See all stories
1 Feb 2022

Lions, peacocks and peonies

Written by Emma Inglis, Curator (Glasgow & West)
A close-up image of an embroidered Chinese-style lion on a silk panel. The lion is sewn in green, red and orange thread.
A Chinese lion, or foo dog, hand embroidered in China around 1730.
A set of Chinese embroidered silks is one of the hidden treasures of Newhailes. We take a closer look at what the embroideries reveal about the 18th-century relationship between East and West.

In 1733 Sir James and Lady Christian Dalrymple extended the still modest villa of Newhailes to include a new wing. Housing a new drawing room, the best bedroom, a dressing room and a closet, it was the height of fashion, made even more so by the luxuriously decorated chinoiserie (Chinese-themed interiors). Around this time Britain was greedily consuming goods imported from China. The most fashionable people displayed their best beds draped in Chinese embroidered silks, along with textile wall panels (or Chinese wallpaper as a cheaper option) and liberal displays of Chinese porcelain.

The Dalrymples of Newhailes embraced this fashion, filling their best bedroom with Chinese embroidered bed hangings, silk wall panels, co-ordinating window curtains, and Chinese lacquer display cabinets on which to show their growing collection of porcelain. Reflections from two walls of mirrors would have completed the visual feast, which was designed as a statement of wealth and fashionable consumption for visitors to see, rather than for use by the family. In the dressing room next door, the walls were hung with Chinese tree of life design wallpaper to complement the scheme.

A detail of an embroidered silk panel, showing two Chinese huntsmen. The one on the right is on horseback and wears a red jacket. He is holding a bow in the air. The man on the left is on foot and wears a navy jacket. He is carrying a long spear. A black dog runs between them.
A detail of Chinese huntsmen and dogs from a bed curtain, showing the lustre of the 18th-century silk.

Although the best bedroom has long since been stripped of its 18th-century display, the Chinese embroidered silks have been carefully preserved at Newhailes. They form several sets or part sets. The best bedroom bed ensemble is the most extensive, comprising bed curtains, inner and outer valances, a head cloth, tester cloth and magnificent counterpane, all with different but complementary designs. The bed curtains are standard Chinese export ware – their tree of life design springing from craggy rocks at the lower edge and twining upwards with delicate leaves and colourful flowers. Among the rocks are Chinese men caught in action, hunting with weapons and surrounded by running dogs. The Chinese artists took inspiration for this design from early Indian chintzes, which were also traded with the West. These curtains demonstrate the intermingling of ideas, taste and demand, stimulated by European traders as they quested for novelty consumer goods and materials around the world.

By contrast, the head cloth that forms part of the bed set has a distinctly European feel. Classical pillars are surmounted by a simple arch hung with flower garlands and topped with a shell. In the middle is a depiction of Venus and Cupid. Inspired by and aimed specifically at a European market that loved classic motifs and rococo symbols such as shells, this piece is less successful; the design is less well drawn and the embroidery work is of a lower quality than other pieces that spring from Chinese cultural traditions.

The counterpane, with its impressive double-headed peacock motif at the centre, is another piece made specifically for export to Europe. It seems to reference the double-headed eagle of Western heraldry and can be found on several export bedcovers of this period that are held in other museum collections and attributed to the workshops of Macao. For the Dalrymples, it wouldn’t have mattered very much what was depicted on their Chinese textiles. Like other consumers of this period, they designed their best bedroom to present an idea of China, without feeling the need to reflect the actual culture of China or Chinese traditions. The Newhailes embroidered silks are therefore united by colour rather than embroidery style, imagery or underlying meaning. Some pieces, such as the counterpane and bed valances, may have been specially commissioned to fit. Other pieces have been cut and sewn from standard lengths of silk to suit the requirements of the house. Some appear not to have been used at all.

A detail from the centre of an embroidered silk wall panel. It features two phoenixes with fire coming out of their tails, chasing each other round a circle. At the centre of the circle is a red peony motif.
A silk wall panel of traditional Chinese design, with a phoenix and peony motif at the centre.

Within the collection, two pieces appear to be older than the rest. One of these is a silk wall panel (above), possibly designed for the small ante room accessed from the library, which once functioned as a sort of book room or office. The panel is embroidered with a design that originated during the Tang dynasty (618–906) and was copied in China for centuries. In the centre is the peony, the king of flowers, flanked by a pair of fiery-tailed phoenixes, the king of birds, in a design known as feng xi mudan (phoenixes playing with peonies). The Dalrymples would have been wholly unaware of the fact that this design was considered appropriate for a family home – in Chinese culture, this design was associated with ordinary citizens instead of royalty and it symbolised harmony and conjugal happiness. The central motif is surrounded by Chinese flowers such as chrysanthemums and lotuses, as well as auspicious birds and animals. These were traditional motifs for this design, but on this panel they are worked in colours that would appeal to the European market. A pair of Chinese guardian lions, also known as foo dogs, chase across one corner; and stylised rock and cloud formations are intermingled with dragonflies, butterflies and birds in flight.

Other symbols that would have been auspicious to Chinese people also appear in the Newhailes silks. Spotted deer are embroidered on the bed hangings and on a pair of long, narrow wall panels, symbolising longevity and wealth – the Mandarin word for stipend is homonymous with the word lu (deer). Squirrel-like creatures perhaps represent the Chinese idea of qilin (imaginary animal), which was often used to symbolise a wish for children and would be appropriate in the context of bedroom hangings. However, since the influence of European ideas on Chinese textile production caused traditional design to mutate, it is difficult to know for certain. These creatures might alternatively be an attempt by Chinese textile workers to depict a Western animal for a Western market.

A formal 18th-century-style bed is displayed in a grand bedroom. The bed is covered by exquisite silk panels, featuring various embroidered motifs. The silk hangings are mostly golden in colour and contrast against the darker green wooden panels on the walls.
The bed hangings, assembled briefly at Newhailes in 2002, before returning safely into store.

Aside from the best bedroom, many of the other bedrooms at Newhailes were decorated with Indian chintz and Persia carpets. In the late 18th century the house interiors would have presented a fusion of design, history, taste and fashion, all portraying the ‘exotic’ East without necessarily understanding or distinguishing between different cultures.

These interiors were primarily a statement of wealth and fashion that, in the case of the Chinese silks, happily combined a desire for novelty with a sense of antiquity, adopted by association with an ancient culture. The lustrous silks, colourful embroidery and bright Indian cottons must have seemed the perfect complement to the painted green panelling that dominates at Newhailes, creating pretty and lively interiors that simultaneously conveyed a message of age and established cultural value. Their survival allows us a glimpse into the lives of the Dalrymples and the world around them.