Before rising fuel bills made us all turn down our thermostats, it had become hard to remember how difficult it was to stay warm in a big house before the invention of central heating. An efficient and inexpensive way of preventing draughts in a large room is to use portable folding screens, which are now such a common feature of country-house interiors that they rarely attract much attention. Yet when they first arrived in Europe from the Far East in the early 17th century, they were highly covetable objects and, since then, ingenious artists and designers have found ways to transform a utilitarian piece of furniture into something visually delightful.

Screens were used in Europe before the 17th century one of the most familiar aspects of a medieval great hall is the screen that divided it from the kitchens but these were fixed objects of stone or wood. The portable folding screen is a Chinese invention. They attracted enormous attention in Europe, not only for their convenience, but also their exotic decoration with incised lacquer.

Called Coromandel screens in the West, as they were loaded onto Europe-bound ships on India’s Coromandel coast, these have, since then, been the most avidly collected and costly form of folding screen. The value placed on them is shown by a gift of a Coromandel screen in 1704 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, to the Duke of Marlborough, in honour of the victory at Blenheim. The Duke probably took it with him on his campaigns, as a way of instantly creating a grand setting for a military commander. Treasured by his family, it passed by descent to Althorp House in Northamptonshire.

As European craftsmen had no access to lacquer of their own, they quickly imitated Chinese screens in much less expensive painted versions. By the early 18th century, designers and craftsmen were producing a wide variety of distinctively European forms. Screens made of embossed or painted leather were popular and, as early as the 1660s, inventories begin to mention screens of tapestry or embroidery. These could be very luxurious indeed.

The French royal carpet factory, the Savonnerie, made panels for mounting as screens there is a sumptuous six-leaf example at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. Screens were also made by ambitious amateur needle-women—an enchanting example, embroidered with countryside scenes by Julia, Lady Calverley in 1727, is at Wallington Hall, Northumberland.

As well as excluding draughts, screens provided privacy in dressing rooms and bedrooms. This gave them a pot-ential for comedy that goes back to the famous scene in Sheridan’s School for Scandal (1777), in which Lady Teazel hides behind a screen. Before he spots her petticoat, her husband, Sir Peter, comments admiringly on the screen to its owner, Joseph Surface: ‘You can make even your screen a source of knowledge hung, I perceive, with maps.’ It was a screen made of printed maps, of which several examples survive there is one in the hall at Scotney Castle in Kent (a house with a fine collection of decorative screens).

Map screens were a sober example of what, by the 19th century, had become a popular pastime decorating screens with cutouts from prints or photographs. This technique, rather grandly known as découpage, probably has two sources. The first is the fashion, which goes back to the 1740s, of print rooms, in which prints were pasted to the walls or occasionally mounted onto canvas and attached to the wall on battens, like wallpaper, from which it is a simple step to conceive of prints pasted on screens. The second strand in this tradition is the fashionable ladies’ pastime of making up pictures from cut-up coloured paper.

One of the best-known découpage screens was made by or for Lord Byron for his apartment in Albany (and now on loan to his former country house, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire), which is covered with prints of popular pugilists a Regency equivalent of posters of football teams in a boy’s bedroom. An even more spectacular example was made by Jane Carlyle, wife of the writer Thomas Carlyle. This densely decorative collage is on show at Carlyle’s House in Chelsea.

Apart from screens imitating lacquer, painted screens are rare before 1800. A striking example in the V&A, painted by an anonymous artist in about 1746, bracingly evokes a country-house life of field sports and cock-fighting.

Then, in the 19th century, Japanese painted-paper screens began to arrive in Europe in large numbers. These had been known about for centuries, but had rarely been imported as they survived transport by sea much less well than Chinese lacquer screens. They deeply impressed artists, as can be seen from the ravishing versions painted by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. At this point, screens became high art, leaving their country-house forebears far behind.

* This article was first published in Country Life magazine on July 23 2014