In focus: Chinoiserie

Visitors to Godinton will be familiar with the ‘Chinese Room’, and as it’s my favourite room in the house, it seemed to make sense to write a blog post about it (or at least its wallpaper)!

The original Chinoiserie (coming from the French ­chinois, or Chinese) craze first hit Europe in the early-mid 18th century. Europe had begun trading seriously with China and the Far East, and so Chinese – and Oriental – products and designs became available much more readily in Europe for the first time, mainly thanks to the East India Company. At this point, they were much less exact with terminology, so ‘Chinese’ was essentially a synonym for anything from the Far East

The exotic became incredibly fashionable at this period of time – Louis XIV had elements of Chinese design included in one of the Trianons in the grounds of Versailles. However, chinoiserie became increasingly seen as something inherently feminine because of its beauty and delicacy. As a result, the style was closely associated with domestic spaces, like bedrooms, dressing rooms and drawing rooms. Chinese wallpaper was particularly highly valued because of the technical skill needed to create it, the beauty of the finished product, and the fact that the motifs and patterns used were predominantly still indigenously Chinese, rather than sanitised, stylised, Westernized versions which had crept into other elements of Chinese products for the export market.

Godinton’s Chinese Room is an example of the chinoiserie craze coming back into fashion in the 1920s. By this time, Chinese-inspired wallpapers would have been available for popular consumption, but Lillie Bruce Ward commissioned hand-painted wallpaper, which would have had a considerable price tag attached. Birds – cranes, to be more precise – are the main motif across the room, which are said to symbolise harmony and alignment. The wallpaper is something of a mystery to us: there are receipts in the archive for wallpaper purchased from W. Turner, Lord & Co in 1919, but no proof it was this particular wallpaper. Similarly, for those who have visited Godinton’s Chinese Room, it is apparent the colour today (a gold/ochre shade) was not the original. It is believed it was initially cream in colour, but the chemicals used are said to have reacted with the air to turn it into the shade it is today. a dark yellowy-gold colour. Mrs Bruce Ward supposedly decided the new colour actually looked better in situ, and so left it as it was rather than having it replaced.

Lillie Bruce Ward was responsible for the transformation of this space from ‘Garden Hall’ to the Chinese Room we know today. The room is south-facing and therefore gets lots of lovely sunlight, much like the White Room, another feminine room next door. We still have the receipts from Lillie’s purchase of many of the Chinese and Japanese items which fill the room today. Whether or not they accurately detail and reflect the nature of the objects she bought is a different question, but they do provide a lot of clues and leads for further research at the very least…!