Veltrusy Mansion and its Chinese Prints

Veltrusy Mansion (Czech: Zámek Veltrusy) is a baroque country house in Veltrusy Village, Bohemia, located in the Mělník District of the Czech Republic. The mansion is situated on the banks of the Vltava River, about 25 km north of Prague.

 

 

The mansion was initially built in 1716 by architect František Maxmilián Kaňka for Count Václav Antonín Chotek of Chotkov and Vojnín. The original mansion was extended in 1764 by architect Giovanni Battista Alliprandi on the orders of Count Rudolf Chotek of Chotkov and Vojnín, the son of Václav Antonín, who also commissioned the interior decoration.

What is of interest to us here is the Cabinetl on the first floor. This small room, 370 x 290 cm, was installed in either 1754 for a visit by Francis I and his powerful wife, Maria Theresa, or in 1766 following the 1764 flooding of the Vltava River, a tributary of the Elbe not far away. The north wall has a window, the east wall has a hidden door (leading to the bedroom), and the west wall has a regular door leading to the so-called Maria Theresa Hall, one of the major ceremonial rooms.

The Cabinetl contains 51 Chinese woodblock prints glued on painted textile panels, 320 cm high, stretched and nailed upon wooden frames, placed above a 75 cm high wooden dado. The prints are hand-coloured on paper which has been cut out and pasted upon the textile panels. The prints are surrounded by painted rococo frames with shading, giving a three-dimensional impression (the same concept as in the Millionen-Zimmer in Schönbrunn). The background, imitating woodgrain, is also painted directly on the fabric. This assemblage was covered with a layer of a shining varnish – the cause of much headache during the recent conservation. The display gives the impression of a room with wooden panelling, the frames of the images intertwined with foliage and greenery. In reality, they are painted textile wall-hangings with paper applications. The room was reopened in July 2020 after a thorough restoration and conservation of the textile and paper.

View of south wall.
View of south wall.

The 51 prints can be divided into:

11 prints of meiren 美人 Beauties (4 are duplicated and 1 is triplicated, all c. 65 cm)

10 prints of flower pots (6 with lotus, 4 with camellia)

4 prints of birds

26 prints of baskets with flowers (3 different motifs, c. 30×30 cm).

MEIREN (BEAUTIES)

Only one of the Beauties can be identified with certainty, the lady holding a blue vase.

First Beauty
First Beauty

This is Magu 麻姑, the Goddess of Longevity or Daoist Immortal Magu. She wears a shoulder cape of leaves, a traditional Daoist item of dress. The covered jar has dragon decoration and contains wine which Magu brews from the lingzhi 靈芝fungus, and is to be a birthday present for Xi Wangmu 西王母 (Mother of the West). Magu appears twice on the south wall, including as one of the central figures. Paintings or prints of Magu were often given as presents to celebrate the birthdays of elderly women and they were usually hung in the middle of a wall in a living room.

This print is also seen among the wallpapers at Milton Hall, near Peterborough, and again in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram, near Plymouth (where the vase is blue-and-white), both located in the UK.1

Other attributes of Magu are the hoe and the basket which is also found with a second Beauty. Perhaps she is another personification of Magu in this room. Her hat, generally called weimao 帷帽 or mili 冪蘺 with the rolled-up protective textile veil (against the sun, and possibly mosquitoes) originated in the Tang dynasty and can be observed in paintings.2 Apparently, this print was a favourite since it occurs as the central figure on both the south and east walls. Of the five Beauties, she is the most ‘western’ one, much thanks to the hat, and therefore was given a prime position. This print is also found among the wallpapers of the Study at Saltram.3 A fragment of this print is to be found at Oud Amelisweerd, near Utrecht, Holland.

Second Beauty
Second Beauty

Third Beauty
Third Beauty

A third Beauty also has a basket as an attribute. This basket contains, among other fruits, a pomegranate (symbol for many sons) and a Buddha Finger citrus fruit, known as foshou 佛手, a rebus for fushou 福壽 (May You Have Good Fortune and Longevity), a popular motif in traditional Chinese art. This Beauty also holds a branch of nandina (heavenly bamboo, shown with black berries). There are three examples of this print on the walls (all the other four Beauties are only in two prints each), in a secondary position on the north and west walls.

Fourth Beauty
Fourth Beauty

The fourth Beauty holds a fishing rod of spotted bamboo, just like the hoe above, and a newly-caught fish. She has the typical headcloth associated with fishing girls. This print is seen among the wallpapers at the Study at Saltram and again at Milton Hall.4

Fifth Beauty
Fifth Beauty

The fifth and final Beauty holds a round-shaped fan, tuanshan 團扇, and a camellia flower. The fan is beautifully decorated on transparent silk gauze through which her garment can be seen.

All the dresses of the Beauties have shading in the folds to emphasize volume and perspective, a western influence.

POTS WITH FLOWERS

Interspersed with the Beauties are two types of flower pots or urns. One contains lotus leaves and flowers (6 prints), the other a flowering camellia (4 prints). The pots appear as three-legged vessels and have shading to give size, volume and brilliance.

The violet-coloured lotus pot might be of ceramic or metal. A dragon floats among juhua chanzhi wen 菊花纏枝紋, a popular pattern of clouds and intertwined stems of chrysanthemum, a symbol of longevity, very similar to the decor on the vase carried by Magu above. The lotus is a symbol of purity of the body and mind.

The second pot is most likely of ceramic with a green celadon glaze. It too has stylised dragons as a decorative pattern.

 

BIRD PRINTS

At the bottom centre of the east and south walls are four prints of birds pasted in pairs.

These birds are easily identified as belonging to the bird and flower prints by Ding Liangxian 丁亮先 of which a fair number (32 in all) are in the Sloane Collection in the British Museum. This group of prints were formerly (and mistakenly) referred to as the ‘Kaempfer prints’ but can now be dated to the 1740s.

A common leitmotif in all these four prints are two birds, a blossoming plum branch (two in brown, two in blue), an additional plant, different in each print, a four-character inscription using the birds’ names as a pun for famous sayings, and a six-character signature: Gusu Ding Liangxian Zhi 姑蘓丁亮先製 (Made by Ding Liangxian from Gusu [the old name for Suzhou]). The Veltrusy prints have been trimmed so that these 10 characters of text have disappeared in all four prints. Also vanished are any trace of gonghua 拱花 (gaufrage or blind embossing), a delicate technique first used in early seventeenth-century colour printing and at which, almost 100 years later, Ding Liangxian excelled. In the subsequent mounting and pasting on fabric, this relief effect was flattened out. The flower which was to receive gaufrage was printed without any outlines and in a light-sensitive red, now faded, and at some point of time a touch-up was done, sometimes replacing the original flower with a different one.

On the south wall we see a pair of waxbills on the left facing a pair of magpies on the right. On the east wall are a pair of thrushes and a pair of mynah birds. To my knowledge, this is the only example of Ding prints being used as wallpapers.

BASKET OF FLOWERS

The smallest and most numerous prints (26) are those of a basket with flowers. These basket prints are dispersed in corners and at bottom and top of the print arrangements. At first glance they appear to belong to the group of Ding prints, the same as the bird prints. However, a careful comparison with signed Ding prints shows the Veltrusy prints to emanate from different woodblocks. The prints have suffered the same fate as the bird prints, ie any gaufrage has been pressed out and some original faded flowers have been painted over with other species.

Basket 1
Basket 1

It is well-known that variant copies of the Ding prints were issued although it is not known by whom and when. It is possible that the Ding studio issued cheaper examples of their own prints, although even the variant prints can not have been all that cheap since they had to be printed an extra time with the gaufrage. Another possible scenario was that opportunist printers got on the bandwagon, seeing how popular the Ding prints were, by publishing their own versions, carefully omitting the Ding signature although keeping the text of the poems.

 

Basket 2
Basket 2

Known to us are copies (variants) with a signature Xu Yuanshan 許源山. Those prints are sloppily executed with crude cutting of the block, including rough calligraphy and watery colouring, but still retaining proof of having been printed with gonghua (gaufrage).

Basket 4 with Xu Yuanshan signature, although the Yuan character has been omitted. Author's collection.
Basket 4 with Xu Yuanshan signature, although the Yuan character has been omitted. Author’s collection.


Another group of variants are of better quality – the cutting is finer, the calligraphy is neater and the colouring better than the Xu Yuanshan group. Only two examples of that group of prints are known to me (and became known only recently!). Both those prints are in the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, Holland – Basket 25 and Basket 46 [the numbering sequence is my own]. It should be mentioned that both groups of variants are direct copies of Ding prints, with only small modifications and differences, but from newly cut woodblocks.

 

Detail of Basket 4, with part of text
Detail of Basket 4, with part of text

Represented on the walls in the Cabinetl are three of the four baskets: round basket with lotus, pomegranate and day lily (Basket 1 [references are to BM examples]); round wide-rimmed basket with narcissus, camellia and wax plum (Basket 2); and square basket with hibiscus, yellow hibiscus and chrysanthemum (Basket 4). Omitted is the round, open-weaved Basket 3 with peony, white magnolia and peach blossom. All texts have been cut away, except on one example of Basket 4 at the top right corner of the east wall. This text follows the text on the Ding print.

At first glance I assumed the Veltrusy print group to be the same as the Leiden Museum group but closer examinations show the Veltrusy prints to differ from the Leiden examples. They are without any doubt printed from different woodblocks. Accordingly, there are three different variant editions of the Ding originals, at least among the basket prints. The photographs I took during my visit are not clear enough, unfortunately, to inspect the prints in detail, and I await the kind and helpful curator to help me procure high-resolution professional photographs. With the help of such photographs one can make better comparisons and judgements.

View of east wall, with 'hidden' door behind  the lotus pot.
View of east wall, with ‘hidden’ door behind the lotus pot.

As is the case with the four bird prints above, this is the first time, to my knowledge, that copies or variants of Ding prints are being used as wallpaper. All other known Ding prints and their variants are sheet prints which have never been mounted on a wall. The fact that original Ding prints (the birds) are combined or mixed with variants of Ding prints (the baskets) might indicate that they all originated from the Ding studio. But then we have too little knowledge on the distribution, export and transport of prints in and from China and equally scant information on the import, selling, distribution and mounting of them in Europe to be able to make reliable conclusions. We see that other examples of the Veltrusy Beauty prints are also found in two locations in the UK and one in Holland, indicating a fairly wide distribution network in Europe.

Part view of west wall.
Part view of west wall.

As far as the arranging and hanging of the prints is concerned, the artisan who undertook it was skilful and experienced. He has achieved a symmetry and balance with the print material at hand (presumably he did not have access to more prints those which were hanged) which in combination with the very cleverly applied intertwined frame patterns resulted in an eye-pleasing display. As can be seen from the drawings, the east and south walls are ‘entire’ walls although the east wall has a hidden door behind one of the lotus pots. The arrangement for both is two figures as central motifs, the left figure is repeated above on the left, the right figure is identical on both walls, as is the figure above it to the right. Three lotus pots are placed right, left and above on both walls. Below the central figures are the two birds. In each corner is a basket, the upper ones identical and the bottom ones identical. The north and west walls form three columns with identical Beauty below and the camellia pot above, surrounded by baskets in each corner. On the supraporte above the window is only space for two baskets but above the door opening is a camellia pot surrounded by four baskets, partly mirroring the arrangement on each side of the door. The only occurrence of a break in the symmetry is on the bottom left of the west wall where the baskets are now 2 – 1 whereas it should have been either 2 – 2 or 1 – 1. Maybe there was a shortage of one or the other basket?

Corner of north and east walls.
Corner of north and east walls.
Scheme of the wall arrangements
Scheme of the wall arrangements

 


When fresh, the room must have been an amazing and impressive display of colours and exotic motifs. Still today, it is impossible to enter the room without feeling a wow-sensation.

  1. Emile de Bruijn: Chinese Wallpaper in Britain and Ireland, London, Philip Wilson in association with the National Trust, 2017, pp. 44-7 and 52-4; Emile de Bruijn: ‘The Use of Chinese Prints as Wallcoverings in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Europe’, in Gabriela Krist and Elfriede Iby (eds.), The Conservation of East Asian Cabinets in Imperial Residences (1700-1900), Vienna, Böhlau Verlag in association with the Universität für angewandte Kunst, 2018, pp. 61–73, at pp. 64-5, 67 and 70.
  2. https://m.baike.com/wiki/%E5%B8%B7%E5%B8%BD/1910611?baikesource=innerlink
  3. De Bruijn 2017, pp. 37-44; de Bruijn 2018, pp. 63-5 and 69
  4. De Bruijn 2017, pp. 40-2 and 44-6; de Bruijn 2018, pp. 63-5 and 67-70
  5. WM-29286
  6. WM-29285

About chiwoopri

Collector and researcher of old Chinese woodblock prints
This entry was posted in Bird & Flower, chinese prints, prints, Suzhou prints, Wallpaper, woodblock. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Veltrusy Mansion and its Chinese Prints

  1. Haiyao says:

    Wow, what a room!

  2. Misa Pejcochova says:

    Fascinating indeed. Thank you for this insightful article!

  3. Pingback: WENFANGTU 文房圖 Prints of Scholarly and Other Objects | CHINESE WOODBLOCK PRINTING

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