This colorful 18th century English wallpaper was designed in the style of Jean Pillement, the celebrated French illustrator of chinoiserie and some-time royal painter to Marie Antoinette. The repeating pattern of flowers and foliage show Asian motifs as interpreted through a Western lense.
In 1755 a folio entitled “A New Book of Chinese Ornaments, Invented and Engraved by Pillement,” was published in England. At the time, British fashion celebrated all things Oriental, but the difficulty of travel between Europe and the East meant that demand for Asian artworks far exceeded the availability of genuine articles. Naturally, English manufacturers took it upon themselves to end the shortage by producing their own Eastern-inspired wares. Pillement’s engravings proved invaluable, supplying craftsmen of all media with creative “Chinese” designs to be incorporated into their merchandise. Though well-traveled on the continent Pillement never actually set foot in Asia, and his impressions of Eastern art were based on various travel books penned by other Europeans who had spent time in China, India and Japan as merchants and missionaries. As a result, Pillement did not attempt to create faithful copies of Oriental art, but instead produced highly original designs that were quite a departure from their stated inspiration.
This panel of English paper certainly owes its aesthetics to one of Pillement’s published works. Though reminiscent of authentic hand-painted Chinese papers, the repeating design and stylized flowers speak more to traditional European imagery than Oriental. The pattern has been applied to the paper by means of woodblock-printing, which would have helped decrease cost and production time. At the time this wallpaper was made, paper was manufactured as single sheets. In order to facilitate the large, continuous design featured on this panel, smaller individual sheets were joined together to create a long roll.
Anna Rasche is a student in the History of Decorative Arts & Design graduate Program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department