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Monday, 02 April 2012

Handsome Prints

Originally invented in India, chintz became an interior design staple in 17th and 18th century English country houses. Now it’s back, says Hugh St Clair

Written by Hugh St Clair

'Chuck out the chintz', exhorted Ikea, the well-known Swedish furniture retailer, a few years back in a needling advertising campaign. They wanted to persuade us to abandon old-fashioned floral patterns in favour of cool, modern Scandinavian style. And for a while, they succeeded. But it's not easy to get the British to abandon something they've loved for 350 years.

Now chintz is starting to make a welcome return. It's the fabric of choice for many of London's top interior designers, who are cunningly using it in more subtle ways. They're mixing it with modern geometric prints, for example, or visiting the Warner textile archive in Braintree, Essex, to rediscover 19th and early 20th century prints used by the National Trust for properties such as Sissinghurst.

When we think of chintz we generally think of English country-house interiors: rooms full of large-scale, colourful roses and wildflowers printed on the glazed cotton first manufactured in Victorian times. But chintz is much older than that and actually not British at all. The word chintz was originally used by the East India Company and is a corruption of the north Indian 'chint', a word meaning to sprinkle or spray. But when Europeans started to machine-print chintz, it came to refer to any pattern with a glaze. Thus, slowly, the word has become associated with a type of pattern rather than the method of printing.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has a large collection of original chintz, handmade in India using very labour-intensive techniques. The cotton was prepared and printed using buffalo milk, myrabolan fruit and cow dung, then coloured with various plant dyes.

Rosemary Crill, Senior Curator at the Asian Department at the V&A Museum, has produced a beautiful illustrated book, Chintz: Indian Textiles For The West, showcasing the museum's collections of this early fabric.

The sophisticated patterns and bright colours of chintz that didn't appear to fade in the wash or the sun, were a revelation to Europeans when they were first brought into this country in the 17th century. They were more elaborate than British fabrics – which were either embroidered or simply block printed – and were sought after by anyone with a reasonably sized house.

Samuel Pepys bought chintz panels to line his wife's study and soon chintz was being used for dress fabrics in both England and France. Weavers in the London area of Spitalfields were not happy, fearing for their livelihoods and in 1697 a group of 5,000 mobbed the House of Commons. The government tried to force people to wear English wool by banning the import of chintz, but despite this they continued to wear chintz, and found ways around import restrictions.

Garden shot 2As Europe started to industrialise, France and England began producing their own chintz and substituting multicoloured native flowers for Indian motifs.

In the 1930s, John Fowler, of Colefax and Fowler, was asked by the owners of stately homes for help in refurbishing their chintz fabrics. Fowler found scraps of old material, which he then copied. Furnishing at that time favoured heavy damasks and William Morris prints, so using chintz brought a real freshness to these great houses. Over the next 50 years, the chintz craze gathered momentum, helped by Sanderson and designer Jean Monro, who began reproducing old patterns. Latterly however, these prints seemed out of step with the pared-down Nordic look, and many fabric houses withdrew them due to lack of demand. But many of us missed them, of course.

Now Colefax and Fowler, and the fabric designer Nicholas Herbert, are promoting them again. Herbert has selected many elegant chintzes from the 17th and 18th century. Some, such as Coromandel, which Herbert found in a textile museum in Mulhouse, France, are Indian. Others are typical English glazed chintzes, which date from the mid 19th century.

Pierre Frey in Fulham is reproducing Indiennes – fabric more akin to the original Indian chintzes, as seen in curator Rosemary Crill's book.

These days it's not chuck out your chintz, but bring it on.

Chintz: Indian Textiles For The West by Rosemary Crill is published by V&A Publishing, priced £30.

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