Hang out your lanterns on 8 February to welcome Chinese New Year! There are several great collections of Chinese art in Britain and it is hard to find a stately home or an historic garden that was not touched by the 18th century’s consuming passion for all things Chinese. So I’m going to celebrate the Year of the Monkey by exploring some.
Chinese wallpaper is actually amazingly rare, yet it was the coolest décor around for the Georgians. And a Chinese room is a surprisingly common feature of historic houses today. Perhaps the earliest trend setter was the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey in the 1740s, whose original Chinese decoration for his private suite of rooms and those of his Duchess was rediscovered recently. Sometimes sumptuous handpainted Chinese wallpaper is in the bedroom, as at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire, and sometimes an exquisite drawing room as at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire or Dalemain in Cumbria, both rooms where the new fashion for tea drinking would have made these rooms spot-on for fashionable entertaining.
Tea drinking also required the right equipment and aristocratic families
rushed to order porcelain services from the East. Find surviving examples of Chinese Export Ware in the collections at Floors Castle in the Borders or at Weston Park in Shropshire and Saltram in Devon. Chinese furniture made its way into houses here as well, one of the finest examples is the Chinese Cabinet at the National Trust’s Uppark in Sussex and this inspired a generation of fine cabinet makers at home including Thomas Chippendale. Experience Chippendale’s Chinoiserie furniture at Harewood House in Yorkshire. Here the Chinese rooms were dismantled
when they went out of vogue but in 1988 the original handpainted wallpaper of 1750 was found carefully rolled up and stored (it was expensive stuff). In the now restored East Bedroom you can see the room as it was filled with Thomas Chippendale’s extraordinary suite of japanned furniture.
Outside the passion for Chinoiserie splashed out into gardens as well. A Chinese bridge like the one recently restored by the National Trust at Croome Park was just the thing and some could afford a Chinese house like the one at the Stowe Landscape Gardens as well. At Woburn the number of Chinese influenced buildings in the gardens extended to the gorgeous Chinese dairy, bridge and pagoda, all now restored and still arresting.
Don’t forget that the ultimate expression of Chinoiserie in Britain is surely Brighton Pavilion, built for the Prince Regent by John Nash. The Chinese Music Room is so theatrical you’ll think Kublai Khan himself is about to burst in.
China dropped out of fashion but not for long, at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1930s, for example, the celebrated decorator Nancy Lancaster created a Chinese room with more than a nod to the 1750s.
So make the Year of the Monkey a year for rediscovering our Chinese past. Let me know what you find out! Monkey see, monkey do.