Inside The Remarkable World Of De Gournay's Handmade Chinoiserie Legacy
House and Leisure spends a bit of time getting to know Rachel Cecil Gurney, whose family founded luxury design house De Gournay
The luxury of the handmade is kept alive in vivid colour and extraordinary attention to detail in the legendary de Gournay ateliers where, since 1986, teams of skilled artisans continue the company's tradition of bespoke chinoiserie. The fabulously detailed papers — which South Africans can view and purchase exclusively at St Leger and Viney — are all still drawn, painted, beaded and embroidered completely by hand.
Rachel Cecil Gurney, whose father Claud Cecil Gurney founded the company in 1986, spoke to House and Leisure while on a recent trip to South Africa about her adventures sourcing with her father around the world, fighting for the survival of dying crafts, and her own endearing passion for choral singing.
5 Minutes with Rachel Cecil Gurney of de Gournay
How did your family get started in the business of making these extraordinary papers?
Our father founded the company as a result of his unsuccessful search for experts to restore antique wallpaper that had belonged to his parents. Through an individual at the Chinese Trade commission in London, he eventually met artists still practicing the original painting techniques in mainland China. They worked together to start hand painting wallpapers to sell in Europe, reigniting the tradition that had begun in the early 18th century and staying true to the original production techniques. People found out what they were doing and demand grew. Eventually my father took over a larger space and employed more artists. And it grew like that. Very organically. We now employ 100 artists and make everything in house.
When de Gournay says ‘handpainted’ does that literally mean each colour we see is painted by a human hand?
Our paper is handmade in exactly the same way as it would have been in the 18th century, from the use of the same carefully prepared Xuan paper or silk for the backgrounds to the squirrel hair and pig bristle bamboo handled brushes and authentic watercolour pigments with which it was painted. Our artisans use the original two brush technique: one brush is used to apply the pigment and the other brush is dipped into water, which drags the pigment out. That gives the design a lot of depth. The result is a wonderful chinoiserie which is as close to original papers of that date as possible.
In a handmade product, every single thing lends life to the product which doesn’t exist in the machine-made one, from the changing pressure on the brush as the artist gets tired or is fresher and the changing colour on the brush as the brush empties or fills to the changing moods of the people painting it and the changing light in the room around them.
There must’ve been so many occasions when the business could’ve said, ‘this is too expensive, let’s automate’, but after all these years, you still do it the same way. Why?
We’re both acutely aware of how special de Gournay is – in this modern world, it’s unique to run a small but globally recognised family business that is committed to making everything entirely by hand. As technology develops it becomes even more of a luxury to have handmade products – works of art that contain the spirit of the artist that created them. The key philosophy of de Gournay is that luxury is art and we are artists. Artists that can create bespoke wallpapers to transform interiors and bring them to life
You live with the papers in your own home. What do you see when you look at them?
I think the papers tell a story and have the ability to transport you to another exotic world. They are also rich in colour, which brings warmth and light and happiness to a room.
With a family business that looks so broadly for inspiration, you must’ve had some incredible holidays in your childhood? What’s one trip you’ll never forget?
My father and I go together and scour French antique markets for treasures. We always have grand plans for restoration and reupholstery. There's something so fun about feeling like you have discovered something unique and different. With a history. With imperfections and nuances. I love having a home filled with objects I have loved and collected over time instead of feeling like everything was bought in a single premeditated moment. My home can better reflect my personality and taste that way.
What craft or hobby do you do, personally, aside from the business work?
I am interested in Georgian architecture and English history; I collect books on art, history and interior design. I am fascinated by the Pre Raphaelites and of course, the trend for chinoiserie in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the trade on the silk routes. I am also in a classical choir, which is a great way to de-stress and unwind each week and it is so rewarding to perform a piece you have worked so hard on over several months to friends and family.
You’ve recently been on holiday in South Africa. What would you say the top three things every visitor to the country should see?
1.Safari at Madikwe Game Reserve. There's nothing quite like watching a lioness hunt a baby wildebeest to feed her young or stumbling upon a crash of rhino play-fighting one another or a family of elephants at a watering hole cooling each other off.
2. The view from the top of Table Mountain, especially after a two hour hike in the baking heat to the summit — it's well worth the trek! It is truly awe-inspiring and makes you feel pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It also gives you a real sense of vertigo!
3. The wine country around Franschhoek: endless rolling hills of vines, gorgeous tree-lined avenues, small family-run vineyards where you get to meet the owners and hear how they made their dream of owning and running a vineyard a reality, and a chance to experience the breadth and richness of South African wines.
For more about De Gournay and to see the papers yourself, head to St Leger and Viney in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town.