People equate “tearing down walls” to bridging cultures. Instead, de Gournay covers them in exquisite, hand-painted chinoiserie that could not exist on one continent without help from the other.
De Gournay, a manufacturer of some of the highest quality hand-painted wallpaper, textiles and decor on the market today, is based in the UK. It was founded in 1986 but its intercontinental design tradition began around 1658. Back in the 17th century, Europe woke up one morning to find a handful of items had arrived from the Orient that depicted a lifestyle and an aesthetic completely unknown to them. The continent went wild. A new style of figure painting emerged as European artists imitated the look of ancient Chinese art. They called it chinoiserie or “Chinese-esque.”
In a funny twist, when Europeans eventually visited China and those whose art had so inspired them, they commissioned paintings but in the style, colors and patterns the Europeans were most comfortable with rather than in purely Chinese style. Fast forward to 1986: the hand-painted wallpaper trade had been whittled down to a single supplier on the border of Southern China. Claud Cecil Gurney and Dominic Evans-Freke of London, yearning for a freshly minted brand of beauty they knew only Chinese hands could deliver, embarked on what was, for them, a personal passion to revive the tradition. They began by focusing on chinoiserie wallpapers, developed into other hand-painted product lines, and, to their surprise, are now enjoying worldwide success and recognition. Last year, the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) wore a dress of silk, created by de Gournay, during a royal tour of Indonesia.
Read on to find out what Evans-Freke and his uncle discovered when they “wandered off to the Orient” and how their one-time hobby connected cultures through time.
Taste of Life: The story of how de Gournay was founded starts with quite an image: a man seeking to restore the antique chinoiserie wallpaper in his home in London and not being able to find almost a single person in the world who could do so.
Dominic Evans-Freke: That was my uncle Claud, yes. I was studying law and Claud was a chartered accountant. When he and my grandmother wandered off to the Orient in search of these products, I would help them out. It was a hobby for us.
It was never our intention to become the manufacturer, distributor, designer, and retailer. It was born partly from our disappointment upon arriving in the Far East in the 80s. There was very little understanding that China had ever made beautiful things.
TOL: But hadn’t there been singularly beautiful handcrafted objects coming out of China for centuries? What happened?
Evans-Freke: In terms of mainland China, just the fact that there was a very strong discouragement from the ruling elite of anybody pursuing ‘frivolously artistic’ enterprises… to be an artist of any sort was extremely risky for your life. Fine art of this caliber doesn’t respond well to upheavals; you need stability to be able to develop it. But if staff have been constantly shifted around and people are starving to death and there’s constant revolution in the air, you can’t achieve that sort of stability.
TOL: Tell me more about what happened when you, your uncle and grandmother “wandered off to the Orient.”
Evans-Freke: We landed in Shanghai and the frequent question that came up was “How many thousands of these pieces do you want?” We’d say, “I’ll tell you what, hold your thousand, take all the effort you’d put into making that thousand, make us one in the same amount of time and it might just be worth having.”
At the time, craftsmen were making scroll paintings, decorative kites, 10,000 of this horse, 10,000 of that butterfly. But when you sat down and talked about wallpaper, everyone looked entirely blankly at you. Even in the old world trade there was no history of the Chinese ever using wallpaper. It was only made for export. That one could spend hundreds of hours making one product and someone would pay what, to them, was a stupendous sum because it was valuable for its beauty, but it wasn’t art, it was still a product, it was an anathema.
TOL: Once your chinoiserie wallpaper was successfully produced and you brought it back to England, did you find a market for it?
Evans-Freke: I would say, in the 80s, it took us ten years to really revive and then to build on the demand. We were looking not just to recreate the China trade but we wanted to extend it to where we felt it was going before which was that you might give your captain departing on the Empress of China, the first American ship to go to the Orient in 1786, no 1784, sorry, you’d give your captain with your money a list of wishes and you might have said “I want a blue India paper and I do so admire those ones that feature birds.” Nowadays we’d develop that and say, “I want this particular pantone shade of blue, I want it to fit this room, and I want it with these birds painted by this artist.”
TOL: It must have taken a tremendous amount of work to develop a workshop of top artists producing fine decor. How did you do it?
Evans-Freke: A lot of the knowledge we took back to China came from research in the UK, trying to work out how the things had been made so that we could go back and tell the people who had the skills, but didn’t know they had the skills, what they should be doing. It’s a bit like taking a really skilled carpenter who’s never built a boat. If you go and work out how to build a boat despite the fact that he’s never built a boat, in theory, he ought to be able to build one.
TOL: Things are so much different now between China and the West. Can you share any stories about how all of this has come full circle?
Evans-Freke: When we opened our showroom in Shanghai, it was a big surprise to me that Chinese customers were walking around going, “My gosh, I love all this stuff. This is so English!” Then later on they would say “You know what, Dominic, it’s very funny. I love all this English design but it’s really strange that we have things a little bit like this in China.” They can see the production techniques are the same as in other areas of decorative arts in China but that doesn’t cause them to make a causal link that one is necessarily Chinese. What they’re seeing is the European taste in the colors, the patterns, the layout and the use. And they’re seeing that as a much more important function than the fact that it’s constructed around Chinese principles using Chinese materials.
TOL: Is chinoiserie wallpaper something of a relic for people just interested in history? How does hand painted wallpaper compare to modern printing methods and designs?
Evans-Freke: We’re trying to make a product that you can treat as a beautiful thing for the wall. But if you wish to know more about it, there are so many levels: the colors behind it, the history of the pigments, the history of the designs, how we’ve brought an ancient tradition and product into the modern era.
In a handmade product, the changing pressure on the brush as the artist gets tired or is fresher, the changing colour on the brush as the brush empties or fills, the changing moods of the people painting it, the changing light in the room around them… every single thing lends life to the product which doesn’t exist in the machine made one.
For example, you’ve been sitting in your room for a number of years and finally you realize there are two identical birds in your room somewhere and you look at those two birds and they’re the same but they’re not the same. The artist, painting one afternoon, was in a particular mood and his flying sparrow has got his tail up in the air and is coming out with a slight kick to its feet. There are so many levels to the thing which might pass someone by forever but are there to be noticed by someone who cares.