Chinese Wallpaper and Contemporary Usage
I learned recently from Margaret Pritchard, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of prints, maps, and wallpaper, that Chinese-painted papers were so rare and expensive in the 18th and early 19th centuries that they were only used in small, intimate rooms.
Hence, she feels unsettled when she sees the papers used in grand rooms such as the Chinese Parlor at Winterthur and countless large houses and hotels across America.
I trust her taste and her great knowledge of history. I also see her point that it can be vulgar to use valuable materials in an ostentatious way. Her remarks made me ponder our use of Chinese papers over the years.
To my eyes, these designs with their upright vines and trees look remarkably beautiful in stair halls. I like the way they grow up the stairs and how the overall quality of the pattern visually unifies all the architectural parts of a stair hall: stairs, moldings, multiple doors, and windows.
They can look great in dining rooms, especially with the right architecture. We once installed an antique set of Chinese paper into plaster panels designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects for a New York townhouse.
It is luxurious to use these papers in bedrooms. In an old New England house we used a Chinese paper in the best bed chamber. Because of the intimacy of the room and the beauty of the paper, I think Margaret would approve.
Images from top: fragment of Chinese wallpaper from the mid 18th century; a lemur appearing in the paper from the Chinese drawing room at Abbotsford in Scotland, c. 1824; Chinese Parlor at Winterthur Museum, Delaware; entry hall of White Hall Plantation, photo by Pieter Estersohn; dining room from a New York townhouse; bedroom in a New England house by Jonathan Wallen