The surprising story of wallpaper

The mid 18th Century saw a massive expansion of Chinese workshops making woodblock prints in a wallpaper format to cater to the Western love of everything Eastern. These bird-and-flower export wallpapers had brightly coloured backgrounds. Aimed squarely at the European market, they became a defining feature of the English country house frequently mentioned in letters and diaries.

Examples survive at Ightham Mote and Felbrigg, where the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom is recorded as having been hung in 1752 by a London paper-hanger called John Scrutton. The printing is so fine that the papers were originally assumed to be hand painted rather than block printed. The botanist Sir Joseph Banks praised the Chinese painters for their accuracy, observing in his Journal in 1770: “Some of the plants which are common to China and Java, such as bamboo, are better figured there than in the best botanical authors.”

Age of elegance

Such luxuries did not escape notice. In 1712 a property tax on wallpaper had been introduced under Queen Anne and remained in force for 124 years. Forging wallpaper stamps (or anything else) was by 1806 among the long list of offences punishable by death. In dodging the tax by simplifying designs into stencils, English manufacturers lost out badly to the French whose repertoire was endless and boundless. In addition to brilliant copies of textiles,  there were panoramic landscapes, battle scenes, grottos and Gothic and Rococo Revival designs.