One of the highlights of visiting Westport House is our Chinese room. This room transports the visitor back 200 years to a time when extravagance, elegance and fashionable décor was the essence of the gentry home. The Chinese wallpaper has hung in this room for more than 200 years and still evokes a sense of the wealth and grandeur that would once have graced every corner of Westport House.
All things Asian were part of a longstanding fascination by the Europeans with the exotic East and here in Westport House, we are privileged to exhibit many ceramics and furniture that boasts their origin in Asian art from the 18th and 19th century.
Possessing a room like the Chinese room would have been viewed as the height of fashion and would have provoked many a discussion about the allure of the East combined with the exotic and colourful imagery it represented. The Chinese room is another glimpse into the Browne family’s lives and their expression of their personalities through artwork, furniture, sculptures and, in this case, incredible handcrafted wallpaper.
Our Chinese room is the only one west of the Shannon and is one of thirteen ‘Big Houses’ in the Republic of Ireland that boasts a Chinese room with wallpaper. The wallpaper itself depicts life in China more than 200 years ago – each scene was hand painted onto the paper and tells its own story of how people lived in 18th and 19th century China – it is an important documentation of traditions, culture, politics, work life, travel, dress and hierarchy within Chinese society and it is an incredibly important piece of history to protect and restore.
The history of the Chinese wallpaper is immense…
Early 17th century, trade with China began with countries like Britain and Netherlands (which was then referred to as the Dutch Republic) and became known as ‘East India Companies’ which developed markets for an array of Chinese products such as porcelain, lacquer and silk, of which the quality and design had not been achieved by European manufacturers. With this, the taste for Eastern products developed amongst the wealthy elite and they flocked to shops in London and Dublin in order to purchase the exotic and colourful products. Wallpaper became popular as a replacement to wall hangings and tapestries and Chinese wallpaper became so popular that it began to be produced faster to keep up with ‘supply and demand’. The gentry could enjoy the exotic designs from the other side of the world in their own homes.
Protection and restoration of the Chinese wallpaper
During our emergency restoration works, the Chinese room was deemed at high risk of damage if essential works were not carried out. As there was water ingress and subsidence occurring in the room, it was decided that in order to protect the wallpaper, it would have to be taken down and stored to allow the necessary works to take place.As you can imagine, this would be no mean feat and we called upon the expert wallpaper conservator, manufacturer and historian David Skinner, to come and perform the huge task of painstakingly and ever-so carefully removing the precious Chinese wallpaper that has drawn so many visitors to the House. His colleague, paper specialist Ros Devitt, and David spent five days removing the wallpaper with the aid of water, a few small tools and a lot of patience.
The fascinating process took an immense amount of concentration, skill and proficiency, the wallpaper was successfully removed and has been placed in a controlled environment until it can be cleaned, restored and carefully attached to the wall again.
Amazingly, there were three layers of the previous wallpaper underneath the Chinese paper – the wallpaper immediately underneath was partially removed and as luck would have it, was a stamp on the back of piece that was salvaged: J & P Boylan, 102 Grafton Street, Dublin 1817 – which means that the Chinese wallpaper was erected sometime after 1817.
A second stamp was discovered on the back showing that the tax had been paid on the wallpaper which was the norm at the time – introduced into the British Isles by Queen Anne in 1712 on painted or patterned wallpaper.
Estimating that the Chinese wallpaper was erected sometime after 1817 suggests it was the enigmatic and flamboyant Howe Peter Browne (1788-1845) along with his fashion icon wife Hester Catherine (1800-1878) who were responsible for the decorating of the Chinese room that we see today.
The care & storage of the wallpaper in the interim
While the works shall be ongoing for a number of months, it is essential to store the wallpaper in a safe and secure environment. In order to keep the integrity of the wallpaper, we came up with a way of storing the paper whilst the construction work to the room commenced. With the advice of wallpaper conservationist David Skinner, the most important factor for the wallpaper is to have air circulation to avoid mould or damp. It is also important that the wallpaper is kept in a similar environment that it has adapted to. A simple, but very effective structure, was assembled by our talented maintenance team to keep the wallpaper safe, aerated and temperature regulated as is possible while it is awaiting restoration and to be rehung back to its place in the Chinese room in Westport House.
Video of the process of removing the Chinese Wallpaper in Westport House – pictured David Skinner, camera by Kathryn Connolly and featuring Ros Devitt’s voice
With thanks to our sources: Chinese wallpaper in Britain and Ireland, Emile de Bruijn, David Skinner, wallpaper conservator, Ros Devitt, Chinese Wallpaper Guide in National Trust Collections
Copy & photos with thanks to Kathryn Connolly, Supervisor at Westport House
If you have been enjoying Kathryn’s Restoration Blogs, we wanted you to know that we now offer Restoration Tours of Westport House daily. You will will need to pre-book as there will be limited numbers and intimate group sizes of no more than 15 people. Visitors will be met at the Construction Site Gate at the Old Bridge by the house at the tour start time. The guided element of the tour will take place outdoors where a guide will outline the core body of works taking place to protect the exterior of the house. You will then be invited in to the house to visit the main floor of the house and see the interior works. You can expect to learn more of what you’ve been reading in these blogs on the tour and in fact, Kathryn will be hosting many of the tours. The entirety of the tour will take place on the ground – I’m afraid that we will not be able to take you up on the scaffolding for obvious health and safety reasons. After the tour, you will be escorted back to the bridge gate to exit. Closed toe shoes are required and high vis vests and hard hats will be supplied for your use during the tour. Duration will be 60 minutes and the cost will be €13.50 per person. All tours must be pre-booked online at <a href=”https://shop.westporthouse.ie/shop/westport-house-and-grounds-c_378-/”>shop.westporthouse.ie</a>. We hope to see you here soon.