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Wallpaper memories


Nursery Wallpaper designed by Walter Crane, 1875-1885

One of my earliest memories is a castle with crenellations, trees and clouds and a knight riding up to the gate (or perhaps I imagined him?) - all painted in one tone of pale green by my mother on the wall next to my bed. I would have liked Crane's nursery wallpaper, too, though perhaps not quite as much.

In medieval British houses, walls were half-timbered and covered with plasterwork unreceptive to painting. Paneling was the solution for uneven walls, and beautiful it was and remains when the golden wood of oak, strong enough to withstand damp and rot, was used. Tapestries of hunts and processions added warmth and colour to panels or wainscot.

Christopher Simon Sykes and Caroline Seebohm call tapestries "the forerunners of designer wallpaper" in their book English Country. They explain that painting and stencilling began to appear on smooth plastered walls in the late Tudor period, and papers began to be used as an alternative to expensive fabric hangings in the 17th century. Unfortunately a government that taxed windows was unlikely to overlook wallpapers and they were prohibitively taxed.


William Morris, Single Stem

Around 1860 the tax was repealed, and wallpapers were mass-produced with cylinder printing. Beautiful wallpapers flooded the market, and William Morris became one of the most famous 19th century designer of domestic furnishings.

His energy - the energy and achievement of countless 19th century artists, scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs and reformers - is a tribute to a civilization that provided the essential infrastructure so they could live and work. It's also a tribute to civil society. I don't mean to say that these men and women were virtuous, though a number of them were, but because they didn't live disheveled lives they had time for their real passions.

Just a thought.