By Tabitha Sabky
The topic of Chinese wallpaper has become increasingly popular within the last decade, with a resurgence of this stylized Chinoiserie commodity seen in pages of design magazines and style blogs, auction catalogs, and academic scholarship. While considered a contemporary novelty, the ‘conspicuous consumption’ of Chinese wallpaper is in now way novel. Its history of manufacturing, distribution, and consumption begins in the 17th century, remarkable surviving the fluctuation and evolution of styles and fashions over the centuries, and all while simultaneously remaining timeless and current. While there are larger numbers of Chinese wallpaper from the 18th and 19th century sill extant in England, in America these statistics are variably less known or undocumented. The Hamlen family dining room in the 1940s, with original Chinese wallcovering hand painted on silk.
The survival of the Hamlen’s wallpaper along with the family’s history offer new ways through which to examine Chinoiserie as a commodity in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. The survival of this great piece of history depends greatly on the effort of Mr. Hamlen and his family to ensure its longevity.
The history of the Hamlen Collection wallpaper offers something quite remarkable for American cultural heritage. Spanning over several generations, Dev Hamlen and his family have owned, repurposed, and reinvented a series of rolls of hand painted Chinese wallpaper that had been purchased and brought over by the family in the 1860’s. The wallpaper’s significance does not rely on its beauty, rater beneath the paper’s sartorial textures, indulgent colors, and animated scenes of nature, lies a rich history of a family’s interaction with Chinoserie, social class, and heritage since the mid 19th century. By placing this family’s story within a larger context of American culture, the family records, letters, and photographs capture a snapshot of the socio-economic relationships with foreign material culture in America.
The history of the Hamlen Collection wallpaper offers something quite remarkable for American cultural heritage.
The wallpaper consists of a bird and flower design, a popular style of Chinese paper in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although purchased in the 1860’s, it is likely that the original panels of wallpaper date from earlier in the century. Time has done little to diminish the spectacle of the papers; a liveliness of object and deep saturation of color has not been diminished, due in large part to its time in storage in the 19th and 20th centuries. The iridescence of the paper appears like silk and porcelain on the surface – there is nothing subtle about this paper, it force one to explore the illuminated topographies of its visual landscape. The current growing social awareness around Chinese wallpaper and its appeal as an emblem for refined taste and an indicator of cultural adeptness today reflects upon the history of Chinese wallpaper as a social commodity within the United States and abroad. A large part of its popular application in design from the 18th to the 21st century resulted from its rarity and high-cost, accompanied by the highly public display within homes and their circulation within elite circles as social commodities. The desire to have and showcase this luxury good today seems to have remained almost culturally inherited from the generations before, who have desired to purchase and display the purpose of social and cultural refinement. Chinese wallpaper offers one the chance to claim the dispensations of heritage, irrespective of whether one has these inherited material privileges or not; they symbolize social mobility and material culture assets.
The technology available over the last ten years has allowed for this Chinese wallpaper to find new way of surviving and find new audiences in museum quality digital fine art photography and reproduction
Created out of and representative of a growing globalization, the historical and contemporary discourses and behavior surrounding Chinoiseries, more broadly, remain both nostalgic and cosmopolitan in the pursuit of social identity formation. One’s ability to choose correctly amongst new luxury goods, such as Chinese wallpapers, expresses values of taste and facilitates one’s entrance into genteel culture and aided in the redefining of status. In subscribing to these larger social currents of fashion and the decorum of use, the consumer contextualizes meaning. As the culture of gentility influence consumer revolution, the possession and acquisition of material goods was not the sole contributor to exercising good taste; rather, taste was a result of the careful use and nuanced understanding of how objects and materials should be used, dictated by cultural standards of etiquette.
Goods and spaces became typologies through which one could connect with the culture of gentility and perform polite behavior. Today’s consumer might overlook the importance of the consumption of material goods as indicators of one’s social status, through which to publicly signal style, affluence, and power. However, shopping and consuming were and still remain important way through which to either subtly gesture or loudly announce one’s identity and those whom one wishes to associate through a shared language of material goods. The performance of culture as a public commodity depended upon these social connections, establishing those who had access and those who did not. The fascination with this style as commodified gentility has attracted the American elites for centuries, who used Chinoiserie and Chinese import goods to participate and position amongst refined culture and outwardly represent themselves as patrons of fine tastes. The Chinese aesthetic has become so deeply entangled with national and imperial identity in 18th and 19th century American history that it was used to reinforce a later American genteel aesthetic as equal to that of England and Europe. As a commodity of global status and power, these objects made their way into the interest of American elites, who understood how aesthetic choices reinforced social, political, and cultural practices.
As a commodity of global status and power, these objects made their way into the interest of American elites, who understood how aesthetic choices reinforced social, political, and cultural practices.
The Hamlen family Chinese wallpaper was brought to America by Mr. Hamlen’s ancestor Nathaniel Perez Hamlen, from his voyage to Calcutta. In 1862, Hamlen sailed on the Union from Boston headed towards Calcutta. As family letters would indicate, Nathaniel and his mother kept a constant correspondence, often discussing the events from the monumental politics of the escalating Civil War to the everyday family affairs of the farm. It is not known from the letters or family records where on this journey Nathaniel purchased or acquired the rolls of Chinese wallpaper. The ships records indicate stopping several places in the West Indies, South America, South Africa and finally India. With the history of Chinese Wallpaper and it circulation so closely tied to the history of the East India Trading Company and its members, it would be possible to speculate that Nathaniel procured the wallpapers from merchants in India or the West Indies. The wallpaper returned with Nathaniel and remained in a crate until the family rediscovered it in the attic in the 1930s.
Given Nathaniel’s mercantilist enterprises abroad and opportunities in India, the circumstances under which he accessed and acquired the wallpaper would have been reasonable. Hand-painted and imported wallpaper from China had remained an expensive commodity into the 19th century and would have been both a financial and social investment. His position in foreign trade may have provided the opportunity for acquisition of such goods and have given Nathaniel a chance for the expression of gentility. The social capital offered by mercantilism allowed those in the middling classes to establish themselves as status figures through their participation in the consumption of particular stylish goods brought from the East. As the global economy became more closely tied to the Orient and the spread of these goods across the Western world became associated with the privileges social and fiscal access, Chinese goods, and eventually chinoiseries, became indicators of status.
Hand-painted and imported wallpaper from China had remained an expensive commodity into the 19th century and would have been both a financial and social investment.
While Nathaniel had access to these goods abroad on his travels, what about his live and situation in Boston interested Nathaniel enough to purchase it? Chinese luxury goods had become increasingly synonymous with wealth and good taste within American society more broadly within the 19th century and could offer social capital and value in the home. It is evident from the constant epistolary relationship be Nathaniel and his mother that the family was part of a Boston middleclass but was by no means very wealthy nor held a high social status amongst the fashionable Boston families. However, Nathaniel was soon to marry Gertrude Loring, the daughter of an affluent Boston family, upon his return from Calcutta in 1863. Perhaps, the wallpaper would have been an excellent gift of his fiancé and her family? Perhaps, Nathaniel considered it an important marker of his soon to be status with his wife? Chinese wallpaper of this condition would certainly have been perceived of at the time as a fine luxury good and representative of either access to foreign goods or higher socio-economic status. The performance of a public identity based on one’s participation in cultural beliefs and values created distinctions between those who had access to culture and those who did not. The commodification of status allowed these groups to use one another for access and establish themselves amongst other classes, asserting their authority as public figures in the religious, political, or economic spheres. Furthermore, one’s position in the elite was achieved through their performance in spaces amongst those who had cultural capital. Anyone with financial or social access to good could attempt to communicate their status with in the rising middling elite through their aesthetic and cultural choices. As a result, identity became a visible commodity that was meant to be understood and gained through accessible means.
The reproductions are significant because they allow a wider audience to be able to own and appreciate the beauty of the historic pieces
Dev Hamlen’s family rediscovered the wallpaper rolled up in a crate in the attic in the 1930’s. Then in 1938 his parents made the decision to finally display the wallpaper. The condition of the wallpaper was due in large part, to its inactive use for almost seventy years. The family, upon discovering this heirloom and at the suggestion of Gardner Cox, and American painter and family friend, backed the wallpaper and placed it in the family dining room. The wallpaper remained on the family’s 700-acre farm in Wayland until only recently, when it spent some time in storage at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Hamlen Collection certainly remains true to the visual language and reimagination of the past, while adapting to find new meaning in the 21st century.
Photos from the family’s album reveal parties and dinners spent in the dining room. The wallpaper meant a tremendous amount to Mr. Hamlen’s mother, who too great pleasure and pain needlepointing scenes from the wallpaper on dining room chairs. She, as Mr. Hamlen remembers, would choose one aspect of the wallpaper every year to make into a new chair and did so for several years., each time personalizing with her touch and interpretation.
Mr. Hamlen, along with his creative director, have begun reproducing his family’s wallpaper over the last few years. With other hopes for the original panels to be part of a museum’s collection one day, Mr. Hamlen wants to ensure that a variety of people, scholars, and consumers are able to access and enjoy the wallpaper generations to come. The reproductions are significant because they allow a wider audience to be able to own and appreciate the beauty of the history pieces in their home as their own family asset. The technology available over the last ten years in museum quality digital fine art photography and reproduction has allowed for this Chinese wallpaper to find new way of surviving and find new audiences. The families continued interaction with the wallpaper for almost two hundred years provides new interesting narratives on heritage, design, and place making. One can only be astounded by the commitment to its conservation and efforts to create new places of discourses in 21st century spaces. The diverse use of the papers illustrates a creative and personal repurposing, not solely concerned with design and fashion, but hinged upon a revival of heritage and commodified luxuries of the inherited goods passes through the family. It is evident that his passion reincarnates his family’s enthusiasm for chinoiserie, as well as illustrates the desires for the paralleled 21st century consumer. Mr. Hamlen is immensely proud of his family’s heritage in Massachusetts and values this wallpaper as an important part of his own legacy.
Mr. Hamlen wants to ensure that a variety of people, scholars, and consumers are able to access and enjoy the wallpaper generations to come.
The Chinese taste is a symbol of global topographies and imperial aesthetics, representing how the concept of an individual’s presentation and behavior of gentility reinforced these artistic and fashionable hegemonies of taste. The Hamlen Collection certainly remains true to the visual language and reimagination of the past, while adapting to find new meaning in the 21st century.
Author Tabitha Sabky is an architectural and cultural historian and preservationist, and designer in Boston.
Museum quality scans of original Hamlen chinoiserie panels by Kathy Tarantola Photography, also a photographer for the Peabody Essex Museum.
Article Copyright © 2020 by Tabitha Sabky, Etna NH. All rights reserved. No copies or transmissions without written permission of the author. Black and white photo of original wallpaper by Tabitha Sabky.