There are several ways of gardening indoors and several of gardening on walls but this post is about a way of doing both at once: wallpaper.
Wallpaper has long used floral motifs. We’re all familiar with flowery wallpaper – some good, some indifferent and some hideous enough to give you nightmares. We’re probably all familiar too with the wonderful Chinese wallpapers featuring exotic flowers and birds imported by the East India Company in the 18thc, but did you know that there is also a long tradition of landscapes and garden features being depicted on other wallpapers?
It’s amazing any of these have survived because wallpaper is so fragile, ephemeral and its so easy to replace it or paint over it to keep up with trends in fashionable decor. The vast majority of old wall hangings have disappeared without trace or can only be glimpsed as the background in a print or painting, so perhaps as a result the V&A believes that wallpaper usually been has been the poor relation of the decorative arts.
Read on to find out more, especially what wallpaper can tell us about our gardens!
The history of floral wallpaper, indeed all wallpaper, goes back to Jean Bourdichon,a painter and manuscript illuminator of manuscripts, who produced rolls of paper with angels on a blue background for Louis XI of France in 1481. They were used mainly as liners for wardrobes and bookcases. Fragments have also been found on beams and panelling in Britain from the mid-16thc onwards again mainly as as linings in boxes and chests. Using paper on walls doesn’t really start until the mid-17thc as an alternative to more expensive coverings such as embossed leather or textiles..
The earliest of these wallpapers were printed on single sheets from small wooden blocks simply as outlines for stationers, later to be coloured in by painter-stainers. This was a small part of the two trades of the Painter-Stainers Company, London’s 5th oldest livery company, and you can find out more about their history at: https://painter-stainers.org/about-us-1/history/
After the Restoration these stationers and painter-stainers began to innovate, taking out patents such as “a newe waye to text and florish Veloms and parchments with our name, pourtrachure, imperial armes, badges, and other ornaments, by printing the same with a rolling printing presse and engraved plates, to the greate benefitt of our subjects.”
By 1680 George Minnikin a London Stationer was advertising that he ” makes & sells all sorts of Japan & other coloured paper hangings both in sheets & yards.” Others soon followed and then the London trade received two further boosts. The first was the arrival of Huguenot painter-stainers fleeing religious persecution who bought their know-how and ideas, and the second was the import of Chinese wallpapers. By 1699 John Houghton could talk of “paper tapestry” which “if they be in all parts well pasted close to the wall or boards they are very durable; and it ought to be encouraged.” [Husbandry and Trade Improv’d, May 19, 1699] He also noted “there is a great variety with curious cuts[ie woodcuts] which are cheap and if kept from wet, very lasting” [June 30, 1699].
We get some idea of what these papers must have been like from another ad, this time for the Blue Paper Warehouse. It offered “figured paper hangings in pieces of twelve yards long and others after the mode of real tapistry, and in imitation of Irish Stich, and flowered damask and also of marble & other coloured wainscot, fitt for the hanging of rooms, and stair-cases, with great variety of skreens, chimney pieces, sashes for windows and other things of curious figures and colours.”
Wallpaper must soon have become very popular because by 1712 it was being taxed at 1d a square yard and the paper stamped to prove the duty had been paid.
Hand-painted wallpapers were also arriving in large quantities from China from the 1720s, along with many other goods, courtesy of the East India Company. They were usually on large panels, wall sized paintings rather than rolls, and were decorated with flowering trees, birds and animals, or sometimes figures, and did not have repeated designs. They were made in sets of 25 or 40 lengths, enough to decorate a whole room. Although the sections all had different designs, when hung in sequence, they created a complete unending panorama. However they were extremely expensive and only available in small quantities.
I’m not going to write much about these Chinese papers partly because I want to concentrate on European wall coverings but also because the National Trust Treasure House blogs have already done so with much greater skill than me. Check them out at:
However it’s also clear that London tradesmen, mainly from the Painter-Stainers company, soon began taking inspiration from the fashions for all things oriental.
Designs to copy, which included architectural and horticultural subjects, could be found on ceramics, furniture and textiles but also in a few books, notably John Stalker and George Parker’s 1688 Treatise on Japaning and Varnishing, and the two papers below are good examples where the influence is clear.
If you want to check for yourself their book can found in full at:
But the real thing was still much more impressive. I’ve found a letter from a Lincolnshire stationer writing to a London dealer in 1737 asking him to supply Chinese paper for his own house. He described paper he had seen hung elsewhere with a ” great variety of different sorts of birds, peacocks, macoys, squirril, monkys, fruit, and flowers, &c.” and adds “if they can make it more beautiful by adding more birds flying here and there, with some landskips at the bottom, should like it well.” [WallpaperScolar.com]
The man who did most to start putting gardens on British walls was John Baptist Jackson. Born around 1700 not much is known about his early life except that he trained as an engraver and woodcutter in Paris, working for Jean Papillon who is considered the inventor of patterned wallpaper. After that he went on to Italy, engraving copies of famous paintings and even trying to start a wallpaper business [unsuccessfully] in Venice before finally returning to Britain in 1745.
Jackson finally settled in Battersea and began multiple-block woodblock printing of wallpapers in up to 4 colours, and using oil-based paint. In 1752 to promote his work he wrote an Enquiry into the Origin of Printing in Europe using the pseudonym “a Lover of Art”.
In it he argued that “Those who have seen this new sort of paperhanging distended in a room have allow’d that this method of printing comes nearest to the finishing of the pencil of anything that has hitherto been performed”
Jackson’s engravings of old master paintings were high quality, done using the principles of chiaroscuro [the use of strong contrasts between light and dark], and now he started using the same idea on his wallpaper. In a second book An Essay on the invention of engraving and printing in 1754 he suggests the idea of recreating a classical painting by printing it in sections on several small sheets which could then be put together. Some of these were used by Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill. But Jackson also suggested landscapes as a theme or wallhangings.
Jackson is almost certainly the first person in Britain, and probably Europe, to create scenic images on wallpaper. It is very difficult to ascribe any specific surviving papers to him personally but there are several examples which would fit his style, and of course he was imitated by other manufacturers of whom there were many by the end of the 18thc.
Wallpapers are notoriously difficult to date but those thought to be earliest in this style feature small landscape roundels, while later there were larger scale landscape and architectural pieces in the spirit of Piranesi.
Other pictorial designs showed houses, ruins, riversides and ‘fete galants’. Such scenes often had often patterns alternating with images of butterflies or branches of flowers which sometimes formed trompe l’oeil frames.
It appears that many of these papers were hand painted in situ after they had been hung. Horace Walpole wrote of not being able to leave home as he “cannot leave my workmen, especially as we have a painter who paints the paper on the staircase”, and elsewhere that a friend had a room “hung with the paper of my staircase, but not shaded properly like mine.”
Perhaps in order to differentiate his style or promote its more traditional “Englishness” Jackson claimed not to be enamoured by what he saw as the fanciful nature of Chinese wallpapers.
However John Baptist Jackson was fighting a losing battle against these oriental influences. In the same year that his Essay appeared, Matthias Darley published A New Book of Chinese Designs Calculated to Improve the present Taste.
Darley was, like Jackson, a an engraver and designer, as well as a manufacturer of wallpaper, particularly those in “the Chinese taste.” It was a collection of prints, showing amongst other things, buildings, people, and landscapes. Unlike the architecture which is drawn great detail the landscapes seem rather impressionistic and sketchy.
However, along with other works including J.A. Fraisse’s Le livre de dessins Chinoises (1735), Sir William Chambers’ Designs for Chinese buildings, furniture, dresses, etc (1757), and Paul Decker’s Chinese architecture civil and ornamental (1759) Darley’s collection was among the major sources for oriental patterns and styles during the later 18th century.
There were early attempts to copy the Chinese style of wall hangings by handpainting long panels in exactly the same way. Seven pieces from one set, made to order for Berkeley House in Wotton-under-Edge can be seen in the V&A. The curatorial note says: “the artist has tried to copy the Chinese way of drawing the trees, flowers and birds. The result is not entirely convincing, partly because the colours are not as bright as those used for the genuine Chinese wallpapers. Also, the flowers are fanciful and rather crudely drawn, whereas those in the Chinese papers were usually identifiable species.” Accurate depiction of plants of course was one of the driving forces behind the hunt for the tree peony amongst other plants.
But most English imitators of Chinese wallpapers block printed the outline of the design and then hand coloured or overprinted with other colours. The panels are usually much smaller, just one or two sheets. However they also introduced the use of repeat patterning with a motif being laid out in strips or squares.
Sadly we mustn’t run away with the idea that Jackson’s business was a great success and that he grew rich on the profits of his invention. He published his book on the eve of the Seven Years War which ended exports to much of Europe, especially France. As a result his business did not last long, and he ended his days probably in poverty & certainly in obscurity. Jacob Kainen says he “was too early; public taste was not yet ready for picturesque landscape or antique form in wallpapers.” But within a few decades it was all the rage. [Kainen, John Baptist Jackson, 18thc Master of the Coloured Wood Block, Smithsonian Museum 1962. The article can found in full at:
By the 1780s there were more than 70 painter-stainer businesses operating in London producing a whole range of geometric patterned, sprigged and floral papers as well as larger scale architectural designs in both classical and Gothic styles, as well as landscapes. Wallpaper was the height of fashion, now taxed at a shilling a yard, and could be found all over the house and even in garden buildings.
Kainen argues that these trends followed Jackson’s ideas but with a much lighter and elegant touch, but since he was the first to write about wallpapers and as the records of others became lost it became the habit to attribute almost surviving pieces to him.
But at the same time Jackson was writing and printing his wallpapers – and going out of business – the French Ambassador in London sent English wallpaper from the Blue Paper Warehouse to Paris where his English countrepart Lord Albermarle hung them in his house. According to the famous French wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, that was the defining moment – the craze was on!
And more about that in another post soon…