For most of its history wallpaper has been the poor relation of the decorative arts: because it is fragile, ephemeral, and easy to replace it has often disappeared from the historical record. The history of wallpaper has been based largely on those pieces which have passed into archives and museum collections, supplemented by those papers that survive in historic buildings, and those represented in pictorial records of interiors.
Wallpaper has generally been thought of as background rather than foreground (with some notable exceptions such as Chinese papers and the early 19th-century French scenic decorations). Nevertheless, its role in the overall decorative scheme is a vital one, and the choice of wallpaper affects the mood and style of a room, and may influence the choice of other furnishings. The wallpaper itself may be indicative of the function of a room, and will often reflect the age, status or gender of its inhabitants or habitual occupants. William Morris recognised the importance of wallpaper when he advised in one of his lectures;
'Whatever you have in your rooms think first of the walls for they are that which makes your house and home, and if you do not make some sacrifices in their favour you will find your chambers have a kind of makeshift, lodging-house look about them…'
Yet divergent opinions about wallpaper were apparent from the beginning. Some considered it to be attractive, clean and durable, whereas others regretted that the fashion for wallpaper had supplanted other methods of wall-decoration. This widespread and continuing ambivalence towards wallpaper can, to a large extent, be attributed to wallpaper’s essentially imitative character. It is almost always designed to look like something else – tapestry, velvet, chintz, silk drapery, linen, wood, masonry, a mural. For much of its history wallpaper has appeared (at least at first sight) to be something other than merely printed paper, and as an affordable substitute for more costly materials it has never quite thrown off the taint that comes from being a cheap imitation.
Several 19th-century novelists have employed the motif of wallpaper to characterise those who reject honesty and integrity in favour of sham and show. In Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, set in the 1840s, the handsome vain flashy Sergeant Troy, newly married to Bathsheba Everdene and thus in possession of Weatherbury Farm House, explicitly rejects the honesty and integrity that the un-modernised house represents. He complains:
'A rambling gloomy house this…I feel like new wine in an old bottle here. My notion is that sash-windows should be put in through-out, and these old wainscoted walls brightened up a bit; or the oak cleaved quite away and walls papered.'
Likewise, the new Mrs Gibson, in Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866), tries to impose her own values in the home of her husband, and stepdaughter Molly. Eager to pet and please her daughter Cynthia who will shortly be arriving from 'pretty, gay France' she determines that she will 'new-furnish' her bedroom, and Molly’s too, though the latter objects to her much-loved familiar furnishings with their associations of a happier past being ousted by 'a little French bed, and a new paper, and a pretty carpet.' The author makes explicit Mrs Gibson’s concern for appearances above all else when she explains to Molly that her room must be re-decorated, even against her will, so that people will not say that her stepmother has slighted her but indulged her own daughter.
Both Gaskell and Hardy articulate a commonplace view of the period, which held wallpaper in high regard. In both these instances a new wallpaper is advocated by those who are shallow and false, in-comers with no attachment to the past or to the values cherished by other morally superior characters. These literary details confirm wallpaper’s long association with deception and illusion, and with the rejection of tradition and integrity. In France too we find wallpaper implicitly associated with a rejection of history and tradition: Madame de Genlis (in 1760) bemoaned the frivolous ephemeral fashion for English wallpapers which had driven the Gobelin tapestries out of style. Wallpaper itself comes to stand for a decline in values, both moral and social:
'In the old days, when people built, they built for two or three hundred years; the house was furnished with tapestries made to last as long as the building; the trees they planted were their children’s heritage; they were sacred woodlands. Today forests are felled, and children are left with debts, paper on their walls, and new houses that fall to pieces!'
Wallpaper becomes a metaphor for dishonesty and dissembling, for the ephemeral as opposed to the secure and lasting, and for the valuing of appearance over substance.
It is perhaps no surprise that debates around the morality of ornament – especially on wallpaper – came to prominence at just that time when the invention of machine-printing and the repeal of the excise duty on printed paper had put wallpaper within the reach of quite modest households. Wallpaper, which had by the early 19th century established itself as a luxurious and elegant commodity, was suddenly commonplace. It therefore became important to differentiate between chaste, ‘honest’ and proper design on the one hand, and the cheap gaudy excesses of popular taste on the other. As wallpaper became a standard decoration in working class homes it became less fashionable in wealthier households, and even those who designed wallpapers – notably William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey – often preferred to use other kinds of wallcovering, or none at all.
Despite these debates and controversies on the themes of taste and class, wallpaper has proved to be a most durable fashion, and has been appreciated as an expensive and luxurious decoration, as well as a ‘make-do’ substitute. It is often associated with cleanliness and comfort, and has become a kind of short-hand symbol for home and domesticity, readily co-opted by writers, artists, and advertisers. In her story The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins-Gilman memorably employed wallpaper to symbolise the claustrophobia and repressive control that a creative woman might experience within the confines of her home and family. In recent years, artists wishing to recreate or explore aspects of home and identity within the context of the art gallery or museum have often chosen to design and make wallpaper because of its inherent associations with domestic life.
With the exception of the sturdy embossed wallcoverings such as Anaglypta, wallpaper is generally an ephemeral material. Whereas furniture and textiles often survive, and pass from one generation to the next, wallpaper is frequently damaged, covered over or removed altogether. It has generally been the easiest and, relatively speaking, the cheapest aspect of interior decoration to replace, and thus it is the least likely to survive. This is unfortunate because wallpaper is the most eloquent embodiment of changing fashions, vivid evidence of an individual’s taste, and the fundamental framework of any new scheme of decoration.
The serious academic study of wallpaper, and by association the collecting and preserving of historic papers, did not begin in earnest until the early 20th century. Inevitably, museum collections and the papers that have been preserved in situ tend to be the best of their kind, and therefore in many respects the least typical.