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  • Writer's pictureMichael T. Berger, MBA

Details Matter: Wallpaper...

From time to time, we want to take a moment to reflect on the natural beauty of the everyday things that make up our surroundings...As you may remember, our last Details Matter centered on Glass Door Knobs and was a smash with our readers...Today, let's have a look at an item that was popular in the past and is making a huge comeback! Wallpaper...

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Egyptian papyrus was the earliest known paper invented around 4000 B.C. and the Chinese were thought to have glued rice paper onto their walls as early as 200BC. In the 8th century, a group of Chinese prisoners with papermaking skills who worked under some Arabs taught them their skills and they in turn spread the knowledge of papermaking throughout the Middle East. Things progressed slowly but by the 10th century, linen fibres were being used instead of wood or bamboo to create a finer paper. All of this enabled various individuals to experiment with printing onto this fairly even textured paper. The earliest European pictorial block prints were religious souvenirs, the oldest being a representation of the Virgin dated 1418 now in the Royal Library at Brussels. This type of printing method may have also been used by the Chinese as early as the 5th century.

The earliest surviving fragment of European wallpaper, found in Christ's College Cambridge, dates from 1509. It was made by Hugo Goes of York, and has a damask-style design of pomegranates derived from Islamic prototypes, and later much copied in Italian and Spanish textiles. It is a key sample, not only because it shows how textile designs influenced wallpaper, but also because it is a block print.

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Advances in block-printing technology heralded the widespread use of wallpaper. Images taken from tapestries and other expensive fabrics such as damasks and tooled leather, used by the wealthy to adorn their walls, were copied onto blocks of paper for poorer households. According to the V&A’s Short History of Wallpaper “It has never quite thrown off the taint that comes from being a cheap imitation.” But this view is being challenged by recent developments in the world of interiors.

The mid 18th Century saw a massive expansion of Chinese workshops making woodblock prints in a wallpaper format to cater to the Western love of everything Eastern. These bird-and-flower export wallpapers had brightly coloured backgrounds. Aimed squarely at the European market, they became a defining feature of the English country house frequently mentioned in letters and diaries.

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Examples survive at Ightham Mote and Felbrigg, where the wallpaper in the Chinese Bedroom is recorded as having been hung in 1752 by a London paper-hanger called John Scrutton. The printing is so fine that the papers were originally assumed to be hand-painted rather than block printed. The botanist Sir Joseph Banks praised the Chinese painters for their accuracy, observing in his Journal in 1770: “Some of the plants which are common to China and Java, such as bamboo, are better figured there than in the best botanical authors.”

Such luxuries did not escape notice. In 1712 a property tax on wallpaper had been introduced under Queen Anne and remained in force for 124 years. Forging wallpaper stamps (or anything else) was by 1806 among the long list of offenses punishable by death. In dodging the tax by simplifying designs into stencils, English manufacturers lost out badly to the French whose repertoire was endless and boundless. In addition to brilliant copies of textiles, there were panoramic landscapes, battle scenes, grottos, and Gothic and Rococo Revival designs. Fortunately, these taxes have been repealed and we can now be as artistic as we want.

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As back then, advancements in technology and changes in taste have led to a recent resurgence of the wallpaper as it can be a powerful and playful approach to a room and influence any space.

We at love all things vintage...If you have an idea for a Details Matter post or want to get in touch with us...Simply call us at 210.744.8265.

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