Papers imitating plaster work appeared in England from the late 17th century. Some of the early black and white papers seem to derive from plasterwork, particularly on ceilings. These were succeeded by simple patterns printed in grisaille and used on walls and ceilings where they convincingly imitated low-relief modelling in plaster or stucco. The advantages of using paper decorations to imitate stucco and plaster were set out by the Eckhardt brothers of Chelsea, London, in a leaflet issued by the firm in May 1793: 'Eating rooms already stuccoed might, at a small expense, receive additional embellishment' and rooms with bare walls could be given the same beauty and elegance of stuccoed interior, but without echo (a common complaint about such rooms) and without having to wait for the stucco to dry.
Architectural papers in a variety of styles were available from the mid-18th century, and continued to be popular until the mid-19th century. As well as elaborate renderings of sculpture, architectural features, and plaster-work, there were papers printed as trompe l'oeil imitations of masonry, marble, and later, brickwork, tiling and woodgrain. As early as 1690 Edward Butling's stock included papers in imitation of 'Wainscot' (wood-panelling) and 'Marble'. By 1795 a Parisian manufacturer, Durolin, was offering an extensive range:
'architectural ornaments in grisaille and highlighted with gold, papers imitating Brazil wood and book spines of all sizes, grillework imitating that of bookcases, open as well as closed, trellising, brickwork, stonework, ashlar, marbles, granites, columns, pilasters, margents, banisters, cornices, architraves, statues, swags, parterres, corners, borders, panelling and overdoors of all kinds.'
There were two main styles of 'architecture papers': the Gothic and the classical, with occasional eccentric mixtures of the two. In 1762 John Gordon, a Dublin paper-stainer, advertised papers 'consisting principally of Gothic or Grecian Architecture, in due Perspective, and proportioned agreeable to their respective Orders;' On the whole, classical pillar and arch papers, even those which were English-made, were more popular in America than in England. Gothic styles it seems, appealed rather more to English tastes, although they were also produced in some numbers on the continent, particularly France and Germany.
From the middle of the 18th century, most paper-stainers advertised 'Gothic' papers in their lists of patterns. Amongst the earliest examples of Gothic wallpapers were those at Horace Walpole's house, Strawberry Hill, which was decorated throughout in the Gothic taste in the period 1753-76. In a letter to Lord Dover in 1753 Walpole describes this aspect of his decorations:
'The bow window below leads into a little parlour hung with a stone-colour Gothick paper and Jackson's Venetian prints, which could never endure while they pretenced, infamous as they are, to be after Titian &c., but when I gave them the air of barbarous bas-reliefs they succeeded to a miracle;…From hence, under two gloomy arches you come to the hall and the staircase…Imagine the walls, covered with (I call it paper, but it is really paper painted in perspective to represent) Gothick fretwork.'
Walpole's papers were chosen with the eye of an antiquary, and were simple authentically styled representations of Gothic forms. The novelty and the fame of Walpole's decorations at Strawberry Hill gave an impetus to the Gothic revival style across Europe, and must have helped to create a market for Gothic wallpapers. Visiting Lady Orkney at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, Mrs Philip Lybbe Powys is shown '…a Gothic root-house [summer-house] which hangs over the river…the inside is Gothic paper resembling stucco.'
In due course, the Gothic style was both popularised and debased. Complex elaborate implausible patterns combining a miscellany of fanciful and inauthentic details were characteristic of the 'Gothick' style wallpapers from the 1820s onwards. Such papers, rather than imitating stone and stucco-work in low relief, were more obviously illusionistic and pictorial with vignettes of ruins, figures and landscapes, often printed in colours. By the mid-century such styles were appearing in machine-printed versions, designed to appeal to lower end of the market. A typical example from about 1850 in the Whitworth represents a carved relief of Crusaders fighting Saracens, a sculpture of a monarch, and a complex framework of arches, pinnacles, fretwork and masonry.
Another of these popular Gothic wallpapers was hung in the Ostrich Hotel at Castleacre near Swaffham, Norfolk around 1820. The style was still popular, though hardly fashionable, but the paper may well have been chosen in part for its relevance to local sights and scenes. Castleacre had a number of Gothic remains, including 'The site of the priory church … a venerable large gothic pile … [a] great part of the front or West end of it still remaining.'
At a time when travellers were often interested in ruins and antiquities, a Gothic wallpaper would have been an apt choice of decoration for a hotel. It has also been plausibly suggested that the Gothic style had inherent associations with hospitality, conviviality and feasting. An anonymous writer in the Gentleman's Magazine wrote, for example,
'Methinks there was something respectable and venerable in those hospitable Gothick Halls, hung round with the Helmets, Breast-Plates and Swords of our ancestors.'Indeed the paper from the Ostrich even features representations of trophies of this kind in niches.
In fact this association of the Gothic style with hospitality seems to have been commonplace. In 1841 the architect and designer A.W.N. Pugin was writing dismissively of:
'What are commonly termed Gothic pattern papers for hanging walls, where a wretched caricature of a pointed building is repeated from skirting to cornice, door over pinnacle and pinnacle over door.'He noted that there was 'a great variety of these miserable patterns', and that the style was 'a great favourite with hotel and tavern keepers.' Just as hoteliers in America favoured the French scenic papers for their spectacular character and their obvious references to travel, so it would seem that Gothic style served a similar purpose for British innkeepers though at lesser cost and with rather more parochial associations.
The so-called 'pillar and arch' papers of the later 18th century employed both classical and Gothic features, often in the same design; they typically represent arcading, or a façade punctuated by sculptures in shallow niches.
Dramatic and handsome when considered in isolation, they seem to us rather disturbing and over-assertive when used to paper an entire room – the multiple vanishing points distort the perspective. Generally it seems that papers of this kind were used for halls and staircases, tall narrow spaces where the perspectival problems of the repeat would have been much less apparent. An elaborate pattern of this kind, dated about 1760, with landscapes framed by Gothick tracery and figures within a Gothic and classical framework, was found on the staircase of the Ancient High House in Stafford. It was pasted directly to the wattle and daub wall panels, with a ceiling paper representing low-relief plaster-work used on the structural timbers to frame the pictorial scenes of the main design. In the same year Chippendale supplied a 'Cathedral Gothic' paper for the back stairs at 26 Soho Square, London, for Sir William Robinson. A late example of the style - a classical 'pillar and arch' paper - was hung in a newly built house at 370 Commercial Road, Hackney, around 1810, and a 'gothic ruin' paper was used in the hall of small two-bay terraced house in Waterloo Place on Kew Green around 1815-20.
These 'architecture papers' were popular with American customers. Advertisements placed by Thomas Lee in Boston newspapers in 1764 and 1765, included 'a fine Assortment of Gothic Paper Hangings' from London. As in England, such papers were mostly recommended for halls and staircases: in the 1790s Zecheriah Mills, a Hartford paperstainer advertised 'Large and elegant Pillar and Arch figures for spaceways, halls, &c.' Imposing pillar and arch papers survive, or have been replaced in kind, in several New England houses, including Hamilton House, South Berwick, Maine, which had an American-made 'pillar and arch' paper of about 1787 in the entrance hall; the paper has been replaced by a reproduction of the original, with the ground colour changed from grey to blue. An elegant large scale pattern of a similar type, but based on an English original of about 1769 (a fragment of which is in the V&A) has been reproduced for the staircase and entrance hall at Gunston Hall, Virginia, to striking effect.
Though such papers worked best in halls and stairwells, they were occasionally used in living rooms. A good example of the ways such papers dominated a room can be seen in a painting by Philip Hussey (1713-83), which shows an anonymous family posed informally in their drawing room; the painting is now in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. The room is in fact decorated with two pillar and arch papers, one for the walls, and a subtly different design on the chimney breast. The effect is startling, and rather sombre, for this is typical of the 18th century architecture papers which were printed exclusively in naturalistic colours - black, white, buff and shades of grey.
This limited palette is confirmed by Thomas Gray in a letter to his friend Dr Wharton of Old Park, Durham, in 1761:
'You seem to suppose they do Gothic papers in colours, but I never saw any but such as were to look like stucco…Lastly, I never saw anything of gilding such you mention on paper, but we shall see.'An equally dark oppressive design was hung around 1780 in the 'best room' of the early 18th century house built by Timothy Johnson in North Andover, Massachusetts, but the use of architecture papers in these situations was rare.
A much lighter Gothic-style pillar and arch paper was used by Frances Viscountess Irwin, to decorate her bedroom at Temple Newsam shortly after she arrived as a young bride in 1758. The paper now in situ is a reproduction of a design similar to the original but copied from a pattern found in the ground floor parlour of No. 1 Amen Court, London. At Temple Newsam, the paper complemented white-painted rococo style plasterwork on the ceiling and picture frames.
The 'pillar and arch' formula was gradually elaborated to include figurative elements - often in the form of monuments and memorials. A late 18th century American paper frames figures emblematic of the defeat of the British and the declaration of American Independence; another of about 1800, advertised by its maker Ebenezer Clough of Boston as 'An elegant Device in Paper Hangings, suitable for large rooms, especially for Halls, Stair-ways, Entries, &c.' shows a memorial to George Washington with figures of Liberty and Justice. As described in the section on paperhanging, James Fenimore Cooper gives an unflattering description of a similar wallpaper in a house modelled on that of his own father in Cooperstown, New York:
'The walls were hung with a dark, lead-colored English paper that represented Britannia weeping over the tomb of Wolfe. The hero himself stood at a little distance from the mourning goddess, and at the edge of the paper...'
Cooper may well have been describing an actual paper of the period: a modern American reproduction of a 'pillar and arch' pattern with Britannia weeping, and the figure of an American patriot with outstretched arm has been based on fragments found in a tavern in Lexington, Massachusetts and a house in Salem, New Jersey.
This kind of chiaroscuro printing was also well-suited to producing wallpapers in imitation of mouldings for frames and cornices; as well as imitation plaster decorations, especially ceiling roses. Some such decorations were also made in papier maché, as a cheap alternative to plaster.
In the 1840s and 1850s wallpaper panels were printed in grisaille to represent sculptures; French manufacturers specialised in these grand decorations, but their subjects were often English including representations of Queen Victoria and John Milton, as well as French royalty and allegorical figures. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, Jeffrey & Co. exhibited a wallpaper frieze reproducing the Elgin Marbles. These were probably intended for public buildings such as town halls, and other civic buildings, and for places of public entertainment such as theatres.
Papers imitating marbling and woodgrain were produced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and were popular for halls and passageways. As J.C. Loudon explained (in his 'Encyclopaedia', first published in 1833), for entrance lobbies and staircases one of the best designs was a paper 'simply marked with lines in imitation of hewn stone' because if it was damaged a piece the size of one of the stones could be renewed without the repair being obvious.
Despite these practical advantages such papers were frowned upon by the tastemakers of the later 19th century, including Robert Edis, Eastlake and Oscar Wilde, because they objected to the sham of imitating one material in another.