Colour Our Collections: ‘The Cathay Decoration’

Unattributed designer, The Cathay Decoration, wallpaper, c.1927. Manufactured by John Line and Sons Ltd (1880 (c)-1958). England. Accession number: W.1987.269.2 Source: the Whitworth

The Cathay Decoration is part of the Whitworth’s extensive wallpaper collection. Manufactured during the late 1920s by John Line and Sons Ltd (1880 (c)-1958) and designed by an unattributed artist, it bears some similarities to the Chinoiserie wallpapers from previous centuries that can be found within the gallery’s wallpaper collection. The landscape it depicts is a vibrant fantasy, transporting the viewer to an exotic fiction. The term ‘Cathay’ is an archaic word which was used by Europeans during the medieval period to refer to the northern part of China. It had its origins in ‘Khitay’ or ‘Khitan’, which refers to a group of people who migrated to and conquered Manchuria and other parts of northern China during the 10th century CE. The Kitay or Khitan originated from Mongolia.

During the early modern period in Europe Chinoiserie, objects which tried to evoke a sense of China and the landscapes of East Asia, became popular. Chinese decorative papers were imported into Europe during the 17th century and continued to increase in popularity among the wealthy into the 18th century, first among aristocrats and later those who had made their money in trade- such as those who made money importing luxury goods like sugar as a result of the Transatlantic slave trade. In Britain, decorative papers from China were usually imported by the British East India company and were often referred to as ‘India papers’ due to this association with the company.

Drinking tea was becoming more fashionable in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries and so tea sets were increasingly sought after. Demand exceeded the supply of Chinese-made tea sets being imported, so domestic manufacturers began to experiment with different materials, such as white clay, to imitate the fine porcelain of Chinese tea sets. Some of these domestically produced products also had the advantage of being cheaper and therefore more accessible for some who could not afford imported tea sets. Coffee pots and punchbowls, not exactly traditional items of Chinese pottery but more of a reflection of other fashions in Europe at the time, were also produced with patterns to suit the appetite for Chinoiserie. There was also a fashion for having a room decorated in Chinese wallpaper among those who could afford it.

Clare Taylor has written about the renewed interest in eighteenth-century Chinese wallpapers in Britain from 1918 up until the end of WWII and notes that, particularly during the 1920s, many papers were removed from houses and sold in large numbers. Taylor notes that an association of these papers with the aristocracy proved to make them more desirable, as did their size, and so papers which were removed from country houses and were large in size commanded a high price. She also notes a taste for floral motifs in these wallpapers during the 1920s. Manufacturers also produce designs which aimed to invoke eighteenth-century Chinese wallpapers. According to Taylor, The Cathay Decoration is one such piece and was produced in a variety of sizes.

And now we would like to present you with our colouring sheet version of The Cathay Decoration. We selected the wallpaper to be adapted into a colouring sheet because we thought its clear lines and the abundant use of colour throughout the flora depicted on the piece had the potential to not only translate well to a colouring sheet but also keep someone busy for quite a while. We particularly enjoy the peonies bursting into bloom across the bottom of the page, perfect for those days when we long for warmth of the sun. Steph chose not to attempt tracing around the edges of the piece because they were difficult to see during the tracing process. She did trace the decorative line at the Botton of the piece although that, too, was difficult to see during the tracing process.

You can download a pdf version of the colouring sheet below.

We hope you enjoy it!

Hannah and Steph

Further Reading

Emile de Brujin, Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland (London, 2017).

Laura C. Martin, A History of Tea: The Life and Times of the World’s Favourite Beverage (London, 2018).

David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 2010).

Clare Taylor, ‘”Painted Paper of Pekin”: The Taste for Eighteenth-Century Chinese Papers in Britain, c.1918-1945’, in Michelle Ying-Ling Huang (editor) The Reception of Chinese Art Across Cultures (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 44-64.

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