There are always many building projects underway across the Trust. Those that involve our houses come with the risk of interference with the historic fabric, but also with the excitement of making discoveries. For me these discoveries are often related to fragments of wallpaper which might be just millimetres below the surface under later decorative schemes, or perhaps having been scraped off the walls they might have found their way under the floorboards. The discoveries might give new information into earlier decorative schemes at the property, and on occasion they can bring new insights into the historical development of wallpaper.
“Most of us might think that boiling up flour and water to make wallpaper paste is a bit old fashioned…”
I have just finished piecing together a jigsaw of wallpaper fragments found in a couple of rooms in a National Trust property next to Peckover House in Wisbech. They have revealed important evidence of early hanging practices. Most of us might think that boiling up flour and water to make wallpaper paste is a bit old fashioned and too labour intensive for our busy lives today. A quicker alternative would be to use tacks, and this is just what the decorators did to hang this paper nearly 300 years ago.
Today, it might seem bizarre nailing a wallpaper to a plastered wall, however a number of early 18C paper stainers (wallpaper manufacturers) give instructions for this type of hang, often with some use of paste. Very few examples of these early nailed hangs survive today. In the example from Wisbech, tacks clearly form part of the original hang in that some of them lie between the overlapping sheets of the individually printed sheets. Later panelling put up in the principal first floor room, helped to ensure the survival of the fragments during subsequent redecoration.
The house was built c1720 and it seems likely that the wallpaper is of the same age. It was a time when production methods were changing from the printing of individual sheets to printing on rolls of paper which were made from pasting sheets together. Although only about 20% of the pattern repeat survives behind the panelling, some additional small fragments found in a cupboard in an adjacent room have provide sufficient evidence to reveal the likely overall design, a floral trail with pairs of vase shaped panels.
“18th century paper, made from rags would have been much stronger than that of today.”
But why use nails? It is not entirely clear, although it is likely that the skills required to avoid smudging the thick soft printed distemper, were still being developed. In addition the finished surface of the plaster would not have been nearly as smooth as that used today, and it certainly helped that the 18th century paper, made from rags would have been much stronger than that of today.
BBC4 are so excited by the find that it will feature in a wallpaper documentary to be aired this summer.
- Andrew Bush is a Paper Conservation Adviser for the National Trust. He spends much of his time in our houses examining our paper related collections, giving advice that will not only put off the day of their demise, but also help with their interpretation and bringing them to life; whether a print, watercolour, book, document or whole room of 18th century Chinese wallpaper.
- The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.