Wallpaper: nostalgia & reproduction
An interest in the styles of the past has been a factor in the design and production of wallpaper from a relatively early date - the revival or continuity of patterns such as the 'Privy Council flock' is testimony to the longevity of individual designs. The pastiching or modification of earlier styles is apparent in, for example the neo-Gothick designs of the 1830s and 1840s, based on the architectural papers of the 1760s and 1770s, or in the Adamesque designs of the early 20th century, reprising the decorative motifs and styles of the later 18th century. Designers whose work has been regarded as radical and reforming have often done little more than adapt the styles of the past to suit the tastes of the present. Even William Morris, so often credited with reinventing wallpaper and restoring its credibility as an elegant artistic decoration, found his motifs and even the patterns themselves in medieval manuscripts, 16th century herbals, and Renaissance textiles. By the later 20th century it was the anonymous patterns – the flower sprigs, ivied trellises, and modest diaper patterns of the mid-19th century – which were lifted wholesale and relaunched in newly fashionable colours on a public increasingly keen to live post-modern lives in Victorian settings.
The majority of us, it seems, wish to live in houses which are either genuinely old, or which are modelled on older styles and incorporate their decorative features. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that 'retro' styles of decoration – particularly for wallpapers, textiles and furniture – are favoured. This nostalgic impulse is a major force in the wallpaper trade in particular. From the 1920s onwards American firms such as Thomas Strahan Co. and M.H. Birge Co. specialised in reproduction papers for historic houses. In the US and UK most wallpaper companies have continued to produce reproduction patterns and historical pastiches alongside their ranges of new designs. This long-established reverence for the styles of the past has more recently been supported by a new concern for historical authenticity in period decorative schemes, public and private.
Museums – and the V&A in particular – have been implicated in this ransacking of past styles. The V&A' s collections were brought together with the specific aims of inspiring good design and offering the best of the past as well as the present to inspire and elevate the tastes of designers and manufacturers, and also of consumers. Morris himself adapted patterns from textiles which he saw in the V&A in the 1860s, and wallpaper designers have continued to use the Museum's historic papers and textiles as a resource, copying or modifying them to produce period collections. Laura Ashley, Osborne & Little, and Colefax & Fowler have all put out collections which reproduce anonymous 18th- and 19th-century patterns. Manufacturers such as Zoffany have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Temple Newsam, reproducing some of the papers found in the house, and supplying them for the reconstruction of certain of the interiors. The wallpaper collections at the Whitworth Art Gallery, English Heritage and the Silver Studio Collection (now MoDA) are similarly valuable sources of designs and of information about period colours and styles.
Wallpaper has a key role in schemes to restore or recreate historic interiors, and especially domestic interiors. A whole range of reproductions are to be had, from the bespoke papers made with materials and by methods appropriate to the period (for example, the red flock for the restored Uppark), to the pastiches and modernised versions of historic designs (the screen-printed Morris patterns from Sandersons; the 'new' patterns from Zoffany produced alongside the reproductions of document samples from Temple Newsam; or even, for the general market, Laura Ashley's recoloured versions of early 19th century flower-sprigged papers).
Some of the greatest problems encountered in creating accurate reproductions of historic designs are matching colours (usually with inks and pigments which are different compounds to those used originally), and duplicating specific production techniques. Embossing and flocking can be difficult and expensive to copy, and projects such as Uppark, with the resources to reproduce (as far as possible) every aspect of the original, are rare. Some processes will have disappeared altogether and would be prohibitively expensive to recreate - for example, some of the Uppark papers, originally roller printed, had to be reproduced using screen printing as the nearest available equivalent. At Lorenzo, an 1808 house in Cazenovia, New York, the restoration team went to considerable lengths to reproduce a Zuber paper with a satin ground, ultimately involving wallpaper manufacturers and experts in France, Germany, England and the US.
The technique chosen for the reproduction has to approximate the characteristics of the original process, whether it is the variations in the application of the inks in a hand-block printed paper, the precision of a machine print, or the slightly off-register colours of a hand-stencilled print. And however carefully the processes are themselves reproduced, the inks and the paper will be very different from those used for the original wallpaper. The textures of hand-made rag paper, with its characteristic laid lines, or a cheap thin machine-made woodpulp paper produce very different effects when printed, which it is difficult for the modern copy to reproduce effectively. However, for most purposes it is the overall effect of the paper when hung in conjunction with other furnishings that is important, and not whether the new paper is indistinguishable when set beside its original. At Clandon Park, a restoration carried out by John Fowler matched a red flock from the State Bedroom with a replica, but for general sales, and with costs in mind, Cole's produced a simple block-printed version.
Projects such as Uppark are exceptional in their precision and accuracy, and also in creating a further level of authenticity by fading the papers to match salvaged fragments of the originals in order to reproduce their aged appearance at the time of the fire. The Zoffany papers installed at Temple Newsam, on the other hand, were 'as new' and thus gave an equally deceptive but rather different impression: that the whole house had been redecorated at the same date, though with papers of varying dates belonging to different phases in the life of the house. In his catalogue to the exhibition, Historic Paper Hangings from Temple Newsam and other English Houses (1983), Anthony Wells-Cole examines the phases of redecoration that the house experienced under different owners, and laments the loss of several original papers in the 1940s when the house became a gallery for pictures removed for safe-keeping from the Leeds City Art Gallery. The project to rehang Temple Newsam with reproduction wallpapers after the original designs (or approximations of them) is described as a 'rehabilitation', and Wells-Cole makes it plain that the appropriate wallpaper patterns and colours are the key element in reawakening an awareness of the historical importance of the house itself.
At Uppark the restoration was much debated before the decision was taken to proceed. Key to this decision was the fact that a restored interior would be the most suitable setting for the salvaged contents, which had been designed or collected by the Fetherstonhaugh family over generations, especially for the rooms in which they lived. The wallpaper, restored, reproduced and artificially aged, was vital to this scheme; as the authors of Uppark Restored point out, 'the conserved wallpaper upholds the subtle harmony of the other contents of the room [the Red Drawing Room], notably the carpet and curtains, which have also undergone a similar ordeal by fire.' In the Little Drawing Room the wallpaper was reproduced to copy its faded colour (rather than the brighter tone of the original, known from some preserved fragments) because this 'was more consistent with the patination of the contents of the room.' Throughout the restored State rooms at Uppark, wallpaper is treated as the keynote to the colouring of the scheme as a whole, and as a unifying element. This painstaking process of ageing and matching old and new ensures that there are no jarring contrasts, no obvious anachronisms, and preserves the illusion of the house untouched by its ordeal, though the conservation of the Red Drawing Room wallpaper was seen by some as 'deranged perfectionism'.
A purist 'good taste' approach to restoration in historic houses often gives a false picture of the past. At Wightwick, where for example, successive redecorations have made the house more 'Morris & Co.' than when it was decorated for its first occupants in the 1880s and 1890s. Since 1937 more Morris work has been brought in by the Mander family and the National Trust, and several rooms have been redecorated with additional Morris papers. A restoration which strips away these elements because they do not fit our ideas of authenticity is inevitably ahistoric, and a falsification of the past. With some historic houses the process itself has become the product; the National Trust published a book about the decision to restore Uppark detailing the methods used to reproduce or restore the fabric and furnishing of the building. The same idea underlies the presentation of certain English Heritage buildings, for example Belsay and the house at Brinkburn Priory (both Northumberland) make a virtue of their unrestored state, with walls stripped back to show the fabric of the building in places, and layers of discoloured wallpaper left in situ.
The restoration of a real documented interior takes wallpaper fragments found in situ, and if possible, replaces them with an exact reproduction of the design, as was done at Temple Newsam. Where such evidence is lacking a reproduction wallpaper of the period is installed, sometimes with the evidence of archives or diaries or inventories, or old photographs, to suggest colours or styles, but more often the result of guesswork, as for example at Darwin's home, Down House, in Kent, recently restored by the National Trust.
Period rooms in museums are often invented in their entirety, as at the Gefffrye Museum, York Castle Museum (Victorian parlour) and at Beamish. In such cases invention is possible because its purpose is very different - the room represents 'typical' or 'fashionable' styles of a specific date and is furnished accordingly. The 'Aesthetic Room' at the Geffrye Museum for the period 1875-90 Is papered with a modern reproduction based on a design by Christopher Dresser, while the 'Regency Room' has a blue and white replica of a paper found in Lauderdale House, Highgate (now in the English heritage collection). At Beamish a middle-class interior was invented with the help of photographs, pattern books, and oral history, since this is a room of the fairly recent past with living witnesses to appropriate styles. The wallpaper and the other furnishings are chosen on the basis that they would have been affordable and locally available for a household of that type.
Projects such as Uppark and Temple Newsam, the rise of museums of social life which focus on domestic environments, and the growth of an interest in antiques and collectibles beyond a traditional monied elite, have all contributed to a significant interest in furnishing one's home in a style appropriate to its date. The mania for ripping out original features and installing PVC window frames and other anachronistic fittings has led to a reaction amongst those people who are actively interested in the history of their own home. This interest has of course also been fostered by the rise in home ownership and the decline of public housing. Though it is largely middle-class, it is not exclusively so. It has been fostered and serviced by manufacturers of period furnishings, and here wallpaper manufacturers have led the way, perhaps because wallpaper can be the cheapest and easiest material to replace and to 'get right'. A number of firms deal exclusively or primarily in reproductions of historic patterns, working to commission for those who can afford it, but also maintaining a stock of period designs.
Country house visiting, a form of domestic tourism from at least the early 19th century, has in the last 30 years become a major leisure activity for all. The National Trust and regional history societies, with their preservations and restorations, have certainly played a part in exciting a wider interest in authentic, or at least, historic décor. Several books have fed the fashion by recording high-profile restoration projects such as the Kennedy-period White House, Colonial Williamsburg, and Uppark. There are also manuals of resources such as Richard Nylander's exhaustive Wallpapers for Historic Buildings: A Guide to Selecting Reproduction Wallpapers (1983), the Silver Studio Design and Source Book for Home Decoration, by Turner and Hoskins (1988), (both re-issued), and leaflets from the Georgian and Victorian Societies on choosing wallpapers for period houses. Magazines such as Traditional Homes (now defunct) and Country Homes and Interiors have regularly featured wallpapers, showing historic examples alongside the modern reproductions, while the long-running Country Life has from its earliest days featured articles on historic interiors and decorations. Some of the first serious research into wallpaper history appeared the pages of the latter, and it has certainly been a significant influence in the dissemination of the English country house style and the use of reproductions of historic wallpaper designs as a suitable setting for antique furniture and gracious living. New wallpaper ranges from firms such as Osborne & Little, Zoffany and Colefax & Fowler emphasise their inspiration from, or direct copying of papers in archives or fragments found in situ in historic houses.
Whilst revival styles and reproduction patterns have long been a staple of the wallpaper industry, the obsession with authenticity in the use of historic designs and colour is a much more recent phenomenon. One of the most contentious of recent refurbishments using reproduction wallpapers was that of the Lord Chancellor's apartments in the Palace of Westminster. The main argument in defence of this expensive scheme (£59,000 for the wallpapers alone) was that the various elements – carpets, upholstery, and in particular the wallpapers – were authentic both to the period and to the building. However, whilst it is true that the wallpapers, printed by Cole's from the original Pugin blocks, are indeed authentic in that they were designed for the Palace of Westminster, most were not originally used in the rooms where they now hang, and indeed Lord Chancellors have only been accommodated in the building since 1923. The refurbished apartment, handsome though it is, is no more authentic than the room-sets in the Geffrye Museum.