In 1827, when Lady Isabella Hertford finally installed the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper the Prince of Wales had gifted her two decades earlier, she thought it didn’t have enough pizzazz for her drawing room at Temple Newsam in Leeds, England. So she took on a collage project, using birds cut from what’s now one of the world’s priciest books: John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.
Some detailed protection and preservation work was recently done on the Chinese Drawing Room, prior to Temple Newsam’s seasonal reopening this Friday. With its life-size American birds flying alongside the original Asian species of the Chinese garden, the wallpaper is one of the more curious embellishments in the 500-year history of the Tudor Jacobean mansion.
“At first, it is quite difficult to make out some of the creative additions to Lady Hertford’s wallpaper from Audubon’s Birds of America, but the closer you look the more obvious they become,” curator Rachel Conroy told Hyperallergic. “Many of the birds are pasted over the joins in the underlying Chinese paper, making them slightly easier to spot. Some of the larger species, like the Columbia jays and swallow-tailed hawk, stand out, but many of the smaller birds seem very much at home among their Chinese cousins.”
A copy of Birds of America sold for $12.6 million in 2010, so this is one of the costliest home crafting projects in history, although it’s likely Lady Hertford didn’t consider that at the time and was just drawn to the lively avians in the stunning, then-new volume. Alongside her black Chinese lacquer furniture, the birds flit in all corners of the room, with Columbia jays perched above the door, a Baltimore oriole resting on what looks like a peach tree, and a belted kingfisher in flight among the foliage.
“It is one of Temple Newsam’s most complete rooms, appearing largely as it did when Lady Hertford redecorated it in the early 19th century,” Conroy explained, adding that the wallpaper “has the most lovely, uplifting effect, as it transforms the walls to become a garden filled with birds, butterflies, and plants.”
As it happens, a furnishing fabric was actually made based on plates from Birds of America sometime between 1827 and 1838 in Lancashire, England (the Victoria & Albert Museum has a sample), so Lady Hertford could have saved herself the trouble — and her library a small fortune — by taking a less DIY route. The wallpaper is, however, a unique reminder of one of Temple Newsam’s many inhabitants and shows a deep love for Audubon’s illustrations, enough to paste over some of the finest hand-painted wallpaper a prince could buy.
You can see the Chinese Drawing Room in more of its lavish detail in this video walk-through from Leeds Museums & Galleries, with James Lomax, curator of collections.