Arts & Culture

Reviving a Lost Art: De Gournay’s Hand-Painted Silk Wallpapers

BY Many Ngom TIMEOctober 20, 2020 PRINT

It’s not every day that wallpaper can transport your mind elsewhere, but that’s exactly what happens when you visit de Gournay’s website. Its hypnotizing wallpaper designs transport you to 18th-century China or 19th-century France. Elegant and whimsical, these works of art are part of a legacy that was almost lost: the traditional Chinese craft of hand-painting silk.

Hannah & George
Hannah Cecil Gurney, de Gournay’s director of operations, and her son George at home. (Rebecca Reid)

For Claud Cecil Gurney, the founder of London-based de Gournay, his passion for this art began as a child at his family home, where he discovered and fell in love with hand-painted wallpaper. Later, when looking to restore antique panels of Chinoiserie wallpaper, he was unable to find a company that could recreate the original magnificence of the hand-painted silks. He set out for China to investigate the origins of the craft.

Magnolia Canopy. Photography by Rebecca Reid 4
Delicate magnolia branches (“Magnolia Canopy”) greet guests at de Gournay’s showroom in Beirut, Lebanon. (Rebecca Reid)

There, with the country under communist rule and transitioning to mass production, the traditional craft, Gurney found, was all but lost. With great effort, he managed to find individuals whose parents and grandparents had trained in the old techniques and wished to see the tradition kept alive. In 1986, he officially launched his company.

Temple Newsam. Photography by Rebecca Reid 4
“Temple Newsam” on tarnished silver gilded paper with hand embroidery. (Rebecca Reid)

The Technique

To this day, de Gournay remains a family company, employing artists whose painted designs grace fine silks and papers.

Temple Newsam. Photography by Rebecca Reid 7
“Temple Newsam” is a longstanding favorite from de Gournay’s Chinoiserie collection. Here it is painted onto 12 carat white gold gilded paper. (Rebecca Reid)

It takes 15 to 20 years of practice to achieve the painting skills necessary; an artist first copies someone’s else painting style for eight years before creating his or her own. At de Gournay, the artists and craftsmen are experts in decorative details and possess an extensive knowledge of painting techniques as well as the colors and designs of hand-painted wallpapers from different time periods.

While painting, the artist always has two brushes in one hand, one to pick up the deeply pigmented color and the other to spread the pigment along the silk, creating a beautiful, graduated watercolor-like effect.

de Gournay & Erdem production imagery
An artist working with two brushes in one hand. (Courtesy of de Gournay)

Expansion and Couture

Once painted, it’s fair to say it’s not just any wallpaper anymore—Gurney has likened de Gournay’s works to tapestries or murals. And given the parallels with fashion, you could call it couture wallpaper.

In fact, de Gournay partnered with fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu to create a capsule collection depicting flora and fauna in full bloom, and a lively wallpaper design with sparrows, warblers, pheasants, and egrets scurrying among hydrangeas, hollyhocks, irises, chrysanthemums, and morning glories.

“Flora” on Liso Pine wool sateen. (Douglas Friedman)

“I so loved working with de Gournay,” Moralioglu said. “The intricacy of their work is extraordinary, particularly when you see the wallpapers up close. My work has always been about creating pieces with a human hand, and we have a very similar approach to craftsmanship and detail, so working together felt easy. It was wonderful to collaborate creatively in such a different medium.”

The company has also partnered with model Kate Moss to create “Anemones in Light,” depicting these flowers shot through with shards of light.

Sans Soucis. Photography by Douglas Friedman 5
“Sans Soucis” on custom gray dyed silk with hand embroidery. (Douglas Friedman)

Thanks to Gurney’s daughter Hannah Cecil Gurney, the company has expanded into wider fields such as fashion, fabrics, and decorative objects. Hannah naturally grew up developing an eye for the beauty and craftsmanship of hand-painted wallpaper, its synergy of colors, and interior design.

“My father could have made widgets, but he didn’t. He made exquisite wallpapers. How could I not have joined the family business?” Hannah said. “I wake up every day excited about my work, and I am so lucky to do so alongside my family. The passion it inspires is incomparable.”

Adam Grey detail
Detail, “Adam Grey.” (Courtesy of de Gournay)

Anything that involves artisans and such exquisite craftsmanship has a price, and certainly de Gournay wallpapers are pricey—but the investment is worth it.

Think about it: A simple panel can make a big difference in a room or a corner, and a room with a wall covered with a beautiful scene can have simpler furniture. The best part is that the wallpaper is removable. Because the silk is so strong, you can remove a panel from the bottom, send it to de Gournay for a new wallpaper backing, and reapply it in another room or in another home.

Temple Newsam. Photography by Rebecca Reid 11
The lush gardens of “Temple Newsam” fill the interior of de Gournay’s showroom in Beirut, Lebanon. (Rebecca Reid)

It’s a beautiful investment, and now that we may be spending more time at home, investing in luxurious decor makes more sense than ever.

For more information, visit

Many Ngom
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