We have launched a new website and are reviewing this page. Find out more
Open daily 10.00 to 17.45 Admission free Menu
Portion of wallpaper with rococo floral design in flock on a diapered ground, about 1760. Museum no. E.1961-1934

Portion of wallpaper with rococo floral design in flock on a diapered ground, about 1760. Museum no. E.1961-1934

The status of flock wallpaper has undergone a dramatic transformation over the space of three centuries. Once a luxury product used by the wealthy in the grandest apartments, it has declined into cliché, most familiar (at least in Britain) as nothing more than a commonplace decoration in Indian restaurants where it is intended to evoke an atmosphere of Colonial grandeur.

Flock paper was originally invented to imitate cut-velvet hangings. Flock - powdered wool, a waste product of the woollen cloth industry - had been applied to cloth in the early 17th century. It is not clear when the first flock papers were produced, but trade cards and advertisements show that flock papers were available by the late 17th century. Edward Butling's card of around 1690 declares that he 'Maketh and Selleth all sorts of Hangings for Rooms', including 'Flock-work', at his premises in Southwark. The advertisement for Abraham Price's Blue Paper Warehouse, Aldermanbury, around 1715, shows panels at the extreme left and right with Baroque-style patterns which are almost certainly flocked. However, some of the earliest flocks seem to have employed quite simple linear designs; a green flock of oak stems and lattice from Welwick House, South Lynn, Norfolk, around 1715-20, is typical of this light style.

By the 1730s many flock papers that were direct imitations of damask or velvet began to appear. The range of patterns available seems to have been relatively limited, and one particularly magnificent design has been found in several locations. This was a crimson flock on a deep pink ground, which has faded to yellowish buff on most surviving examples. This pattern was hung in the offices of His Majesty's Privy Council, Whitehall, London, around 1735; it was also used in the Queen's Drawing Room in Hampton Court Palace, and in several town and country houses, including Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, and Clandon Park, Surrey, also in the 1730s. The same pattern in green flock was hung around 1745 in the Picture Gallery at Temple Newsam, Leeds. The design itself has been traced back to an Italian brocade and a damask curtain, both in the Department of Textiles and Dress at the V&A.

The flock papers proved extremely durable - certainly more so than the textile hangings they imitated - and so although they were relatively expensive in comparison to other contemporary wallpapers, they were nevertheless good value for money. The flock papers had an advantage over textile wall coverings in that the turpentine in the adhesive used for fixing the flock kept them free from moths. In the 1740s a green cut velvet for the Drawing Room at Longford Castle, Wiltshire, cost 25s a yard, and a green silk damask for the Gallery 12s. A flock paper supplied to the Duke of Bedford in 1754 cost only 4s. Even allowing for the fact that there were several qualities of flock available, and that 4s probably represented the cheaper end of the scale, a handsome, richly coloured, long-lasting flock paper compared favourably with the alternatives.

Portion of flock wallpaper from Clandon Park, Surrey, about 1735. Museum no. E.31-1971

Portion of flock wallpaper from Clandon Park, Surrey, about 1735. Museum no. E.31-1971

The designs themselves also proved to have a long life, with several of the large-scale formal patterns - notably the so-called 'Privy Council flock' (now usually known as 'Amberley', the name given to Cole's reproduction of the pattern) - continuously available to the present day. Although flock papers have been produced in every passing style, the designs of the early 18th century have survived as a sort of gold-standard for good taste and for an approach to decorating which stands outside fashion.

The grandest flock papers have a large pattern repeat, often 6 or 7 feet in length. Papers on this scale were intended for large formal spaces - the public and semi-public rooms of great houses. Sometimes, papers like Réveillon's were flocked in more than one colour which produced a richer, more luxurious effect. Large-scale Baroque patterns symmetrical around a vertical axis were appropriate in formal settings and large rooms but were not used in more modestly sized private rooms. For these rooms small-scaled flocked patterns were available, ranging from simple diaper patterns to asymmetric floral designs similar to contemporary silks. A paper of this kind, with a yellow ground, blue-stencilled colour and dark-blue flock, was used in a bedroom at Clandon.

The designs of flock papers were swiftly adapted to changing fashions. The earliest known flock paper, from Saltfleet Manor, Lincolnshire, had a formalised design with architectural elements and typical 17th-century decorative motifs; the same paper was hung at Ivy House, in the Worcester Cathedral precincts, in panels alternating with lengths of embossed leather, another wall covering fashionable at the time. Chinoiserie designs were also produced in flock - a red-brown flock on a cream ground with a double-width repeat, from Hurlcote Manor, Easton Neston, is a fascinating melange of Indian, Chinese and English motifs. From the 1740s onwards the informal asymmetric style of French rococo was translated into flock. A particularly fine example with crimson ground, block printed in white, with mica, and flocked in crimson, was hung in a parlour chamber in the Sarah Orne Jewitt House, South Berwick, Maine, around 1775-80.

Portion of two flock wallpapers, one pasted over the other, about 1760-70. Museum no. E.596A, 596B-1985

Portion of two flock wallpapers, one pasted over the other, about 1760-70. Museum no. E.596A, 596B-1985

A number of these small-pattern flocks were hung in bedrooms - a blue flock was used in a bedroom at the Chateau of the Bishops of Dax at St-Pandclon, France, in the mid-1770s; and a formal diaper pattern, crimson flock on a pink ground, in a second-floor bedroom at Temple Newsam, Leeds. Elsewhere they were used in parlours and drawing rooms. A popular formal pattern with rococo elements, blue flock on a lighter blue ground, was hung in the Drawing Room at Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, between 1760 and 1765. A version flocked in red and yellow on a pink ground, with diaper filling in white, was hung in two first-floor rooms of Sir William Robinson's house at 26 Soho Square in 1759-60 - the paper cost 9s per 12-yard piece, and 414 yards were supplied; it is described in Chippendale's itemised bill as 'Crimson Embossed paper'. The term 'embossed', which often appears on trade cards, seems to have been another name for flock because, like embossing, flocking produced a raised surface pattern.

In A Complete Body of Architecture, published in 1756, Isaac Ware specified that the first-floor rooms of a London house 'better than the common kind' should be for entertaining, and may include the dining and the drawing room. The use of a handsome flock paper would therefore have been appropriate to the probable functions of the rooms in which it was found in 26 Soho Square. However, it is unlikely that either room hung with flock would have been used for dining - flock papers tended to retain the smell of food, as well as gathering dirt and dust, and were therefore generally considered to be unsuitable in this context. This same paper was, it seems, supplied to Sir Rowland Winn for a bedroom at Nostell Priory; Chippendale's invoice for 4 March 1768 specifies '8 Pieces Norfolk Crimson and Yellow Flock'.

Generally speaking, it seems that the scale of the flock pattern was related to the size of the room, although there are occasional examples of over-sized patterns hung to overwhelming effect in small rooms. A bedroom of the Webb house in Wethersfield, Connecticut, was hung with a red flock with a rococo floral pattern in 1781, rather late for the style. Hung from coving to skirting, it has a disturbing effect in such a small, low-ceilinged room. It was supposedly hung in preparation for a visit by George Washington, and it may be that the status of the prospective guest had more influence on the choice of paper than did the size of the room itself.

A similarly outsize red rococo flock was hung in a bedroom in the Palazzo Salis Bondo in Switzerland around 1775. In this case its dominance was moderated by framing it in panels, with a lighter decoration below the dado, over the doors, and so on. On the whole, clients, or their decorators, did take room size into account when selecting a paper. Mrs Kenyon, describing the furnishing of her new house in Lincoln's Inn Fields (1774), wrote:

'The entrance is a broad lobby well lighted by a window over the door ... it is wainscot painted white. The dining room is 21' X 17' wide and is to be new papered this week. The paper is to be a blue small patterned flock ... Our lodging room is hung with a green flock paper.'

Portion of wallpaper with matching border, about 1750-75. Museum no. E.528-2001

Portion of wallpaper with matching border, about 1750-75. Museum no. E.528-2001

Flocks were generally more expensive than other block-printed papers and most surviving examples come from the houses of the wealthy, although some exceptions are known. A paper of around 1760 with blue-flocked foliage and block-printed white leaves on a light blue ground was found in a house at 80 St John Street, Clerkenwell. The house itself was built in the 1750s and occupied from 1753 to 1790 by a distiller, John Watson. The area was not fashionable, and was inhabited in the latter half of the century mostly by tradesmen conducting their businesses on the premises.

For those who could not afford the real thing, mock flock paper was available; these papers copied the styles and motifs of flock papers with solid block-printed areas in dense black pigment on a diapered or 'mosaic' ground to give an effective illusion of true flock. A good example (now in the English Heritage archive) was retrieved from the first-floor back room of 17 Albemarle Street, London. This was a good address, in a fashionable part of town, so it is quite surprising to find a 'cheap' imitation in what would have been one of the public rooms for entertaining guests.

Such papers were usually considered more appropriate for bedrooms - for example, although Sir William Robinson had an expensive double flock made for the whole of his first floor at 26 Soho Square, he had a much cheaper green mock flock hung in one of the second-floor bedrooms at a cost of £3 2s in April and May 1760.

Cost, colour and durability were the key factors in the choice of wall coverings. Lady Margaret Heathcote writing to her father, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, in 1763, when she was choosing a wallpaper on his behalf, found several advantages in the mock flock papers. Having described some of the options, including an 'Indian paper ... [at] treble the price' of a flock, she explains:

'a Cloth paper can only with that furniture be Green, or Green and white as now; plain Green I doubt you would find very dark, and there is some difficulty in putting up a new paper of the same colours as the former one to vary the pattern so as it may not seem the very same; I have therefore ordered a pattern in Mosaick, Green upon a cloth colour ground in imitation of real flock (wch. they tell me in that light colour wears better than the real).'

Flocks continued to reflect the changing styles in textile design, and remained in demand through a sequence of architectural styles. Imposing formal patterns were still being designed in the 1820s, alongside lighter informal styles. Flocking was used to embellish designs in every style, from florals to borders with Egyptian motifs and troumpe-l'oeil printed 'draperies'.

The 19th-century flocks were even more convincing as substitutes for cut-velvet than their predecessors, thanks to a further elaboration of the production process whereby the flocked areas were blind-stamped to give an embossed finish. A crimson flock of this kind with an imposing pomegranate design survives in two of the State Rooms at Lydiard Park, Wiltshire; a similar red flock was hung by Lady Hertford in the Picture Gallery at Temple Newsam in 1826 or 1827, where it remained until 1940.

Wallpaper border in the neo-classical style, about 1800-25. Museum no. E.2242-1974

Wallpaper border in the neo-classical style, about 1800-25. Museum no. E.2242-1974

Red flock has, since the mid-18th century, been a favourite decoration for picture galleries, or for any grand room hung with Old Master paintings. The colour and texture can be a highly effective foil to gilt-framed pictures. In 1748 Thomas Bromwich was paid £45 16s by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh at Uppark, apparently for supplying and hanging a red flock very similar to the 'Flower'd Red Paper' hung at Felbrigg, Norfolk, during Paine's alterations of 1751-6. The original red flock in the Red Drawing Room at Uppark was replaced by another, also in red, during refurbishments in the 1850s.

Artists themselves certainly subscribed to the general view that red was the best background to pictures. In 1813 the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence P.R.A. wrote of his house at 65 Russell Square:

'... thus I suffer a Yellow Paper to remain that I know is hurtful to my Pictures. I should have suffered it in my Painting Room but ... it is now a rich crimson Paper with a Border'.

The 18th-century English flock papers were renowned for their superior quality. They were exported to Continental Europe, notably France, where papiers d'Angleterre were favoured by wealthy individuals such as Madame de Pompadour, who used English flock papers in her apartments at Versailles and in the Chateau de Champs. And like other English wallpapers, flocks were exported to America. Advertisements in the American press from the early 1760s included 'Flock', 'velvet' or 'Damask': both of the latter terms were used to describe flocked wall-papers. However, they did not suit all customers. Lady Skipwith, an émigrée from England, wrote in 1795 from Virginia to her agent in London: 'I am very partial to papers of only one color, or two at most - velvet paper [flock] I think looks too warm for this country.'

The luxurious aristocratic associations of flock papers continued into the mid-19th century. Many of the design reformers (see 'Design Reform') produced flocked wallpaper patterns. Owen Jones produced a number of elaborate papers - an 1867 example in the Moorish style is block printed in bold colours, embossed and flocked. A.W. N. Pugin, whose papers employed Gothic and medieval motifs, often very simple and severe, also designed sumptuous flock papers. He believed that flock wallpapers were suitable as a medium for designs in the modern Gothic style because they were 'admirable substitutes for ancient hangings'.

Wallpaper border with Egyptian motifs, 1806. Museum no. E.2259-1966

Wallpaper border with Egyptian motifs, 1806. Museum no. E.2259-1966

Pugin designed all the papers for the Palace of Westminster; a book of samples compiled by Crace & Son, 1851-4, shows the variety of styles, and gives details of where each was hung. The simplest two-colour block prints were used in servants' bedrooms, whereas the flock papers (often embellished with gold) were hung in the state and public rooms, such as the Royal Gallery and the Conference Room (now part of the Members' Dining Room), and in the apartments of senior officials. For example, a red, gold and olive version of the 'Tapestry' design was used in the Queen's Robing Room in the House of Lords and in the Dining Room of the Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons. Pugin made concerted efforts to promote his wallpaper designs to a wider market, and encouraged Crane to advertise his papers in The Builder in 1851. However, the majority of his designs, and in particular the large-scale flocks, were entirely unsuitable to a domestic setting, both in scale and because they were thought by his contemporaries to be 'too ecclesiastical and traditional in character'.

Charles Eastlake's influential Hints on Household Taste, first published in 1868, advanced some strongly expressed opinions about wallpaper, and condemned illusionistic and pictorial patterns, however he defended flocks on the grounds that 'at ordinary shops [they] are the best in design, because they can represent nothing pictorially'. But by the later 19th century flocks were well and truly out of fashion, casually dismissed or roundly condemned by successive writers of guides to interior decoration. Colonel Edis was particularly severe:

'I can conceive of nothing more terrible than to be doomed to spend one's life in a house furnished after the fashion of twenty years ago. Dull monotonous walls, on which garish flock papers of the vulgarest possible design, stare one blankly in the face with patches here and there of accumulated dirt and dust ... if the flock paper be red, we had red curtains hung on a gigantic pole, like the mast of a ship ...'
A writer in the Art Journal in 1889 concurred with this pejorative view of flock papers:
'It is seldom now that one encounters the gaudily gilt monstrosities ... or the heavily loaded 'flocks' shedding everywhere their poisonous dust.'

Cleanliness had by now become something of an obsession with the Victorians, and lighter colours and washable 'sanitary' papers were supplanting the dark velvety flocks. For those who advised on interior design and household management, such as Mrs Becton, flocks had a place only in the library, conventionally a sombrely furnished masculine room, or as a foil to pictures since they 'throw up oil paintings to a marvel'. This advice is reiterated by the anonymous author of Artistic Homes, or How to Furnish with Taste (1880), where Woollams flock papers are specifically recommended.

Dark, gloomy, a hindrance to cleanliness and a hazard to health - the fashion for flock paper was finally in decline, though as a writer in The Builder observed in 1877,

'This movement in the direction of good taste is, perhaps, hardly as general as is sometimes supposed ... it has hardly reached the mass of the trading classes at all ... and perhaps there are not a few among the professedly more cultured classes who are still sublimely indifferent to the design of their tables and chairs, their carpets and wallpapers.'
Certainly the prejudice against flocks amongst the design pundits did not result in their immediate disappearance from the market. Designs continued to he produced, including papers by Morris, Crane and other fashionable designers of so-called 'art wallpapers'. And customers at Cowtan & Son continued to order flocks well into the 1920s, in defiance or in ignorance of these critical injunctions against them.

Flocks are still produced today, using rayon flock applied by a flock gun, but the market is more or less limited to restoration projects in historic buildings.

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.