The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a triumphant celebration of contemporary manufacturing, and amongst its thousands of exhibits were many wallpapers, the products of more than 50 firms from Continental Europe and the United States as well as Britain. These papers became a focus for criticism by certain designers and educators who were increasingly depressed by the decline of design standards in the industry and the evident popularity of these debased products amongst consumers.
Richard Redgrave, RA, then Inspector-General for Art (later Principal of the Government's Schools of Design) wrote an official report on the wallpapers shown at the Exhibition, in which he suggested that judgements of excellence were based on the number of colours used rather than any other aesthetic criteria. Certainly technical achievements within the industry were the primary focus of the displays and the prizes. The Illustrated London News meanwhile claimed that the British public was getting the domestic furnishings its lack of discrimination merited, and pictured John Bull sitting in an easy chair, his feet on a double-piled Axminster carpet, gazing vacantly at the crimson flock wallpaper, fully content with his lot.
Indeed the Exhibition was itself commemorated in a wallpaper which embodied so many of the faults identified by the critics that it was selected for the display of 'False Principles in Design' that featured in the Museum of Ornamental Art set up at Marlborough House in 1852. A short story by Henry Morley, A House Full of Horrors, which appeared in Household Words in 1852, describes a visit to this display. The narrator, Mr Crumpet, is appalled to find his own taste held up to ridicule in 'a gloomy chamber, hung round with frightful objects in curtains, carpets, clothes, lamps and whatnot'. Thus newly aware of 'some Correct Principles of Taste',
'I saw it all; when I went home I found that I had been living among horrors up to that hour. The paper in my parlour contains four kinds of birds of paradise, besides bridges and pagodas ...'Distressed by this excess, and accumulated aesthetic shocks, he can only cry 'Horr-horr-horr-i-ble!'
Also in 1852, Wilkie Collins gave a vivid vignette of contemporary tastes in his novel Basil. The eponymous hero goes to the home of Margaret Sherwin, and there meets her father, a successful draper newly risen to the middle-class. Basil describes his first sight of the decor in the Sherwin household:
'The brilliant-varnished door cracked with a report like a pistol when it was opened; the paper on the walls, with its gaudy pattern of birds, trellis-work, and flowers in gold, red and green on a white ground, looked hardly dry yet; the showy window-curtains of white and sky-blue, and the still showier carpet of red and yellow, seemed as if they had come out of the shop yesterday ...'
The violent colours and restless patterns affront his self-consciously cultivated taste, and he feels that 'the room would have given a nervous man the headache before he had been in it a quarter of an hour'.
George Dodd, in his Curiosities of Industry (1852), was one of many calling for a raising of design standards in the wallpaper industry:
'Unless paper ceases to be a material for wall decoration (and there seems no reason why it should so cease) the time has come for a little more artistic meaning in the designs - some-thing like an approach to a principle in decorative pattern. The people, the paper users - will welcome a new infusion of mind in this art: for many of the 'curiosities of industry' in the shape of paperhangings are felt to be very absurd curiosities indeed.'
Many other voices were raised in support of this view, then and later. Eastlake, writing in 1868, condemned the examples of 'vitiated taste' which 'lines our walls with silly representations of vegetable life' or gives the impression that 'the drawing room walls arc fitted up with a trellis work for training Brobdingnag [sic] convolvuli'. He concluded that:
'The quasi-fidelity with which the forms of a rose, or a bunch of ribbons, or a ruined castle, can be reproduced on carpets, crockery and wallpapers will always possess a certain kind of charm for the uneducated eye'
and these things, though 'ingenious amusing, attractive for the moment', do not 'lie within the legitimate province of art'. Manufacturers were blamed - their eagerness to sell wallpapers encouraged 'a public who prefer the vulgar, the gaudy, the ugly even, to the beautiful and perfect .'
The mechanisation of the industry was seen by many commentators as a chief cause of the decline in design standards and the rout of good taste by the vulgar and the gaudy. The very perfection and uniformity which the machine could achieve were perversely held to be symptomatic of degraded taste. It was certainly true that printing from engraved rollers allowed fine detail and shading that were impossible with hand-block printing. Naturally, this capacity was exploited by designers, who submitted more detailed, illusionistic designs which could be accurately reproduced in the production process. The flat forms and blocks of unmodulated colour characteristic of block printing were, to the design reformers, more 'honest' and 'appropriate' as decorations for flat surfaces such as walls, and thus to be preferred to the ambitious, inventive products of the machine. As Redgrave put it (in a passage on calico printing, but equally applicable to wallpaper):
'Printing from metal cylinders has put at the command of the designer all those powers of more perfect imitation enjoyed by the engraver, and, instead of using them as they should be used, consistently with the requirements of manufacture and the principles of ornamental art, they are wasted on the imitation of flowers, foliage, and accidents of growth, quite out of ornamental character and opposed to just principles.'
In fact, Redgrave and his peers ignored the fact that many machine prints were precisely of the kind that they advocated - simple flat forms printed in two or three colours. Perhaps the very modesty and cheapness of such papers, and the fact that they were unlikely to be advertised or exhibited in the way that the more elaborate and ambitious designs were, led to them being overlooked.
A further perceived contribution to the low standard of design was the desire on the part of English manufacturers to keep production costs to a minimum. John Stewart, writing in The Art Journal (1861), compared the status of the designer in England and in France:
'In the matter of designs a French maker will spend as many pounds as an English maker will spend pence ... In France the designer is an artist and treated and remunerated as such ... In England the designer for paperhangings ranks with a writer of window show tickets ... [who] hawks his stock from door to door, thinking himself fortunate if he gets ten shillings more or less for the 'pick' of his portfolio.'
He goes on to observe that the French also spend more on their materials, and on the process of manufacture itself, and value their skilled workmen more highly. 20 years later, however, French critics were also complaining about the public's fondness for papers which imitated other materials, particularly those which achieved their effects by trompe l'oeil techniques. In L'Art nit Foyer Domestique (1884), Emile Cardon followed Eastlake in urging a greater discrimination in the choice of house furnishings.
Several of the design reformers in Britain suggested that it was the responsibility of the trade to educate public taste, but this was resisted. A letter from a wallpaper dealer to the House Furnisher in 1871 explains why:
'Paperhangings, as you must well know, are perishable goods, and do not improve by keeping like Port wine: and see trades-men cannot afford to educate public taste, or give up buying and selling our, and the public's favourite pretty bouquets of flowers. My experience is that of all the different classes of goods they are the safest to put into stock. The greatest evil in our trade is the multitude of patterns: We all have shelves and counters loaded with books and patterns from every manufacturer in the trade, and as ladies never tire of looking over samples the selection of papers for a house becomes frequently a very bewildering and tiring business: we are generally too glad to finish the transaction to think of upsetting our customers' choice by any remarks as to incorrectness of taste in the design chosen.'
Commentators such as Edis regretted the fact that there were so many patterns to choose from, with new ones issued every season, and blamed the public's appetite for change. Of course, the industry also relied on novelty as the impetus to sales. Diversifying the product to increase demand was a strategy developed in many industries in the 19th century, a strategy supported by the mechanisation of production processes. The reformers themselves, with close ties to the industries whose products they criticised, rarely acknowledged this aspect of the argument, however. Only William Morris as a Utopian Socialist, could openly blame the insatiable demands of the market, 'the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny'.
What was very apparent by the mid-19th century was that an unprecedented eclecticism had led to a proliferation of styles, with the market dominated by revival styles and historical pastiches. Heavy rococo elements, quite unlike the lively lightness of the 18th-century originals, were combined with naturalistic floral motifs to produce patterns which were dense with ornament and printed in strong colours, especially the newly-fashionable mauves and magentas. Such designs, which complemented the other fashionable furnishings of the period, were favoured by a prosperous, self-confident middle-class, for whom such exuberance and abundance represented comfort, both physical and financial.
Amongst the miscellany of historical periods plundered for wallpaper designs, Gothic and Renaissance featured strongly. Papers with Renaissance motifs, usually printed in dark, rich colours, or as embossed imitation leathers, were used mostly in traditionally masculine rooms - the dining room, the library and the billiard room.
Also popular, particularly amongst the less well-off, were the novelty wallpapers with pictorial designs that were produced in vast quantities from the 1840s, easily outselling more restrained patterns. Their subjects were often commemorative - souvenirs of public occasions and historical events, sports and pastimes, landscape views, trompe l'oeil representations of picture galleries, and so on. Condemned by most discerning critics, they were nevertheless seen by some as acceptable decorations for the poorest homes, by virtue of their educational value.
A writer in The Builder in 1851 recommended
'Historical episodes, or colonial military subjects ... the life of our Great Alfred ... and many views of the places in our colonies ... might be represented on the paper used for covering the walls of the houses of the humbler classes of society'
No doubt such papers were indeed purchased by the class he commends them to, but they might also have been bought for nurseries, and perhaps schools and civic buildings. They would also have been used in inns, as an entertaining and topical decoration, or perhaps in connection with the name; Wellington's victories (in a paper of 1853-5), for example, would have found a fitting home in a public house named in his honour, just as various papers celebrating royal anniversaries and coronations would have been much at home in The Crown or The Queen's Head.
Wellington himself is said to have had a room in which newspaper cuttings concerning his victories were pasted on the walls, and it may be that this practice, which was commonplace in poorer homes, inspired wallpaper manufacturers to take up topical events. But prejudice against the pictorial wallpapers remained - even Walter Crane's design, National, with its medallions of knights on horseback and coats of arms, issued in 1897 for Victoria's Golden Jubilee, was considered inappropriate as domestic decoration. A writer in The Ladies Realm thought it
'... might serve for a waiting-room wall at a railway station where her most gracious Majesty was expected, but heaven defend us from it in an ordinary house'.
The subject matter of these pictorial papers may have been educational or inspirational, but the fundamental objection to them was that they violated the central principle of wall decoration, as formulated by the design critics - that decoration of a flat surface should itself be flat rather than giving an illusion of three-dimensional ornament or - worse - a three-dimensional picture. As Eastlake put it, walls should he decorated in a manner which 'will neither belie its flatness or solidity'.
Design reform had of course pre-dated the Great Exhibition; that only served to give added impetus and publicity to the cause. A leading figure in the reform movement was the architect and designer A.W.N. Pugin (1812-52), an ardent campaigner for the Gothic style. He claimed this as the true British style, and promoted it on moral as well as aesthetic grounds. In the design of wallpapers he too deplored the false illusion of depth and the use of trompe l'oeil shadows, and argued instead for flat patterns composed of simple forms which would confirm the wall as a flat surface rather than disguising or contradicting it. Pugin was one of the first to promote the idea of 'honesty' and 'propriety' in ornament and design, thus enlisting ornament as a moral influence in society. He practised what he preached, designing wallpapers with flat, formalised geometric patterns such as fleurs-de-lis, quatrefoils, heraldic motifs, and flower and foliage forms adapted from medieval art, architecture and textiles, printed in the rich colours of a 'medieval' palette. Such papers, each designed specifically for its setting, were used throughout the New Palace of Westminster (Pugin had won the commission for the interior decoration in 1837) and in his domestic projects.
He also supplied wallpaper designs to Crace & Son from 1844 onwards. Although his papers were thought to be 'too ecclesiastical and traditional in character' for the general domestic market, he did supply papers for many of the houses he built for private clients, and his serious formal patterns were ideally suited to the mix of public and semi-public spaces in the Houses of Parliament; here wallpapers were mostly obviously and aptly emblematic of the moral principles deemed essential to public service and political life.
Pugin's principle of historical authenticity in the design of ornament, and his belief that only flat patterns should adorn flat surfaces, became the fundamental tenets of the design reform movement. In the 1850s these ideas were promoted through the Government's Schools of Design in South Kensington, and by several individuals connected with them: the painter Richard Redgrave, Principal of the School; Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant, and later the V&A's first Director; and Owen Jones, a leading designer and architect. All three were keen to raise standards of design in industry and to educate public taste away from the meretricious and debased patterns which dominated the mid-century wallpaper market. Cole was Secretary to the New Department of Practical Art in London which was set up to reform training in schools and colleges across the country. His ideas were the subject of a thinly veiled caricature by Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times (1854), in a scene by which a Government Inspector explains the principles of good taste to a class of school-children:
'Let me ask you girls and boys, would you paper a room with representations of horses? … Of course not … Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of a room in reality - in fact? … Of course not. Why, then, you are not to have, in any object of use or ornament what would be a contradiction in fact … You must use for all purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.'
But the powerful appeal of the patterns he condemns is evinced by Sissy Jupe, one of the children he addresses; raised in a circus family, she is used to the sight of horses around her at home, and she plaintively defends flower-patterned carpets as 'pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant'. Sissy spoke for many who would continue to buy wallpapers, carpets and fabrics adorned with 'florid and gaudy compositions ... imitative flowers and foliage rendered with the full force of their natural colours', despite the best attempts of Cole and his associates to persuade them otherwise.
Owen Jones (1809-74), architect, designer and authority on historic pattern and ornament, had begun to formulate rational and reforming theories in the course of his travels in the 1830s and 1840s. He particularly admired Greek, Egyptian and Islamic (or Moorish) motifs, and adapted them into his own architectural schemes and designs for wallpaper which went into production with various manufacturers from the early 1850s. The fruits of his researches were published as The Grammar of Ornament'(1856), an important source book for fellow designers of his own and succeeding generations. The design of geometric patterns and the division of interior walls into dado, filling and frieze (an obsessive fashion in the last quarter of the 19th century) were both innovations suggested by Jones's work. Though many of his patterns were geometric, reducing motifs from nature to severely ordered mathematical abstractions, his papers seem to have been more popular than those of Pugin for the ordinary domestic interior. A number of his designs were produced as machine prints, which helped to disseminate his style more widely.
George Eliot chose Owen Jones to manage the decorating and furnishing when setting up home with G.H. Lewes at the Priory in 1863. An entry in Lewes's journal, dated 13 November, reveals not only the trials of moving house, but also the bespoke design service Jones provided for his clients:
'... the drawing room is still uninhabitable. Besides the trouble and vexation incident to moving we have had extra annoyances. The [piano] tuner was sick over our elegant drawing room paper, which Owen Jones had decorated, and over the carpet! This obliges us to have fresh paper made as there are no remnants of the old, and it was originally made for us.'
That Eliot should choose these morally impeccable products of design reform for her own home is in keeping with her admiration of 'that sublime spirit which distinguishes art from luxury, and worships beauty apart from self-indulgence'.
This moral dimension to wallpaper design was repeatedly stressed by writers who addressed themselves to a largely female audience. Women were told that 'the decoration of houses ... contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility'. Mothers were urged to consider the injurious influence which 'false' ornament would have on their impressionable children.
By the mid-19th century the home was widely regarded as the counterpoint to the outside world. Home was conceived as a refuge, a place of honesty, authenticity and uncorrupted values, raised above the worlds of business, commerce and politics. Cleanliness and order were central to the making of this happy home, but in due course the furnishings themselves were co-opted to the project of moulding the character of the inhabitants and instilling sound moral values. Decorative strategies involving illusion and deception were condemned: for example, wallpapers which imitated marble or woodgrain were regularly cited as dishonest materials, to he avoided. Edis was the most explicit on the dangers of furnishing a home with 'dishonest' design:
'If you are content to teach a lie in your belongings, you can hardly wonder at petty deceits being practised in other ways ... All this carrying into everyday life of 'the shadow of unreality' must exercise a bad and prejudicial influence on the younger members of the house, who are thus brought up to see no wrong in the shams and deceits which are continually before them.'
For the design reformers, good design was 'chaste' and subtle, expressing a moral rectitude. Their fight was against the kind of ornament which has been described as 'design debauchery'.
Design reform initiatives continued well into the 20th century with the establishment of bodies such as the Art in Industry Movement (AIM), which like its 19th-century predecessors was largely concerned with the education of taste amongst designers, manufacturers. retailers and the general public. The moral overtones of previous attempts were also carried forward into these later efforts. Nikolaus Pevsner wrote:
'... the question of design is a social question ... To fight against the shoddy design of those goods by which most of our fellow-men are surrounded becomes a moral duty'.Nevertheless it was the 'bad' designs which sold in vast quantities, and the artist-designed patterns were mostly produced as smaller, more expensive 'hand-print' ranges. Gradually, however, the design establishment which had been so dismissive of wall-paper, became more accepting as designs which were more obviously contemporary began to appear.