Chinese Whispers..

There’s been quite a bit about false-news and echo-chambers recently, how you need to check several sources,  delve deeper than your primary news feeds.  Well if that’s the case with the present… what about the past? Chinese whispers down the ages can whittle away original sources  and  each era’s cultural position alters opinions, re-writing history and editing accepted truths in its own image.  I was looking at the headlines about Lady Isabella’s chinoiserie redecoration at Temple Newsam…screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-11-44-24screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-11-45-32

These two British headlines are from the trusted bastion of middle class assurance the Daily Telegraph and the London commuter’s daily read, the Metro.  Scanning through the articles that accompanied this room’s refurbishment and re-opening last year there are  several variations on the story behind the scheme and its contemporary financial sting. The wallpaper is labelled by some as a gift to Lady Hertford from the Prince of Wales, while others describe it as a present to her mother.  Without exception all delight in her salacious role as the Prince’s mistress with some extending the liaison’s time frame to suit their narrative.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-35-00Lady Isabella Hertford

Most articles note the lengthy period between the gift’s receipt  and creating the drawing room, 20 years.  The family story behind this delay is omitted  and none comment on Isabella’s appropriation of the dining room for this scheme.  All reports focus on her decision to augment the scheme by pasting on birds cut out from James Audubon’s celebrated folio edition which she subscribed too.  One article reports that Isabella’s decoupage choice faded into the mists of time and was only recently rediscovered – in 1966.  I like that a lot.


A close up of the birds pasted above the door.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-35-48An overview of the scheme with Isabella’s additions.

All of them call it a decorating mistake that cost her descendants several million pounds as the ‘birds’ came from what has become ‘the most expensive book in the world’. None of them mention that the house contents were dispersed in 1922, so what did it matter? Audubon’s birds would’ve been sold on the lawn, as Temple Newsam was stripped of centuries of its family contents. So really these were the only birds left, physically pasted to the walls, unable to flutter away. I call it a decorating triumph, Isabella’s imaginative design up-cycled the Prince’s gift and her  folio pictures creating a permanent legacy.


So what to make of this mass of Chinese whispers?  screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-12-44-33

The press has a job to engage the public and a word count within which to submit and edit a story. The internet is essentially a tangled web of self-publication, requiring neither footnotes, bibliographies or academic integrity before pressing ‘post’. Both the writer’s credentials and their sources’ authenticity need consideration, we must be critical of what we read and analyse websites, newspapers and blogs monitoring what we accept as ‘factual’ or indeed as telling a complete story.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-44-22The book that gives a modern angle to this 19th century tale..

So What really happened? To the best of my knowledge THIS is the story…

The Prince of Wales in 1790 and Mrs Fitzherbert

The GIFT: In 1806 the Prince of Wales came for lunch at Temple Newsam on behalf of his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert, bearing gifts of Chinese wallpaper and tapestries, sure his generosity to his hostess Frances Ingram would be relayed via her daughter Isabella to her husband Lord Hertford. Isabella did not become his mistress until 1807 after the court case the Prince needed her husband’s help with had been settled in the Prince’s favour.  Ask yourself … is wallpaper the gift of a man in amorous pursuit?

WHY the DELAY: Frances died in 1807 and Isabella’s busy life as mistress, wife and custodian of several houses kept her away from Temple Newsam, only as a much older widow did she return to her childhood home and start a programme of decorative works.

DINING ROOM TO DRAWING ROOM: Why does this matter? Dining rooms were part of the formal centre of the house and designated a  masculine space, as men remained to drink there while women withdrew after dinner to brew tea and coffee in the drawing room (originally called the with-drawing room).  The aesthetic character of these rooms became increasingly gender specific and this defined their importance in the home at a time when women were increasingly being ‘feminised’ and contained.  Isabella’s appropriation of the dining room asserts female authority over this space and her powerful position within the house by making a masculine domain her best drawing room. Go Isabella.chinese-wallpaper-from-belton

Chinese wallpapers at Belton and Ickworth


WHY  Chinoiserie?  The trend for chinoiserie peaked in its 1750’s but its  colourful fantasy continued to intoxicate high society.  Chinese wallpapers presence in British homes along with luminous lacquer wares and  porcelain had a fundamental impact on English taste.  It encouraged greater informality within interiors as a whole and a general lightening of decorative schemes and fashion, it broadened the range of colours used and started the trend for painted furniture.  If we look at the focus of Regency houses on connecting with the exterior we can see these papered fantasies become an English reality in conservatories and the arrival of full-length glass doors connecting you to the garden beyond.


Isabella’s wallpaper complete with balustrade at the bottom …as if the Chinese garden has come indoors.

WHY those BIRDS?  Chinese wallpapers were frequently delivered with a selection of paper butterflies for crafty ladies to paste on at their leisure, personalising their final scheme .  Isabella  added the most beautiful birds she could find to complement the Prince’s wallpaper and she framed it in deep raspberry pink with a silver fretwork trim.  screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-37-25She then commissioned beautiful chinoiserie furniture incorporating precious oriental lacquer panels from family heirlooms to complete her room.  This was the work of a conossieur and a female patron of the arts.

So I want to shout out for Isabella and her drawing room, to examine this story  from multiple angles and consider it within its historical context rather than through the judgmental lens and Chinese whispers of the 21st century.



The Regency Redingote who supplied the details of the Prince’s gift and complex scheming behind it –  read the full story there. I contacted the author directly and she had the most credible of sources: a curator from Temple Newsam.

Chinese Whispers possibly my favourite ever book on Chinoiserie edited by David Beevers.

Images from articles online were used for the drawing room at Temple Newsam and the key protagonists.

Images  for the Chinese wallpapers at Belton and Ickling are from the National Trust publication, ‘Chinese Wallpaper in National Trust Houses‘, a precursor to an extensive book cataloguing this collection. The authors note that the earliest known Chinese wallpapers were in 1750, and that they were used primarily in bedrooms (40%) , dressing rooms (35%)  and drawing rooms (25%) and that it was extremely rare for them to be in dining rooms  and they know of only one example in a library. They write: Chinese wallpaper was posed between east and west, art and decoration, public and private  … and that there tends to be a link between orientalism, femininity and sociability.

Emile de Brujin primary author of the Chinese Wallpaper project  has a fascinating  National Trust blog  ‘Treasure Hunt’  that frequently features Chinoiserie. He is also  writing the book on Chinese Wallpaper …. which clearly means this subject is TO BE CONTINUED.





One thought on “Chinese Whispers..

  1. How short-sighted of us to look at today’s monetary value. How many future ‘antiques’ are being cut up or painted under for their owners desires or current fashion. At least her ‘birds’ beautifully still exist. The book could easily been destroyed some other way.

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