Friday, December 30, 2011

Regency Era Wallpaper, or Decorating your Drawing Rooms

by David W. Wilkin

One thing I find when writing my Regency Romances, or reading others, is that they invariably have many scenes in a drawing room. And why not, the art of calling on ones friends and neighbors was a central point of many of the Ton’s days. Or when in the country, the men may have been off sporting about the grounds of the great manor house, but our Heroines were back at the house, ensconced, in a drawing room.

Now, I bring this up because when I sit down and am madly typing away, I am much more concerned with what takes place in the scene, then the setting, and this I fault myself for. I have watched enough BBC dramas to know exactly what these rooms look like in my mind. I have visited several of the great houses and know how they look as well. I just take the short cut that relies on my psychic ability to project what I see in my mind's eye to be inherent in my writing and know that my readers need nothing from me to guide them to a similar view.

Now I shall remove my tongue from my cheek. It is easy enough to type with it planted there, but not so easy to speak should I want to hold a conversation.

As I fault myself for not providing enough detail about the rooms, I begin to add either in first draft, or second, details about furniture, and the layout of a room where a scene is set. Sometimes I create detail about the color schemes. But I still fall short, I am sure of it. (Though my action, which takes place often times through dialogue, starts off quickly in these drawing rooms, and my Hero’s being manly men, take little notice of the decor when they are about to offer for the Heroine.)

During the Regency our rooms could be decorated with a few materials, and they could use more than one at a time to ornament their rooms. Prior to our period, in Late Georgian times, the fashionable set would have had fabric hangings stretched between chair rail and cornice. Expensive and opulent fabrics made of silk, velvet and wool damasks.

By the 1770s wallpaper came into general use. These comprised patterned flock and printed designs. As late Georgian merged into our Regency, we see an increase in the wealth of many during the times. Despite the war, affluence was growing. And as it did so, the use of wallpapers took over, though silk and some other fabrics remained a luxury to adorn one’s walls.

The motifs employed were classical, Neo-Grecian, created in bas relief or as trompe l’oeil. The surviving wall paintings from Pompeii became vogue as they were unearthed the previous century. Making a room all over in the theme of Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian of Gothic was quite common, but few of these survive for study.

So before continuing the discussion of wallpapers what we know as they come into their own is that the rooms of the older established houses, whose owners might not have enough of the ready to keep up with the times, will have walls that are painted, or covered with fabrics. That alone can set the tone for your drawing rooms. The Duke of Wellington famously attempted shades of yellow at Apsley House, causing controversy.

Gold, however, was not allowed for your run of the mill members of the Ton, and even amongst the first circle. Save that for Prinny and his brothers.

And by no means do we ever wish to gaze upon the unadorned white wall. That is something that was not done. And though not wallpaper, during our period, as we transitioned from the coverings of fabric, we find entire walls fauxed to look like marble, or fake wood graining. Entire guides such as Nathaniel Whitcock’s Decorative Painter and Glazier’s Guide showed just how to achieve these effects.

By 1790 wallpaper was in common usage, but not necessarily for the entire wall. The chair rail, made of wood, was still a divider of the surface. At the end of the period it might be considered fashionable to remove the chair rail and run wallpaper the entire length of the wall. This was the practice in the 1830s, but earlier the use of the chair rail dividing the upper and lower parts of the wall was still very much the practice.

At the time, wallpaper was designed as we see with block printed patterns on pearwood blocks to produce rolls of 11 1/2 yards in length. In the 1830s the blocks were replaced by mechanized cylinders. In 1783 there is a patent for a machine that will emboss the paper, but there was an import ban on French paper until 1825. When this was lifted it led to lighter, cheaper paper flooding the market. In order to hang the paper, a specialist was needed. It was an art under the upholstery branch. By the 1820s wallpaper retailing was so sophisticated that manufacturers were making their own, illustrated order books. There is a copy in the Victoria and Albert of Cowtan’s Order Book.

Popular designs were often flock paper, with powdered wool, or other fabric refuse on glued patterns to give a cut-pile effect. These were also used for borders. Imitation of marble or dressed stone was often used in hallways or passages (not a drawing room, I know, but my research uncovered this tidbit.) Pin ground papers were used for practical reasons in rooms. Flies would soil the paper and so having this would cover the fly marks. Somehow though, my interpretation of the idealized Ton won’t have dead fly spots on the papers of their drawing room. A good vigorous cleanse by the servants will of course take care of such things. (These are historical novels I turn my hand to, not totally historically accurate novels, but now the vision of one of those not of the First Stare, energetically scrubbing at her wall before someone like Austen's Lady Catherine de Burgh is expected to visit has come into my head and I just may have to use it.)

Gothic papers were available from the manufacturers, bedrooms got ‘moire papers’, which was made to look like watered silk, or to suggest drapery. Floral patterns in bedrooms which had small repeats in the pattern and also used in the rooms of the servants.

For the rich, as was the craze in all things oriental, Chinese wallpapers were sought. These could be hand painted which naturally would appeal to all of the first circle. Understated bragging rights to a pattern that no one else had.

With this exploration of what was done in period, one can easily then take the knowledge and adapt that to building a unique drawing room. Any young heroine given the chance can remodel the wool and silk covered walls of her husbands mother to the more modern wall paper. A trip to look at the manufacturers book, or to speak to a specialist who can procure a one of a kind paper surely can be recounted in a paragraph or two to add to the setting of the next Regency drawing room you read about, or that I remember to write about.

Stephen Calloway The Elements of Style, 1991
Steven Parissien Regency Style, 1992
Susan Watkins Jane Austen in Style, 1990

Mr. Wilkin writes Regency Historicals and Romances, Ruritanian and Edwardian Romances, Science Fictions and Fantasy. He is the author of the very successful Pride & Prejudice continuation; Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence.

His work can be found for sale at: David’s Books, and at various Internet and real world bookstores including the iBookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords.
He is published by Regency Assembly Press
And he maintains his own blog called The Things That Catch My Eye


  1. Fascinating! But I wouldn't try much scrubbing on wallpaper, at least as I've known it, it's mounted with water soluble paste and will, at the least, bubble if not fold right off the wall.
    My grandmother had a set of Chinese wallpaper panels in her dining room (above the chair rail.) They comprised a continuous garden landscape around the room.
    As for yellow wallpaper being reserved for princes, I gather that by Victorian times the fashion had descended to the well-to-do middle class, inspiring that eeriest of ghost stories, "The Yellow Wallpaper."

  2. Just the post that I needed as I'm working on the description of the Regency drawing-room :-)) Thank you for sharing!

  3. May I first say that I have read and enjoyed a number of the articles on this site, which demonstrate a genuine passion for the periods of our history in which their authors have chosen to immerse themselves. However, whilst this present article contains some accurate information, there is a need to correct some of the fundamental misconceptions which underpin it.

    First the reference to the drawing-room. It is quite true that the gentlemen and ladies of a house party would spend much of their day segregated – the men off shooting, perhaps, and the ladies indoors. It is all but inconceivable, however, that the ladies would have gathered in the drawing-room during the day. The ladies would have spent much of the day in a morning-room; the mistress of the house, in the absence of guests, might remain in her own private sitting-room (adjacent to her bedroom) where she would write her letters and transact household business. The drawing-room (properly the 'withdrawing-room') was the room to which the ladies withdrew after dinner, while the gentlemen remained in the dining-room with the port.

    Recall if you will that England is on a latitude with Newfoundland; this means that the sunlight is much lower in the sky than American readers will be used to. This in turn means that our "great manor houses" – indeed, any country house – will have been designed to optimise the natural light that is available, whilst avoiding the direct glare of low sunlight. Hence the morning-room and the drawing-room would usually be on different sides of the house.

    For those whose view of the period is formed by the work of Jane Austen, may I adduce some evidence from chapter 56 of 'Pride and Prejudice', where Miss Austen makes a telling point based on this very fact. Lady Catherine de Bourgh (clearly attempting to score points by suggesting that Longbourn is too small a house to warrant a separate drawing-room) says: "'This must be a most inconvenient sitting room for the evening, in summer; the windows are full west.' Mrs Bennet assured her that they never sat there after dinner..."

    Now to the question of wealth. It is true that the Industrial Revolution greatly increased Britain's wealth during the latter part of the long eighteenth century, during which time wallpaper increased in popularity over silk as a wallcovering. However, the causal link drawn in the article is incorrect. Then as now, silk would, of course, have been a more expensive raw material than wallpaper; wallpaper did not signify wealth. The deciding factor in its use during the early nineteenth century was that most silk was manufactured in France – with whom Britain was at war from 1792 – and was thus increasingly hard to come by, whereas wallpaper could be manufactured in Britain.

    It is true to say that Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian and Gothic themes were all popular; in fact a great many examples do survive, and are visited and studied by thousands of people every year (such as the Chinese rooms at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire and Trerice, Cornwall).

    (Continued in subsequent comment)

  4. (Continued from previous comment)

    The notion that gold "was not allowed for your run of the mill members of the Ton" is complete nonsense. Gold leaf, both on furniture and in the decoration of the rooms themselves, was extensively used in the homes of the nobility and indeed the untitled gentry. Gilded furniture enjoyed huge popularity in the years after the Battle of Trafalgar; gilded porpoises and Neptunes graced many a well-to-do household as a celebration of Britain’s supremacy at sea.

    Gold-leaf was widely used in any number of country houses throughout Britain, for example, in the decorative work of Angelica Kaufmann such as may be seen at Broadlands, or the work of James Wyatt. At Uppark in West Sussex, recently restored after being severely damaged by fire in 1989, the original 1815 gilding has been restored to the door frames, with the exception of a few areas left as bare wood so that visitors and conservation students can examine the detail of the restoration work.

    Likewise, it is misguided and misleading to draw any inference about national taste from the design or decoration of Apsley House. It was built not only as a private home for the Duke of Wellington, but in many respects as a national monument to his achievement as Saviour of Europe in defeating Napoleon, and certainly as an international political statement of Wellington's importance. (In this respect, Apsley's closest eighteenth-century parallel was the construction of Blenheim Palace for the first Duke of Marlborough.) The deliberate and ostentatious triumphalism of the decor of Apsley House – designed as an exhibition setting for the spoils of war – was a matter of considerable public interest, gossip and speculation at the time; but this bore as much relation to normal people's lives (even the lives of the Ton) as does today's celebrity gossip and 'news' (sic).

    Yellows did not generally cause controversy, nor were whites taboo; both were in widespread use in both Town and country homes throughout the Regency – as is obvious from the work of architectural historian John Cornforth, or the historically accurate paint ranges still manufactured by firms such as Farrow and Ball. (One popular and unusual form of wallcovering was the Print Room, where prints or engravings similar to those found in illustrated magazines would be stuck to the walls – often on a yellow background. Indeed, Farrow and Ball's Print Room Yellow replicates a colour originally found in an eighteenth-century print room.)

    There are of course isolated examples of the decorative techniques described towards the end of the article – the marble or oak-panelled effect or the "cut-pile" finish (sic) – but they are by no means representative of the majority of the houses in which the Regency Ton would have lived their lives.

  5. Enjoyed the piece and learned a bit about detailing a scene in the story particularly for us inquiring minds who enjoy the details.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. Mrs Rundell, 1808, had instructions for cleaning Paper Hangings:
    "first blow off the dust [note from me: with open fires that's a VERY valid point] with the bellows. Divide a white loaf of eight days old into eight parts. take the crust in your hand, and beginning at the top of the paper, wipe it downwards in the lightest manner with the crumb. Don'r cross nor go upwards. The dirt of the paper and the crumbs will fall together. Observe, you must not wipe above half a yard at a stroke, and after doing all the upper part, go round again, beginning a little above where you left offf. If you don't do it extremely light, you will make the paper adhere to the paper. It will look like new if properly done."

    It works on vintage dollshouse paper but you MUST buy proper bread not the steamed pap that comes in packets which doesn't achieve the right consistency; and even so 4 days old is better

  7. I'd have to question a great deal of the information in this post and agree with Mr. Fowler above.

    Wallpaper is not and was not necessarily a suitable wallcovering for many walls in many houses--particularly those built pre-1700 of which there were many, simply because the plasterwork it was intended to cover is just too lumpy and uneven and even modern paste cannot adhere to the surface. Also there's the question of rising damp which is an issue in most UK houses and in an era before central heating it was a problem everywhere.

    The exclusion of French and indeed German luxury goods such as silk from 1792 did encourage British entrepreneurs to search for substitutes and invest in industries that could fill the gaps in the market.

    However, for most, the hanging of wallpaper did not require an expert, as this painting from Diana Sperling's collection of domestic watercolours, entitled, "Mrs. Hurst Dancing" (circa 1816) shows:

  8. What a very helpful set of comments, Thank you, Edward Fowler, for such an informed and wide ranging response, written in what must have been a very brief time. And Sarah, I shall try the bread technique!

  9. I can only imagine how fantastic some of these rooms must have been!

  10. This is a good blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic.It tells good things about living happily and falling in love. Thanks for sharing such a nice blog to everyone.


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