The increasing demand for high quality finishes and materials has brought wallpaper to the foreground. We take a look at the history of wallpaper.
Throughout history wallpaper has played second fiddle to the decorative arts. Due to its fragility and ephemeral quality, it is largely considered a background of the interior. In reality, the selection of wallpaper is integral to the finished design and provides a significant contribution to the overall theme and mood.
It is only recently that wallpaper has shed its image of being a secondary consideration. The increasing demand for high quality finishes and materials has brought wallpaper to the foreground. Artisans such as, De Gournay, Fromental and Zoffany; are showcasing new techniques including rendering their papers with precious materials such as glass beads and gold leaf. Advances in technology have also allowed for more creative variations, with Fromental’s craftsmen now applying marquetry and embroidery to their one-of-a-kind designs.
Much like architectural mouldings, the style and material of wallpaper can reveal much about the property and the status of its previous owners. Techniques such as block-printing was popular amongst the wealthy during the 17th to 19th centuries and reserved only for the grander parts of the house used for entertaining.
Research and documentation of wallpaper only started at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of what we now know stems from records and a small body of examples retained in museum collections and personal archives. Larger and more prominent historical houses have managed to preserve their original wallpaper.
The first known use of paper as a finish is around 4000 B.C. occurring as Egyptian Papyrus. In China, examples of rice paper being applied to the walls as a decorative element occurs around 200 B.C. Innovations began to appear in the 8th century. Academics point to the unusual collaborations between Chinese prisoners who passed on their skill and knowledge of paper making to their Arabic captors which later became popular in the Middle East.
Wallpaper only began to make an appearance in the European markets around the 14th century. These early pieces were produced using rudimentary hand block-printing and mainly depicted religious iconography. This remained popular over the next two centuries with this technique seen only in homes of the lower classes and the devout.
The trend for handprinted wallpaper started in France in the late 15th century. The pioneering moment is usually attributed to decorator Jean Bourdichon who was commissioned by Louis XI in 1481 to produce a series of rolls featuring handprinted angles on a blue background. These were hung in all of the royal palaces and provided a feeling of decorative consistency for the king as he moved between them. The success saw the aristocracy follow suit, who began to commission their own designs.
The first known use of wallpaper in Britain remains the earliest surviving example in Europe. Found on the beams of the Lodge of Christ’s college, Cambridge in 1509. Attributed to Hugo Goes of York, this was styled in an Italian inspired woodcut, pomegranate design and printed on the back of a proclamation issued by Henry VIII.
The 1500s saw the wealthier classes in Britain move away from the expensive tapestries traditionally used as wallhangings. This period saw new fashions and materials appear ranging from brocades and velvets and even embossed leather.
The 1600s was primarily dominated by the French decorators. A noted writer of the time, Savary des Bruslons recorded “a dominotier makes a type of tapestry on paper . . . which is used by the poorer classes in Paris to cover the walls of their huts or their shops.” These dominotiers soon became experts in this method and their innovations gained popularity among the wealthy and poor alike.
The technique used both in France and Britain continued to be block printing. While the process was the same for both complicated and simple designs, there were subtle differences between the two. The more detailed designs (often featuring shields, motifs and heraldry) were produced from several newly carved wooden blocks and were prohibitively expensive. The simple method, usually styled in geometric patterns, used worn blocks bought and sold at rural fairs. Both were originally printed in black onto the paper with the colour applied with varying degrees of intricacy.
It was during the 17th century that the Chinese craftsmen started to elaborate on their paper wall-coverings. Although very little is known of their techniques and styles prior to this era, it is understood that the intricately detailed panoramic designs were created for the Western market. First imported by the Portuguese, this was followed by the Dutch who introduced this new form of graphic art to the French.
Despite the high demand for this new oriental style, true Chinese wallpapers were exceptionally rare and came at vast expense. This rarity was part of the attraction as described by Lady Mary Coke in 1772 ‘I have taken down the Indian paper, put up another upon a blue ground with white birds & flowers: ‘tis very pretty & has the additional recommendation of being quite new. There are but eight sets come to England’.
Mostly using silk rather than paper, these originals differed hugely from their European counterparts. Designers were inspired by the bright colours and content used in the Chinese wallpapers which lead to the simple black and white papers virtually disappearing. These imitations often featured handprinted birds and Chinese figures in landscape settings and were the beginning of what is now known as ‘Chinoiserie’.
The overwhelming demand for wallpaper became so widespread that in 1712 tax was levied in the UK on paper that was “painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings”. This led to new approaches to outwit the revenue resulting in plain paper being imported and hand decorated by British artisans. Although Parliament lifted the ban on imported papers in 1773, the revenue created by this industry meant that the customs tax remained in force. Such was the significance of this income that by 1806, falsification of wallpaper stamps was punishable by death.
Liberated by the the repeal of the tax in 1836, the industry began producing versions for the mass market. Advances in technology increased the rate of production significantly. The most notable being when Harold Potter patented a new rolling machine in 1839 that printed in 4 colours and produced 400 rolls per day. With this reduction in cost and wide variations of designs available, wallpaper and wall coverings swiftly became the latest fashion in interior design.
VICTORIAN & ART DECO
The introduction of the dado and picture rails in the mid 1800s changed the layout of the room and consequently how wallpaper was sold. Wallpapers began to be sold in sets of three: one for the area underneath the dado rail, the second for the dado to the picture rail and lastly from the picture rail to the cornicing.
With the Art Nouveau and Art Deco trends appearing in the 1920s, the fashion reverted to silk and paint finishes with paper now considered undesirable. Innovations continued through the 20th century and included the creation of vinyl in 1947 and pasted papers in the 1950s.
Wallpaper has only recently regained popularity as a desirable finish and we are now seeing specialist finishes and bespoke designs in high demand. Now, this is one trend that is truly worth the paper it is printed on.