Victorian Wallpaper

Early Methods

The tradition of wall decoration dates back to Egyptian and Roman wall paintings, and the early Chinese produced sheets of rice paper painted with birds, flowers and landscapes. During the Medieval Ages painted patterns on walls and canvas as well as woven tapestries adorned the interior of churches and castles. Thus wallpaper began as a cheap substitute for this rich tapestry and panelling, as a less expensive alternative to the wall-hangings of the wealthy.

CFA Voysey - Demon Wallpaper 1889

The first wallpapers were decorations made for wood panels, printed by wood blocks and then coloured in by hand. Though called wallpaper, the paper was not attached directly to the wall until the 1800s. Instead, it was pasted onto linen and the linen was then attached to the walls. Wallpaper’s popularity increased in Elizabethan England and throughout Europe, a fascination began with these fine papers that offered protection against dampness and an improved ability to handle fireplace smoke. Along with these practical reasons, wallpaper provided a decorative element that could reflect different materials and enhance the room’s interior.

The use of wallpaper became so widespread that in 1712, England introduced a tax on paper that was “painted, printed or stained to serve as hangings.” The industry continued to grow in spite of this and the development of a printing machine in 1839 that allowed for the printing of endless lengths of paper led to an expansion from 1,000,000 pieces in 1834 to 19,000,000 pieces in 1861 (Bridgeman 301).

The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition 1851 Copyright The British Library

The Manchester Exhibitions of 1849 also contributed to their popularity, which led to the inclusion of an entire wallpaper section at Great Exhibition 1851, showcasing an overwhelming variety of designs. Wallpaper was now applied directly to plaster walls and by the beginning of the 1800s, dividing the wall into three parts — the dado, filler and frieze — became fashionable. Often borders differentiated each section, which bore distinctive yet interrelated patterns (Leopold 18). During the Victorian era, wallpapers fell into two classes: simple and complicated.

The simple typically depicted a repeated geometric pattern printed from a single wood block. The complicated consisted of more complex designs, including shields, vases or flowers and were created from several blocks. Many were designed to appear three-dimensional, using trompe l’oeil technique made popular in France. Despite the significant advances in technology during this era, interior designers consistently looked to the past for inspiration.

Wallpaper for the Home

In the early Victorian age, ornate furniture, swaths of fabric and various knicknacks cluttered every available surface in the typical middle-class drawing room. Wallpaper design featured standard imitations of costly fabrics, drapery, architectural mouldings and cornices and often gave the impression of marble or wood grained surfaces. Borders resembling a tasselled braid or a swag of fabric were often added, and imitations of embossed leather or damask with exotic names like Lignomur, Anaglypta and Calcorian became common (Cooper). This sort of decoration displayed new-found cultural interests, prosperity and status and followed the fashionable notion that a bare room revealed poor taste.

CFA Voysey - Birds & Tulips Wallpaper 1896

The critics of high Victorian style, known as the Aesthetic Movement, objected not only to the style and quality of machine-made decorations but also to the manner in which they were used in the home (Burrows). Reacting to the excess and over-embellishment, designers such as William Morris and Owen Jones, author of The Grammar of Ornament(1856), worked to restore “good taste” and re-establish quality workmanship. Following principles introduced by the Pre Raphaelite, Morris insisted on the purest colours and techniques and his influence is evident in the hundreds of mass-produced papers manufactured from the 1880s until the end of the century.

The basic principles of this reform in design were characterized by flat and conventionalized or more abstract patterns, instead of the naturalistic or rounded trompe l’oeil designs in relief. Designers often drew inspiration from nature and plant life, resulting in patterns such asTrellis (1864), Pomegranate (1864), and Sparrows & Bamboo (1872). Colour schemes included lighter and brighter shades, contrasting the traditional idea that deep, rich and dark colours enhanced the importance of a room.

Wallpaper Designers

Some of the prominent designers of wallpaper during the Aesthetic and Decadent movements included Lindsay Butterfield, who designed floral motif wallpaper for Liberty & Co; Walter Crane, a founding member of the Art Workers Guild and designer for Jeffrey & Co.; Christopher Dresser, whose abstract designs made him one of the more futuristic designers; E.W. Godwin, a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese style; Owen Jones, who systematized ornament and emphasized stylized forms in The Grammar of Ornament; William Morris, a leader of the Arts & Crafts movement whose designs combined stylized natural elements with geometric structure; Augustus Welby Pugin, who produced Gothic revival inspired designs; and Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, whose crisp lines and hallmark “Voysey-birds” characterized his wallpaper designs (Burrows).