793,  the total costs (calculated at £95,000) of which were defrayed by the East India Company.  This was not simply a commercial mission. Facilitating and extending trade were key priorities of both the East India Company and the government, which instructed Macartney to cultivate the friendship of China in order to increase ‘the sale of our manufactured articles and of the products of our territories in India’.[12] Yet as one of the advisors to the mission, the Birmingham manufacturer Matthew Boulton explained ‘Our knowledge of China is so imperfect that it will be difficult to point out the most necessary articles to send thither. The women are kept so confined that we know nothing of them but from pictures’.[13] As a result they were not sure what to send from Britain to attract Chinese interest.

On arrival in Peking, Macartney and his entourage were given accommodation in the only building large enough to accommodate the whole embassy, the Palace of Eleven Courtyards. This was the home of a Collector of Customs who was in jail awaiting execution for misappropriating the profits of European trade’.[14]  The historian Paul Gillingham states that it was here that Macartney saw the paper that he was to take home to Coutts.  From the published journals and diaries of those who were part of the embassy, it is possible to gain some idea of their impressions of the decoration. The pavilions where they were lodged were described by the official recorder of the embassy George Staunton.  He noted that they were decorated with paintings, and while some from the mission appreciated them, the general attitude was critical: ‘If a lake is surrounded by houses and trees, the painted does not show the reflection on the water’, and the ‘Distant landscapes seem larger than a house in the foreground and they do not touch the ground’.[15] They were not to stay here long however, as the imperial audience was to take place in the emperor’s summer residence 120 miles to the north, at Jehol in Manchuria. In Peking they left behind a team to set up the display of the ‘presents’ and make arrangements for transforming the Palace of Eleven Courtyards into the British embassy.

Although the embassy was a failure, Maxine Berg argues that it was a success in terms of the gathering of ‘useful knowledge’ about China.[16]  The Chinese wallpaper that Macartney brought home depicts different Chinese manufactures. Their source was Song Yingxing’s (1597-1666) Tiangongkaiwu published in 1637, an encyclopaedic work  which examines numerous aspects of technology and manufacture practised in China at the time including porcelain production accompanied by detailed woodblock illustrations.[17]  These illustrations were themselves ‘useful knowledge’.  An example of how Chinese wallpaper could convey such useful information is given by William Marshall, in his The Rural Economy of Yorkshire (1788), in which he discusses the origins of the winnowing machine. He notes that ‘We are probably indebted to the Chinese or other Eastern nation, for the invention of this machine. I have seen it upon an India paper drawn with sufficient accuracy, to shew that the draughtsman was intimately acquainted with the uses of it. The Dutch, to whom the invention has been ascribed, imported it, in all probability, from the East Indies’.[18]  The connection between the scenes of Chinese labour and that of a nation undergoing an agricultural and industrial revolution was drawn upon by Viscount Torrington when he visited Cromford in 1789, the site of Arkwright’s new textile ‘factory’, where ‘There is so much water, so much rock, so much population and so much wood that it looks like a Chinese town’.[19]  As Clive Aslet has commented ‘it was a whimsical picture’ evoking the contrast made between the busy cotton spinners and the wild Derbyshire scenery amid which their industry took place’.[20] Yet as Craig Clunas has reminded us, in relation to Chinese export watercolours, the reading of such information is not so simple. ‘Whatever the customer may have thought, he was not buying a piece of reportage, an accurate picture … . Nor was he buying a product of Chinese imagination. Rather he was receiving his own preconceptions of the mysterious inland provinces as a land of grotesque and fantastic landscapes, inhabited by ingenious and curious people living an idyllic life of harmony with nature, reflected back at him by an artist whose sole concern as to please’.[21]

Macartney’s wallpaper depicted an idyllic picture of manufacture at a time when Britain was launching into its own system of factory production. Perhaps there was some irony too in the fact that this paper showed Chinese goods such as  porcelain, tea and silk which Europeans were desperately keen to imitate, acquired by an ambassador who had failed to entice the Chinese into buying European goods.  The Emperor dismissed the embassy, and its gifts explaining that ‘we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your Country’s manufactures’.[22]

When Thomas Coutts sat in this room above the ‘shop’, the wallpaper that Macartney had given him, must have reinforced the global image and ambition of his business. Coutts kept closely in touch with public affairs at home and throughout the world, through leading politicians and by maintaining a close network of Scottish friends and relatives abroad. As Macartney brought him wallpaper from China,  so Lord Minto (1751-1814) who was Governor General of India between 1807-1813, brought him news from India.[23] Coutts had interests in a number of East India Company vessels, two of which were named after him.[24]

A second failed mission to the Emperor of China, led by William Pitt Amherst (1773-1857) while Ambassador Extraordinary to China in 1816-17, led to the gift of another Chinese wallpaper,  which was sent by Amherst to the artist Henry Chamberlain (1796-1844).[25]  (See Case Study of Montreal Park).  Chamberlain accompanied his father, the Consul General of England,  to Brazil in 1819. He is best known for his Views and Costumes of the City and Neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, published in London in 1821. Some of the book’s illustrations, such as ‘Itinerant Traders Carrying their Wares on their heads’, are not unlike details which appear on figurative Chinese wallpaper. The Embassy, which was financed by the East India Company was sent to redress  interference with their trade by the Viceroy of Canton.[26]  Amherst however never did see the Emperor as the mission was immediately dismissed.[27]

The Chinese wallpapers that lie at the heart of these missions, as material evidence of superior manufacturing, were witness to both the failure of gift giving from West to East, and of successful gifting and commerce from East to West.

c) Writers and Relatives

Hugh scott

Figure 7. Portrait miniature of Hugh Scott (1777-1835), watercolour on ivory, by Andrew Roberston, 1815. Picture courtesy of Lane Fine Art.

The vivid green Chinese wallpaper that hangs in the Drawing Room at Abbotsford in the Scottish Borders might strike the modern visitor as incongruous in a baronial antiquarian interior, created by the famous author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) between 1812 and his death. However its presence not only illustrates the power of the gift, but also how intimately Asian goods and Scottish history could be intertwined.  We know that Scott ‘direct[ed] everything personally, connected with the building and decorating of his mansions’[28] advised by a  close group of male friends: James Skene of Rubislaw (1775-1864), Daniel Terry (1780?-1829), Edward Blore (1787-1879), William Atkinson (1773-1839), William Stark 1770-1813) and  George Bullock (1782/3-1818).[29] Scott’s wife, Margaret Charlotte Charpentier (d.1826) seems to have had little say in the transformation from farmhouse to castle.  This finding confirms Deborah Cohen’s argument that ‘the Victorian interior was neither chiefly the responsibility, nor even the prerogative of women … men did not merely follow, more often than not, they seem to have led’.[30] We know a great deal about the furnishing of Abbotsford through Scott’s correspondence, and because of Scott’s fame, we also have the published comments of his workmen and visitors.  It is in a letter dated 10 November 1822 to Daniel Terry, one of his group of advisors,  that the origin of Abbotsford’s Chinese wallpaper is revealed: ‘Hawl the second is twenty-four pieces of the most splendid Chinese paper … a present from my cousin Hugh Scott, enough to finish the drawing room and two bedrooms’.[31] These were the private and sociable spaces most often connected with the use of Chinese wallpaper.

Captain Hugh Scott (1777-1852) was the second son of Walter Scott, Laird of Raeburn (1744-c.1830), Sir Walter Scott’s uncle, who at the time was in the Naval Service of the East India Company. He had been made Captain of the East Indiaman, Ceres, which made several voyages to China, until it was relegated to hulk in 1816. The painting of the ship, in its original frame, remained in the possession of Hugh Scott’s family at Draycott until recently.


Figure 8. Painting of the East Indiaman Ceres, by William Huggins (1791-1845), oil painting 30 x 48 inches (75 x 120 cm) in original gilt frame. Provenance: by descent from the captain of the ship, Hugh Scott of Draycott. Picture courtesy of Lane Fine Art.

This was not the only Chinese wallpaper to hang on the walls at Abbotsford however. Scott’s painter and decorator, Mr Hay refers in the 6th edition of his The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adaptedto Interior Decoration, (published in 1847) to ‘an Indian paper of a crimson colour with a small gilded pattern upon it’ to complete the decoration of the Dining Room walls at Abbotsford, for which the final plans had been made in 1818.[32]  This paper may also have come from Scott’s cousin Hugh.  Hay notes of this wallpaper that Scott  ‘said he did not altogether approve of for a dining room, but as he had it in a present expressly for that purpose, and as he believed it to be rare, he would have it put upon the room, thither than hurt the feelings of the donor’.[33] This Chinese wallpaper reveals two important points. First, it reveals the presence of a type of wallpaper that is rarely commented upon. It is the floral and figural papers that caught contemporary attention, and we know little about these plainer papers. Scott himself remarks that it is ‘rare’. Secondly the presence of the wallpaper demonstrates that the power of the gift giver over-rode convention in the hanging of the paper in an ‘inappropriate space’. The National Trust Chinese Wallpaper Project has revealed the dominance of private spaces such as bedrooms, dressing rooms and drawing rooms (often, but not only, feminine) for such paper, with only one example of a paper hung in a dining room, as at Abbotsford.  This exception is a twentieth century reproduction made for Avebury Manor. There is also one example in a Library at Sudbury Hall, hung by 1751.[34]

Hay ‘observed to Sir Walter that there would scarcely be enough to cover the whole remainder of the wall after the pictures were fixed up, to which he replied, that if that was the case I might paint the recess of the sideboard in imitation oak’.  He noted that Scott abominated the common-place daubing of walls, panels, doors and window-boards, with coats of white, blue, or grey … He desired to have about him, wherever he could manage it, rich, though not gaudy hangings, or substantial old-fashioned wainscot work, with no ornament but that of carving, and where the  wood was to be painted at all, it was done in strict imitation of oak or cedar … He ordered me to paint the dining -room ceiling, cornice, niches &c in imitation of oak to match the doors, window shutters and wainscoting which were made of that wood’.[35] These instructions suggest that Scott was making the most of his limited supply of this wallpaper, and that he felt that it needed to be used, not put in store, in recognition of the value of the gift, and the status of the donor in the recipient’s eyes.

The Abbotsford Chinese wallpapers may seem an odd addition to Scott’s antiquarian interior to modern eyes. However it is clear that Asian connections and influences percolated throughout the house, and indeed through Scott’s own family and friends, as well as through his work, most notably in The Surgeon’s Daughter (1827). Sir Walter resided for many years at Ashestiel, near Selkirk, the home of his cousin General Sir James Russell who was then in India. It was not only Scott’s cousin Hugh who had ties with the East India Company. His brother Robert died young while serving with the Company in India. Sir Walters’s nephew, Walter Scott (1807-1876), the only son of Thomas Scott, spent a considerable portion of his youth under the immediate care of his uncle. At the age of seventeen he entered the service of the East  India Company as a lieutenant in the engineers. He attained distinction in the Mooltan campaign (1848-9), and was, in 1861, promoted as Major-General, and in 1875 as General.[36] His brother-in-law Charles Charpentier (later Carpenter) was also a Company servant, finally taking-up residence in the Madras estates in Salem, where he died in 1818. Scott’s eldest son Walter (b.1801) became a Lieutenant General in the 15th Dragoons, and served in Bangalore until his death in 1847.[37] While Scott’s younger son Charles (b.1805) died in Tehran, in 1841, while part of a Foreign Office mission to the Court of Persia. Abbotsford boasted an armoury, adjoining the dining room, which was described in 1818 as including ‘the armour of true celebrated Jalabad Sing Son of Nadior Shah (1688-1747) as well as ‘pretty complete suits of armour – one Indian … and the clubs and creases of Indian tribes’, alongside those of Highlanders’ accoutrements.[38]  The ‘curious antique ebony chairs’ in the Drawing Room, were Indo-Portuguese, c.1800 and were combined with furniture from the Palace of Falkirk. Sir Walter Scott also had a connection, if remote with Thomas Coutts. In his Life of Scott, Lockhart (Scott’s son-in-law and biographer) remarks that the poet had ‘Sir Walter’s grandmother, Barbara Haliburton, wife of Robert Scott of Sandyknowe, was the banker’s first cousin’.[39]

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[1] Rooms with a View: Wallpaper and Landscape, Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York 2001.

[3] J.B Nias, Dr John Radcliffe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914), p.55.

[4] E. Jordan, ‘Chinese Wallpapers in England’, The Star, Issue 9680,

23 October 1909, p.1; Listed 1954, English Heritage Building ID 356912.

[5] See Emile de Bruijn, Andrew Bush and Helen Clifford, Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses, National Trust 2014, p.5

[6] Christina Baird, Liverpool China Traders, Peter Lang, Bern 2007, p.136.

[7] See Gordon Lang, ‘The Royal Pavilion, Brighton: the Chinoiserie Designs by Frederick Crace’, in Megan Aldrich (ed) The Craces Royal Decorators 1768-1899, The Royal Pavilion, Brighton 1990, p.43

[8] Avray Tipping, ‘In English Homes: The Internal Character, Furniture & Adornments of Some of the Most Notable Houses of England’, Country Life, 2, 1908.  p.150.

[9] Helen Fetherstonhaugh, Three Hundred Years of Private Banking (London: Coutts, n.d.), p.21.

[10] He acquired the lease of number 59 and designed a premises specifically for banking.

[11] Helen Henrietta Macartney Robbins, Our First Ambassador to China: An Account of the Life of George, Earl of Macartney, with Extracts from His Letters, and the Narrative of His Experiences in China, as Told by Himself, 1737-1806 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.442.

[12] Maxine Berg, ‘Britain, industry and perceptions of China: Matthew Boulton, ‘useful knowledge’ and the Macartney Embassy to China 1792–94’, Journal of Global History, 1 (2006), p. 268.

[13] Berg, ‘Britain, industry and perceptions of China’, p.280.

[14] Paul Gillingham,“The Macartney Embassy to China, 1792-94’, History Today, 43 (1993), p.5.

[15] G. L. Staunton, An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (London, 1797), p.155

[16]  Berg, ‘Britain, industry and perceptions of China’, p. 268.

[17] Thanks to Anna Wu for this information.

[18] William Marshall, The Rural Economy of Yorkshire: Comprizing the Management of Landed Estates, and the Present Practice of Husbandry in the Agricultural Districts of that County, Volume 1 (London: Cadell, 1788), p.282

[19] C. Bruyn Andrews (ed)., The Torrington Diaries containing the tours through England and Wales of the Hon. John Byng (later Fifth Viscount Torrington) between the years 1781 and 1794, volume 2, (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1935), p.40.

[20] Clive Aslet, The English House. The Story of a Nation at Home (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), p.131.

[21] Craig Clunas, Chinese Export Watercolours (London: V&A, 1984), p.14.

[22] Quoted in Catherine Pagani, Eastern Magnificence & European Ingenuity”: Clocks of Late Imperial China, (University of Michigan Press, 2001), p.74.

[23]Philip Beresford, William D. Rubinstein , The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain since 1066 (London: Harriman House, 2011), p.302.

[24] National Maritime Museum: BHC3664

[25]British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, Eur.  B376. Letter dated 23 May 1817.

[26] Henry Ellis, Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China (London: John Murray, 1817).

[27] Despite being dismissed by the Emperor, Amherst like Macartney, travelled extensively throughout China and did not depart until January of 1817. On the voyage back to England HMS Alceste, struck a rock near the Straits of Gaspar in the Java sea n and sank. There was no loss of life and Lord Amherst was taken to Batavia aboard the H.M. Brig Lyra.

[28] Henry Carey Baird, The Interior Decorator, being the laws of harmonious colourings apple dot interior decorations with observation on the practice of house painting (Philadelphia, 1867).

[29] Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, The British Collector at Home 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), p.154.

[30] Deborah Cohen, Household Gods The British and their Possessions (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p.89.

[31] John Gibson Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Volume 3, (Paris: A. and W. Galignani and Company, 1838), p.142.

[32]D.R. Hay, The Laws of Harmonious Colouring adapted  to Interior Decoration, 6th ed. (Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1847), p.181.

[33] Hay, The Laws of Harmonious Colouring, p.182.

[34] See Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses,, p.44.

[35] Hay, The Laws of Harmonious Colouring, p.183.

[36] Charles Rogers, Genealogical Memoirs of the Family of Sir Walter Scott, Bart. of Abbotsford (London: Grampian Club, 1877), p.102.

[37] See further on Scott and India:

[38] Herbert J.C. Grierson (ed) The Letters of Walter Scott, vol.7, Constable, London 1932-1937, pp. 278-80.

[39] David Veddar, Memoir of Sir Walter Scott, Bart: with critical notices of his writings compiled from various authentic sources (Dundee: Archibald Allardice, 1832), p.5.