Vintage view: The history of wallpaper

Kya deLongchamps traces the history of wallpaper from the early stone-chilled castles of the medieval period, to the rococo mansions of the restoration and beyond.

Pictured: Morris & Co produced many ecclesiastic and legend-inspired tapestries for private houses. Today, digital printing recreates these masterworks in wallpaper, as well as their early hand printed wallpapers made by Jeffrey & Co in London using wood blocks and mineral based natural pigments. www.william-morris.co.uk for samples.

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Today we may stroll down the aisles of a DIY superstore, plucking up shining limbs of €25 wallpaper without a second thought, but at one time, this now democratic decor was just a dream.

Even in the 18th Century, wallpaper was for royalty, aristocracy and wealthy, upwardly mobile members of the gentry. Imagine yourself, pelted in ermine, living at the time of Henry VIII.

Next time you’re in Co Tipperary, take in the treasure that is Cahir Castle, or when in London, take a trip to Hampton Court Palace. Wander around the surviving Tudor kitchens in the basement to set the mood. 

All that protective, impressive stone is cold, potentially damp and even shored up in waxed oak panelling — pretty dreary.

Upstairs, in the medieval Great Hall of Hampton Court with its Irish timber hammer-beam roof, are some of the world’s finest tapestries. 

The Story of Abraham took dozens of needle slaves over six years to complete. Spiritual cosiness aside, these 10 Flemish masterpieces delivered to the King in 1543, add warmth, colour and interest.

A team from the Historic Royal Palaces and the University of Manchester studied fibres on the reverse of the works from Queen Anne’s Apartments for over seven years, to reveal their original sumptuous colour, a 16th century wonder we can only imagine in our homes, washed down with synthetic hues.You can find the fascinating documentary ‘Henry’s Tapestries Revealed’ from Historic Royal Palaces 2009/2010 on YouTube.

Tapestries demanded skill and materials few could afford and the trade in wall hangings was interrupted by Henry VIII’s excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1532. 

In an effort to ape the effect of hangings, painted cloth and leather during the Renaissance, noble families began to suspend wood-block printed panels of heavy paper from the walls. Another approach was to stick over-lapping printed scenes straight down on the wood, plaster or stone.

If you were super rich in the 16th century, you could purchase a set of prints that were matched together to make a large scale work. 

The most famous example and an important moment in the history of wallpaper is ‘The Triumphal Arch’ c1515 by Albrecht Durer, an architectural fantasy of an ancient Roman arch made for Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I. 

It was a sort of political poster, printed and then hand coloured and intended to be pasted up in public buildings to impress corporate shills with Maximillian’s might and grandeur.

Blocked, hand drawn and screen printed, wallpaper remained a luxurious inclusion in early modern times and it was a cause for controversy — even while adorned with safe subject matter from nature, heraldry and the bible. 

The gentry in Ireland and England were happily enjoying tinted sheet paper as an alternative form of decoration when Oliver Cromwell, in a puritanical tantrum, banned it outright alongside dangerous pleasures like carol singing and playing football on Sunday (naughty boys were gifted a good whipping).

When Charles II swished back to the throne, wallpaper returned as a legal fashion for interiors with paper, illusionist paintings and wall hangings designed in the Netherlands, Italy and France, most common. 

So called India papers (made in China, in fact) were also highly desirable for their bespoke originality and exotic subjects. 

There must have been enough wallpaper about to make money on it, as Queen Anne in 1712 slapped a tax of 1d a square yard on it — significant if you were papering a room with a high ceiling. 

Having a handy artist paint or stencil you up a scene sans paper was a handy cheat. (And still is today).

In the late 18th Century, a German engraver Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf (1738-1815) introduced papers in Paris printed on copper rolls with colour tints, and the range of fabrics and complimentary papers available to those who could afford them developed.

Oberkampf was also responsible for popularizing the charcoal on colour style of Toile de Juoy under King Louis XVI, a pretty pastoral fantasy in upholstery fabrics which also took to the walls. 

Industrialist Jean-Baptiste Réveillon (1725-1811) had another royal commission at that time from Louis, and his velvet wallpapers and panoramas by Joseph Dufour remains some of the most fabulous commercial papers ever produced.

Early flocking used real wool scattered in fibres over a glue design. 

During the English Regency, the upper and rising middle classes would tear sheets from commercially produced paper-hanging books and from illustrated volumes to collage up their own print rooms. Castletown House in Co Kildare, features a beautiful, intact print room.

To get an idea of the timeless beauty of narrative and more abstract proper wallpapers from the 1700s and 1800s, take a look at the range of early Georgian papers in exquisite tonal texture by Little Greene. 

There’s a nice little potted history with each on its website, including Sackville Street, ‘found in the rear bedroom of a home built for minor nobility’. 

The surviving example had originally been papered on boards, with additional flowers added retrospectively by hand to mask the joins in the paper’. €163.20 per roll, www.littlegreene.ie 

For Toile de Juoy in soft matt neutrals, Sanderson has a gorgeous array of countryside scenes (paysage), flowery arches, hunting scenes, flitting cherubs and frolicking French maidens. From €90 per roll, suppliers nationwide.

If you prefer the rhythms of the Arts & Crafts movement, there are plenty of original organic, Gothic and Rococo inspirations from William Crane, William Morris and AWN Pugin still on the market. Try Bradbury & Bradbury, bradbury.com and www.William-morris.co.uk 

For serious wallpaper enthusiasts there is a useful list of manufacturers printing antique and vintage papers from existing scraps of paper and documents and designs found in public and private collections at www.historicwallpapering.net 

David Skinner Wallpapers are a specialist producers of traditional Georgian and Victorian, Irish hand-printed wallpapers including the feted Fota Shamrock, www.skinnerwallpaper.com 


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