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Conservation of the Chinese wallpaper at Woburn Abbey
In March 1997, a conservation project on the Chinese wallpaper in the Ballroom at Woburn Abbey was planned by Lord and Lady Tavistock. Meryl Huxtable of the Paper Conservation Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum was contacted for advice and she recommended two British conservators, Mark Sandiford and Philippa Mapes, who were greatly experienced in this particular field and who were working at that time on a project in Ireland. They visited the House and made their report on the condition and proposed method of conservation which was accepted and they agreed to start work in April this year when they had finished working on other Chinese wallpaper at Ightham Mote for the National Trust. The project is now complete and the wallpaper is now back in position in the Ballroom. Further research is being done into the age of the wallpaper and when it was acquired by the family, but indications at the moment show that it dates from the last quarter of the 18th century and into the first decade of the 19th century.

This charming wallpaper is a nonrepeating panorama of Chinese bamboo trees, pretty trailing flowers and exotic birds. its scenic panorama, extending around the room, portrays typical examples of Chinese flora and fauna, each element chosen for its symbolic meaning and relationship between the concepts of Harmony and Nature. The wallpaper is painted entirely by hand in water-colours onto extremely thin, hand made sheets of Chinese paper, which were first pasted together to give a 'length' of wallpaper. This type of wallpaper was particularly fashionable in the grand rooms of stately homes in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Along with the general fascination at the time for all things Oriental, wallpaper such as this one formed part of the Chinese export trade to Britain. They were carried, most famously, by the ships of the East India Company, thus earning themselves the misnomer of "India Papers". Inked inscriptions found during conservation on the reverse side of the Woburn wallpaper refer to "Lot No. 25" and the name 'Royal George' which may shed light on its original transport and sale.
The wallpaper itself had suffered much damage from the fluctuations in temperature and humidity over the decades: the drying effect of the atmosphere had caused the wallpaper to become desiccated and brittle, splitting and cracking and in some cases resulting in loss of the image area. Similarly, the canvas supporting the wallpaper, which had originally been stretched taut over the bare wooden walls had also degraded, turning damagingly acidic, sagging and offering little support to the wallpaper. At one time, the Ballroom had also been used as a smoking room. This use, and years of airborne dust had created a layer of nicotine and dirt on the surface of the paper giving the whole pictorial scene a dark yellow-brown hue.
A large conservation project was planned and put into action to remove the wallpaper completely from the walls of the Ballroom, clean it, re-line it and then re-hang it back on the walls on a strong new support. Before the wallpaper could be removed, the small cut out birds, butterflies and bunches of bamboo leaves, (supplied by the Chinese workshop to be pasted over the seams in the paper in order not to break the flow of the panorama) were carefully removed and set aside for treatment. The seams themselves were then opened up and the wallpaper taken down in manageable sections. From there it was transported to the conservation studio in Lincolnshire where it could be treated properly.
In the meantime, the walls were prepared to receive the wallpaper using the latest wallpaper conservation techniques pioneered by Mark Sandiford with colleagues in Holland. The old canvas lining was substituted with a modern, longer lasting and more stable polyester material. Stretched and tacked over the walls as the canvas was before, this method combined traditional hanging techniques with the advantage of a more beneficial modern material. The polyester was then covered with layers of hand made Oriental paper, in a complex system of linings, similar to those used in Japanese scroll mounting. By adapting this tried and tested mounting technique, the best possible support system was offered for the Chinese wallpaper, taking into account the wallpaper's dual role as oriental work of art, and as a functioning wallcovering.
Studio work on the wallpaper involved removing the old degraded linings, which in many areas had become extremely loose. Following this, the wallpaper was gently washed to remove more dirt, and soluble degra dation products. Often a rarity with Chinese wallpaper, this paper had fortunately never been touched since it was first hung in the Ballroom. It was not uncommon for expensive, quality wallpapers such as this to be sold and moved to different houses. Worse still, many have often been zealously restored and overpainted, particularly when their subtly shaded backgrounds have become dirty.
As the Woburn paper was completely intact in this respect, it was possible to wash out a considerable amount of brown discoloration to reveal much lighter colour, closer to the original brilliant white background, hidden by layers of dirt. Furthermore, as the treatment progressed, the original background sheen returned. This had originally been achieved using a wash of powdered mica over the white background colour and giving the whole a shimmering lustre suggestive of smooth white satin.
Once washed, the paper was relined in its traditional Oriental manner with hand made sheets of mulberry paper, to provide a strong and compatible support to the fragile historic wallpaper. Again, the choice of appropri ate, quality materials is of paramount importance in ensuring the longevity of the wallpaper.
With the help of carefully recorded documentation and photographs, the wallpaper could be rehung on the walls in exactly the same positions as before. Finishing touches included the careful patching and in-painting of small missing areas and the application of the cleaned cut-out bamboo leaves from over the seams.
This large conservation project has not only resulted in the improvement of the aesthetic appearance of the wallpaper, but has also provided reassurances that the utmost has been done to ensure the life of the wallpaper has been prolonged as far as possible. It now remains a beautiful example of Chinese decorative art, still in its original location, for the appreciation of generations to come.
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