Of Wall Papers

While the tradition and practice of mural painting as applied to

interior walls and ceilings of houses still linger in Italy, in the form

of often skilful if not always tasteful tempera work, in more western

countries, like England, France, and America, under the economic

conditions and customs of commercial civilisation, with its smoky

cities, and its houses built by the hundred to one pattern, perhaps, and

let on sho
t terms, as regards domestic decoration--except in the case

of a few wealthy freeholders--mural painting has ceased to exist. Its

place has been taken by what after all is but a substitute for it,

namely, wall paper.

I am not aware that any specimen of wall paper has been discovered that

has claims to any higher antiquity than the sixteenth century, and it

only came much into use in the last, increasing in the present, until it

has become well-nigh a universal covering for domestic walls, and at the

same time has shown a remarkable development in design, varying from

very unpretending patterns and printings in one colour to elaborate

block-printed designs in many colours, besides cheap machine-printed

papers, where all the tints are printed from the design on a roller at


Since Mr. William Morris has shown what beauty and character in pattern,

and good and delicate choice of tint can do for us, giving in short a

new impulse in design, a great amount of ingenuity and enterprise has

been spent on wall papers in England, and in the better kinds a very

distinct advance has been made upon the patterns of inconceivable

hideousness, often of French origin, of the period of the Second

Empire--a period which perhaps represents the most degraded level of

taste in decoration generally.

The designer of patterns for wall papers heretofore has been content to

imitate other materials, and adapt the characteristics of the patterns

found, say, in silk damask hangings or tapestry, or even imitate the

veining of wood, or marble, or tiles; but since the revival of interest

in art, the study of its history, and knowledge of style, a new impulse

has been given, and patterns are constructed with more direct reference

to their beauty, and interest as such, while strictly adapted to the

methods of manufacture. Great pains are often taken by our principal

makers to secure good designs and harmonious colourings, and though a

manufacturer and director of works is always more or less controlled by

the exigencies of the market and the demands of the tentative

salesman--considerations which have no natural connection with art,

though highly important as economic conditions affecting its

welfare--very remarkable results have been produced, and a special

development of applied design may almost be said to have come into

existence with the modern use of wall papers. The manufacture suffers

like most others from the keenness and unscrupulousness of commercial

competition, which leads to the production of specious imitations of

bona fide designs, and unauthorised use of designs originally intended

for other purposes, and this of course presses unfairly upon the more

conscientious maker, so long as the public do not decline to be


English wall papers are made in lengths 21 inches wide. French wall

papers are 18 inches wide. This has probably been found most convenient

in working in block-printing: it is obvious to any one who has seen the

printers at work that a wider block than 21 inches would be unwieldy,

since the block is printed by hand, being suspended from above by a

cord, and guided by the workman's hand from the well of colour, into

which it is dipped, to the paper flat on a table before him.

The designer must work to the given width, and though his design may

vary in depth, must never exceed 21 inches square, except where double

blocks are used. His main business is to devise his pattern so that it

will repeat satisfactorily over an indefinite wall space without running

into awkward holes or lines. It may be easy enough to draw a spray or

two of leaves or flowers which will stand by themselves, but to combine

them in an organic pattern which shall repeat pleasantly over a wall

surface requires much ingenuity and a knowledge of the conditions of the

manufacture, apart from play of fancy and artistic skill.

One way of concealing the joints of the repeat of the pattern is by

contriving what is called a drop-repeat, so that, in hanging, the

paper-hanger, instead of placing each repeat of pattern side by side, is

enabled to join the pattern at a point its own depth below, which varies

the effect, and arranges the chief features or masses on an alternating


The modern habit of regarding the walls of a room chiefly as a

background to pictures, furniture, or people, and perhaps the smallness

of the average room, has brought rather small, thickly dispersed, leafy

patterns into vogue, retiring in colour for the most part. While,

however, we used to see rotund and accidental bunches of roses (the

pictorial or sketchy treatment of which contrasted awkwardly with their

formal repetition), we now get a certain sense of adaptation, and the

necessity of a certain flatness of treatment; and most of us who have

given much thought to the subject feel that when natural forms are dealt

with, under such conditions, suggestion is better than any attempt at

realisation, or naturalistic or pictorial treatment, and that a design

must be constructed upon some systematic plan, if not absolutely

controlled by a geometric basis.

Wall papers are printed from blocks prepared from designs, the outlines

of which are reproduced by means of flat brass wire driven edgeways into

the wood block. One block for each tint is used. First one colour is

printed on a length of paper, a piece of 12 yards long and 21 inches

wide, which is passed over sticks suspended across the workshop. When

the first colour is dry the next is printed, and so on; the colours

being mixed with size and put in shallow trays or wells, into which the

blocks are dipped.

A cheaper kind is printed by steam power from rollers on which the

design has been reproduced in the same way by brass wire, which holds

the colour; but in the case of machine-printed papers all the tints are

printed at once. Thus the pattern is often imperfect and blurred.

A more elaborate and costly kind of wall paper is that which is stamped

and gilded, in emulation of stamped and gilded leather, which it

resembles in effect and quality of surface. For this method the design

is reproduced in relief as a repoussee brass plate, and from this a

mould or matrix is made, and the paper being damped is stamped in a

press into the matrix, and so takes the pattern in relief, which is

generally covered with white metal and lacquered to a gold hue, and this

again may be rubbed in with black, which by filling the interstices

gives emphasis to the design and darkens the gold to bronze; or the

gilded surface may be treated in any variety of colour by means of

painting or lacquer, or simply relieved by colouring the ground.

But few of us own our own walls, or the ground they stand upon: but few

of us can afford to employ ourselves or skilled artists and craftsmen

in painting our rooms with beautiful fancies: but if we can get

well-designed repeating patterns by the yard, in agreeable tints, with a

pleasant flavour perchance of nature or antiquity, for a few shillings

or pounds, ought we not to be happy? At all events, wall-paper makers

should naturally think so.