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A Decorative Art

The History of Wallpapers
16th – 20th C

Review of the talk by Joanna Banham
on October 23rd 2019
Joanna Banham

From small squares to long drops, from 1 million to 64 million rolls per year, the history of wallpaper abounds in interesting and surprising facts.

The first wallpaper in the 1500s was printed by letter press in small pieces measuring 12” by 18” and then stuck together like a patchwork quilt.  Black on white and rather heavy in appearance, it was far from the Osborne & Little designs with which we are familiar today.  The very first piece on record was printed on the back of a proclamation dated 1508, so it seems that recycling was already fashionable in the reign of Henry VIII.

Traditional hand-blocking
Traditional hand-blocking

In the C16 textiles and stumpwork embroidery were the inspiration for wallpaper design.  At this time it was really only found in modest homes.  The aristocratic houses instead displayed embossed and gilded leather hangings, which would shimmer and glow in the sunlight and candlelight, and lend a luxurious feel to the surroundings.

Hand-painted Chinese wallpaper
Hand-painted Chinese wallpaper
(1795–1825), Cooper Hewitt,
Smithsonian Design Museum

Colour was introduced in the manufacture of wallpaper, first in the form of crude stencilling.  Small pieces would be stuck together to create rolls measuring 21” by 33 feet, still the standard size of a roll today.  Then came block printing.  By the C18 wallpaper had become both fashionable and expensive.  At this time flock wallpaper was the height of good taste.  Flock was a waste product of the wool industry and did not attract the connotations that it does today.  However, as it became more and more sought after it did attract a government tax.  Gradually, smaller and quieter designs were used in the more private rooms, and these formed a contrast to the overpowering flock patterns.

The absolute height of luxury came in the C18 with Chinese wallpaper.  Painted by hand rather than printed, it was unique.  And it was all made for export.

As a change from the flowers and foliage that had hitherto been so prevalent, the second half of the C18 brought architectural patterns, and the idea of wallpaper borders too.  Mechanisation became the method of production.  “Luxury” therefore came within the grasp of most people, and the big name in late C19 wallpaper was William Morris, although he ironically preferred to have textiles and hangings in his own home.

By now wallpaper was in very common use, sometimes as many as three different patterns being placed horizontally on the same wall but all from the same colour palette.  Lincrusta was the forerunner of anaglypta, which became so popular from 1939.  However, psychedelic 60s colours, ready-pasted wallpaper, washable vinyls, Sanderson’s matching papers and textiles, and cheap productions by companies such as Coloroll all ended in a downturn in the popularity of wallpaper in the 1970s.

Currently, there is a resurgence at the top end of the market.  One example is of a traditional toile de Jouy design being updated by a Glaswegian company so that it now features scenes of homelessness, mugging and drug dealing instead of charming bucolic vignettes.

In his Parisian hotel bedroom, Oscar Wilde was lying seriously ill.  He is alleged to have said, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  Either it goes or I do”.  The wallpaper won.

Alison Morton