Nicola here, and today I am talking about Georgian and Regency wallpapers. Wallpaper is a small detail when a writer is describing a setting but it can be a useful way of showing the grandeur - or otherwise - of a house and it's certainly a way of portraying character. When I saw this rather gorgeous 18th century wallpaper with parrots and apples on it I immediately started to imagine the sort of flamboyant heroine who might decorate her bedroom in this style, but of course it could equally belong to a hero who is an explorer!
A few weeks ago I visited Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire.
Kirby is an intriguing
house because it is part roofed, part ruin. It was originally built in the 17th century and looks rather like the more famous Hardwick Hall, but during the Georgian period it was refurbished and there is a fascinating restoration project ongoing to show the sort of wallpaper that decorated the library and the billiard rooms in the 18th and 19th centuries and to demonstrate how it was made and how it was hung.
Wallpaper was originally called “paper tapestries” and from the late sixteenth century onward was printed on small individual sheets and painted in ink using wood blocks. By the end of the 17th century there were specialist wallpaper shops in London but wallpaper was at this stage still considered far inferior to wall hangings “fit only to make the houses of ordinary people look neat” as one social commentator said, rather snootily! Only in the 1740s did wallpaper become fashionable with the social elite, partly because it could be painted in vivid colours and with pattern repeats.
By 1750, full panelling on walls was out of favour and new houses were built with half-panelling on the lower wall and the upper walls plastered either to be painted or to take wallpaper or wall hangings. In older houses the top half of the panelling was removed and sometimes reused to provide a frame. A canvas was stretched across this to provide a flat wall face. The canvas was nailed to battens and then brushed with glue to make it shrink as it dried. This gave a taut, stiff surface. This was covered in lining paper made from linen rags, which was made in individual sheets and hung so that they overlapped. The photo, from Kirby, shows and example of how the canvases worked to provide a flat surface that could be papered over.
The Height of Fashion
Flock and damask wallpapers were considered the most modish. A fashionable red flock wallpaper was fitted in the Billiards Room at Kirby Hall in the mid-Georgian period. (You can see what this looked like in the photograph). The sale catalogue of 1772 lists “crimson paper hangings” in the Red Room. Flock wallpapers were made to imitate silk damask wall hangings. The grandest rooms needed large scale bold designs. This was of course before the introduction of mechanised processes and so making wallpaper was an entirely handmade process, which meant that every piece was unique. Early wallpaper was made from linen or cotton rags not from wood pulp. The cloth was pulped and pressed into moulds to make individual square sheets. These were then joined together to make a roll similar to the ones that are in use today. Flock wallpapers had a background colour printed onto the paper, then glue was applied in a pattern, sometimes using a stencil, and dyed wool sprinkled on top to simulate velvet. Flock was quite expensive, costing between 4 shillings and 13 shillings per yard in 1750.
The Library at Kirby now the most beautiful wallpaper that is a recreation of a late 18th century style. Here it is in detail in this photograph. I loved the delicate duck egg blue background and the hand painted fleur de lys. The blue is so pale that you only get the colour effect from a distance. Close up it looks more like a cream colour.
In the later 18th and early nineteenth centuries, designers developed new styles including chinoiserie, scenic images, papers that imitated swags of material and tassels. Some wallpaper was even political; both America and France celebrated their revolutions in wallpaper (which I think is very cool!) The imported Chinese and Indian prints were particularly expensive and highly-prized, costing from 14 shillings per yard. At this point people who could not afford the paper itself started to paint pretend wallpaper onto their walls! A house in Wales still has the remnants of a wall painting imitating an early 19th century Chinese style wallpaper, which in itself was an imitation of the more costly hand painted version.
The earliest machines for printing wallpaper were developed
in the late 18th and early 19th century. The
advent of steam power meant that paper could be printed quickly and cheaply, and also in multiple colours so it became cheaper and more widely available within society. I’ve included a couple of additional examples of late 18th and early 19th century wallpapers from the National Trust here, just to show the sort of variety on offer. The picture on the right, featuring a very elegant peacock was one of the late Regency machine printed wallpapers. Below is a Georgian leather-embossed wallpaper, again with a bird theme and the most glorious colours.
What do you think of the Georgian and Regency patterns? Would you like a parrot print in your house or some other sort of “heritage wallpaper” as it’s called today? And do you think that the way someone decorates a room is a way for a character to express themselves?