Chinese Wallpaper Case Study: The Russells and their Chinese Wallpaper

The Russells and their Chinese Wallpaper

The associations of the Russells and the East India Company cover six generations from the 1st to the 6th Dukes of Bedford, and are revealed in successive waves of Asian influence on their patterns of collecting and decorating.[1]  The wealth of Chinese wallpapers relating to Bedford property has recently been investigated by Lucy Johnson, for an exhibition curated by her at Woburn, Peeling Back the Years Chinoiserie at Woburn Abbey (2014).

The marriage of the 1st Duke of Bedford’s grandson Wriothsey Russell, Lord Tavistock (1680-1711) to Elizabeth Howland (1682-1724) in 1695 brought a spectacularly large dowry of near £100,000 (roughly equivalent to £9,000,000 today) into the family whose estates included Thames-side property at Rotherhithe. The marriage also connected the Russells with the Childs, as Elizabeth was the grand daughter of Sir Josiah Child (1630-1699) whose advocacy of the East India Company’s monopoly led directly to his appointment as a Director in 1677, rising to Deputy-Governor and Governor of the East India Company in 1681.  (See further the Case Study of Wanstead) At Rotherhithe the 1st Duke of Bedford (1613-1700) built the first docks, whose rental brought in a useful income, first from the Greenland, and then the South Sea Companies. At these docks he built the Streatham which was presented by his grandson to the East India Company. The Bedford, Tavistock, Russell and Howland followed, all commissioned before 1700, to which were added the Tonqueen, and later the Houghton and Denham.[2] The Bedfords invested between one-sixteenth to one-eighth part in the voyages these vessels took, and thereby had considerable holdings in the East India Company.

When John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (1710-71) began remodelling and redecorating Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Bedford House in London in 1748, he combined Chinese wallpaper and china with new Louis XV-style furniture and portraits by British artists.[3]  Tracking their purchase reveals the ways these exotic commodities, including wallpaper, entered the British home. The most direct route was via the privilege trade, where the Dukes used their positions as owners of East Indiamen hired to the Company, and their positions as investors to gain privileged access to these Asian goods. Having sold their outward cargo and made purchases in India on their eight month journey out, the Company servants on the East Indiamen sailed on to Canton buying goods via the Hong merchants, including Chinese wallpaper. Sailing was geared to the monsoons in the Eastern Seas, homebound ships returning with the north-east monsoon between November and March.  The ships steered a course via the Straits of Sunda, the Cape of Good Hope and on to St Helena and Ascencion passing the west of the Cape Verdes and Azores, and then up the English Channel, continuing up to Blackwall or Deptford.  The cargo was transferred to the Company’s lighters under the eyes of the revenue officers, and up to the Company warehouses. Once inspected, and after duties had been paid, the goods were sold at auctions held in the Company’s sale room in Leadenhall Street, London ‘by inch of candle’.  The Green Drawing Room at Woburn, now known as the Ballroom, is hung with a hand-painted Chinese wallpaper of c.1800-20. When this wallpaper was conserved in 1998 two separate inked inscriptions were found on the back of the wallpaper. ‘Royal George’ refers to the ship that transported the wallpaper from China to England, and ‘No 48’ may refer to the package and ’46 sheets’ to its contents. ‘Lot 25’ is written in a different hand and confirms it was consigned to auction at East India Company House, and comprised ’24 sheets’. This shows that the original consignment was divided which suggests that another set was made from the remaining 22 sheets.[4] There were five ships named the Royal George which made voyages between 1737 and 1822; the one conveying the wallpaper, was a 1333 ton ship that made seven voyages between 1802 and 1817.[5] This wallpaper relates to the 6th Duke’s (1766-1839) campaign of re-decoration.

Another route via which Chinese wallpaper entered the home, was purchase from the range of specialist shopkeepers, like John Tombes who sold ‘all kinds of India goods’ including silk, muslins, china, tea and spices. The Chinese wallpaper in ‘His Grace’s Bedchamber’ at Woburn came via this route. It was bought from the London wallpaper suppliers Crompton and Spinnage in 1751-2,  at a cost of £60 13s 10d (a similar price to that purchased for Croome Court), part of a larger bill for hanging Chinese wallpapers at Woburn of £253 13s 101/2 d. It is one of the earliest known Chinese wallpapers to survive, contemporary and identical with those at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, Ightam Mote in Kent and Uppark in West Sussex. It was still there in 1771 when it was described in an  inventory of that year as ‘Hung with India Paper’.[6] 

Woburn reduced

Figure 5. Detail of Chinese wallpaper in ‘His Grace’s Bedchamber’, Woburn Abbey. Reproduced with kind permission of Woburn Abbey.

Architects were also involved with the supply of Chinese wallpaper, as at Felbrigg, in Norfolk where James Paine (1717-1789) supplied paper to the owner William Windham II (1717-1761), installed by a specialist paper-hanger from London.[7] At Nostell Priory, in West Yorkshire Thomas Chippnedale supplied the Chinese wallpaper in 1771.

The Russells clearly liked their Chinese wallpaper, as it was also used at Oakley House, in Bedfordshire, not far from Woburn and at Endsleigh Cottage in Devon. After the purchase of Oakley House (built between 1748 and 1750) by the 4th Duke in 1757, the old house was demolished and a new one was built on the site, serving as a hunting box for successive Dukes.  The 1935 sale catalogue lists three rooms clad with Chinese wallpaper, on the ground floor smoking room, the staircase hall and in the first floor bedroom. One of c.1790, survives. They were probably related to the 5th Duke’s influence, who employed Henry Holland to modify Oakley for him.  The paper for Endsleigh Cottage, which was hung in the main guest bedroom, may have been bought at the same time as the pale for the Green Drawing Room at Woburn. This was one of a number of Chinese wallpapers at Endsleigh. The house was built between 1810 and 1816 by John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford as a private family residence, to the designs of Sir Jeffry Wyattville, as a grand form of the cottage orné, where house and landscape were designed as one. It was usefully positioned to serve as a residence whilst the Duke, normally residing at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, was inspecting his extensive Bedford estates in Devon and Cornwall. It was the Duke and Duchess’s favourite residence and was used for entertaining intimate friends.

The Chinese wallpaper in the Russell residences was a part of a wider strategy of furnishing which included Chinese porcelain and silk, and Indian furniture (all either acquired before the 4th Duke’s time, or made in the style of this period) which was a constant reminder of the family’s links with the East India Company which dated back to the 1st Duke, and through it, to the wider world. They appeared in their grand country house at Woburn, as well as in their smaller retreats. These furnishings demonstrated the family’s power to access these goods over several generations. As Lucy Johnson has noted, this engagement with Asian goods, via their East India Company connections was underpinned by a deeper fascination with the culture of China, evidenced by the the 4th Duke’s purchase ‘from 1735 onwards [of books] which covered virtually every aspect of Chinese history, life and culture’.[8] The 5th Duke went on to build a Chinese Dairy at Woburn, designed by Henry Holland in 1787, decorated by John Crace, and completed in 1794. Humphrey Repton supplied designs for a Chinese garden at Woburn in 1804-5. The 6th Duke employed Sir Joseph Banks to advise and acquire Chinese plants for his gardens, and bought as many Chinese wallpapers as the 4th Duke.

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[1] The following taken from Gladys Scott Thomson, The Russells in Bloomsbury 1669-1771 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1940), pp.312-338.

[2] Thomson, Russells, p.316

[3] With thanks to Lucy Johnson for this information.

[4] Latest information from Lucy Johnson, kindly supplied 29 June 2014.

[5] Jean Sutton, Lords of the East, see:

[6] The Chinese paper in this room at Woburn was protected by another layer of paper added 28 years later when the room was redecorated, and was re-discovered in 2014.

[7] Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses, 2014,  Paine at Felbrigg (cat. 17, pp.25-6) and Chippendale at Nostell and Harewood (cats. 24-6, pp.31-2).

[8] Lucy Johnson, Peeling Back the years Chinoiserie at Woburn Abbey (2014).