Every choice we make gives insight into someone’s personality, whether it be selecting what to wear, what magazine to read or even what wallpaper to decorate with. These choices tell a story.
We’ve picked four places of interest to visit and each of these features fascinating wallpaper. Read on to discover two very different wallpapers at Wrest, the tastes of a renowned satirist, and murals that spark memories of travel. And an example of how we protect and preserve wallpapers over time.
A Brief History Of Wallpaper
A sheet of wallpaper generally consists of a backing, ground coat, and applied ink or paint. The backing would be either a woven textile or a non-woven wood pulp mix. While the earliest known wallpapers date to the 13th century, the earliest surviving examples are from the 16th century.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, wallpapers were a relatively expensive commodity. They tended to be either hand-painted or block-printed. In the 17th century, the block-printed papers were typically printed in black and occasionally stencilled in colour.
Leaping forwards to the 18th century, designs became more decorative. Fruits, classical architecture and Gothic designs (among others) were all featured. The most expensive wall-coverings continued to be commissioned from China, though by the mid-nineteenth century French wallpaper manufacture dominated luxury wallpaper production.
The development of mechanical reproduction in the first half of the 19th century meant production costs lowered. In 1861 the paper stamp duty was abolished, and the cost of wallpaper dropped significantly. New methods of production paved the way for new designs and types of paper could be produced, notably the washable ‘sanitary’ wallpapers.
1. Oriental Wallpapers Upstairs at Wrest Park
The first room is a bedroom and dressing room where the walls are decorated with an eighteenth-century Chinese wallpaper.
From the seventeenth-century onwards Chinese wallpapers were a popular form of decoration for the European domestic interior. These types of papers were made purely for export. It was an extremely expensive venture and once commissioned could take up to eighteen months for delivery.
Dr. Esme Whittaker (Collections and Interiors Curator) informs me that the paper was hand-painted and comprises of many layers of thin paper made of mulberry fibres. The design comprises of two typical Chinese designs.
The Chinese bird and flower pattern and scenes showing life and occupations in China. The papers were uncovered during restoration work in 2006. Once the wooden panels concealing the papers were removed, in situ conservation was necessary.
2. French Wallpaper “Eldorado” at Wrest Park
The second scheme is in another first floor room at Wrest Park. The paper was produced by Zuber, based in Alsace, France.
Dr. Whittaker explains that the design is called ‘Eldorardo’. It’s a mythical city representing Africa, Asia, Europe and America through its flora and fauna. The panorama is divided into a series of scenes. This was in order to help it fit into the room, but further adjustments were necessary to make it fit into a specific room. The trellis border was applied at a later date.
The paper may look as though it was hand-painted, but it was printed using 1,554 different blocks and 120 colours. This paper is believed to be the only complete set in the country.
The Map Room at Eltham Palace
We recently uncovered the Map Rooms at Eltham Palace in London. The existence of a map was known, but the extent of the covering and particularly the paintings was completely unknown. Conservators Sarah Lambarth and Rachel Turnbull uncovered the initial paintings. Thanks to a public funding, it was possible to reveal these remarkable, imaginative and personal images.
The Library at Brodsworth Hall
Brodsworth Hall has various examples of wallpapers, which are worth a visit. A large conservation project is currently underway in the Hall. As with any historic property, constant renovations are required to sustain the building’s fabric and collection. At Brodsworth, we’re conserving it ‘as found’ – which means visitors experience the slow decline of country houses in the 20th-century.
Eleanor Matthew, assistant curator at Brodsworth Hall told me that a paper from the library needed to be conserved due to rising damp problems and silverfish damage.
As with all wallpaper conservation at English Heritage, this wallpaper was conserved in situ. The image above shows the contrast between the wallpaper before and after conservation.
Find out more about the ongoing conservation work being carried out at Brodsworth Hall.
5. The Architectural Studies Collection: 18 Stafford Terrace.
Edward Linley Sambourne was a famous cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch, or the London Charivari. He lived at 18 Stafford Terrace, and a selection of wallpaper extracted from his home is held in the Architectural Study Collection (ASC).
Sambourne’s role at the magazine involved him in contemporary discussions on good taste and culture. As an arbiter of taste, his choice of wallpaper offers a good example of what a 19th century stylish interior looked like.
Unlike other addresses attributed to the ASC collection, 18 Stafford Terrace survives today. It is located in the fashionable Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The house is extensively documented, and the whole interiors, family history and belongings are available to view and research.
The following papers are from the ASC.
The top paper in the image above depicts a William Morris design. It was selected for the ceiling and used on the staircase beneath the dado rail. Below are papers similar to the William Morris paper ‘pomegranate’. Closer inspection of 18 Stafford Terrace’s wallpapers reveals that ‘pomegranate’ was used in a different colour-scheme.
These papers offer an insight into what wallpapers were purchased for fashionable homes in the mid-19th century. They would have been brought to the home as samples so the buyer would be able to test what wallpapers suited the room. Sambourne’s choices also demonstrate that colour-schemes could be altered to suit an individual’s taste.
All the wallpapers in the ASC tell different stories. Questions of imitation, wallpaper consumption, good taste, 18th and 19th century interiors, wallpaper production, and even manufacturer histories can be explored.
You can come and see the ASC collection and a small sample of wallpapers on our store tour at Wrest Park Archaeological Store. Find all the information you need here.