Review: "Wallpaper and Taste"

Review: "Wallpaper and Taste", Chapter 6 in Behind Closed Doors by Amanda Vickery, Yale University Press, 2009.

The chapter differs little from her earlier essay, "Neat and Not Too Showey," already reviewed. For sheer page-turning appeal, this chapter pales in comparison to the rest of "Behind Closed Doors." It's unlikely that anyone at the wallpaper firm was ever addressed as "My Dearest Life!," nor that fornicating bachelors made heartfelt confessions to its clerks. The letter-books record business. 

Although taste is a concern throughout the book, here it is tackled head on. She presents the letter-book as “a key to the disregarded aesthetics of what might now be termed middle England,” thus seeking recognition for the decorative choices of the non-elite. She traces the "factors that affected Trollope's customers' choice for a particular paper, the conventions that governed the decoration of different rooms and the everyday aesthetic vocabulary they deployed." She finds Trollope’s records valuable for the insight they give into how a range of people appreciated and discussed the same material—which was, of course, always wallpaper. 

It's certainly valuable to learn which colors and patterns were popular for certain rooms. But, there doesn't seem much differentiation among flocks, satins, borderwork, plain papers, or common papers, nor are costs assigned to these types. Indeed we hear almost nothing about cost, a most important attribute. Custom coloring is presented as a common concern of the letter-writers. Yet, as far as I know, paperstainers offered such coloring only as an extra. It's clear that some correspondents were furnishing servant's quarters, others were looking for a bargain, and some were landladies hustling to get a flat ready. It's unlikely that any of these were eager to pay extra. Of course, the scarcity of information may have constrained the discussion. 

So little wallpaper remains that our greatest difficulty is imagining what vanished wallpaper looked like while staring at bare walls, or at a billhead full of black and white numbers. Yet, when documented papers are found, what impresses most is their incredible diversity, not the commonality that they were all wallpaper. So, what's most important may depend on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. Here, she distills hundreds of letters down to a half-dozen descriptors, and assigns meaning to the vocabulary using literary sources; but, the results may say as much about words as about wallpapers.

We also must remember that large shops working the London trade were a small minority of the 150 or so paperstainers in England around this time. Most paperstainers were in villages and small towns where the proprietor "designed and produced his own blocks, printed his papers, sold them direct to the public, and (usually) hung them in the houses of his clients" (Sugden and Edmundson, 135, 114).  

Sugden and Edmundson are far from infallible, as others have noted; and yet, what they say about rural shops rings true, and helps to complete the picture. Their book confirms the popularity of the marble and granite types mentioned by Vickery, which were mainstays of the trade as late as 1875 or so. Vickery quotes approvingly from Beckmann on stonework and certainly the writings of this German academic have much to offer. He and Robert Dossie were ahead of their time and spoke about 'material culture' long before it appeared in university textbooks.

There seems some confusion about renovations in the Lady Rodney's and Simmons’ households (page 173). "Paint" can refer to ground color, design color, or architectural painting. The paperstaining trade never settled on a word for color, using “inks”, “distemper”, "staining" and “paint”  indiscriminately. If there is unfamiliarity with the wallpaper field, it doesn’t invalidate Vickery’s cultural conclusions, but may shade them somewhat. For example, she finds little use of yellow in the trade before 1740 or so, and while it's true that Cornforth says this (for elite interiors) there are plenty of references to yellow papers in the writing of Entwisle, Wells-Cole, in the compendium The Papered Wall and in back numbers of the Wallpaper History Society Review.

The inventories of movable furnishings tabulated on page 208 reveal nothing about wallpaper, as usual. She gets around this by using a variety of sources to discuss wallpaper choice, a welcome innovation. We learn much through these asides, because personality and context come through. The paper-hangings made up for Lady Glandore's petite dressing room sound enchanting. A white paper is dressed with a pink silk border with applique gold and white flowers and even the chairs have paper borders on gauze on pink linen. A poignant picture is painted of a happy room in an unhappy house.

One of her projects is championing feminine domestic crafts. She argues that we've lost the power to read them correctly. Although these were banned from important rooms by Sheraton and other advice writers, they found their way back in. Some were even framed and glazed. Vickery laments the distortions of museum collections, which favor the fine, the costly and the unique. While this may be true of the V & A, as she points out (and we can extend that to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in the U. S.), there’s a good reason for the bias—both are design museums. 

Since most wallpapers fall outside the canons of (superior) taste, both institutions seem not quite sure what to do with their large wallpaper collections, which are the largest for each country. Wallpapers soon falter as examples of pure design, and alternative museums of material culture (where they might find a better setting) either do not exist, or are not anxious to take the collections off their hands. The question "what is wallpaper, if it is not design?" has yet to be answered, and, in some quarters, it has yet to be asked. In any case, the foreclosure of serious thought about the subject goes back a long way. Vickery is hardly at fault for an impasse in the study of wallpaper, which seems especially dire in the U. S. On the contrary, she should be commended for a fresh approach. Significantly, she comes from a different field than decorative arts.  

Wallpaper emerges here as a most important dressing for the walls. Like dress for the body, it can project a certain character. Her comparison of wallpaper to clean linen that covers an unwashed body and makes it acceptable (if not any cleaner) has resonance. It might help explain our ambivalence about what, exactly, wallpaper represents. In the area of style, it's intriguing that one customer wonders whether it’s proper to “cut out the borders as formerly” or just “leave the edge.” It sounds like they were cutting away the bottom edge of the border to achieve a more tromp l’oeil, naturalistic look. Lady Lumm's discovery that Trollope's paperhangers are "mistaken, mistaken, three times mistaken!" seems to have provoked the first recorded wallpaper emergency. No doubt her letter threw the factory into overdrive. 

The papers shown in Plates 17 and 19 illustrate more or less mindless or nondescript fill patterns. The word that comes to mind is “mousy.” Although French wallpaper is never mentioned, it casts a long shadow. That nation's eternal competition with Britain cannot be ignored. And, their wallpaper was rampant in the world market (nowhere more than in the US) at just this time. Fine French wallpaper was specified as the first choice for the newly erected White House in 1800, for example, and the less expensive types poured into big city ports, replacing the English paper that had long dominated our consumption. 

Plate 17 shows a wonderful small chain border and it's worth knowing that this pattern is currently being blockprinted by Adelphi in Sharon Springs, New York. The shadow-lines for the border in Plate 19 are somewhat unexpectedly placed above the pattern, a detail found in the French borders hung in Virginia, at Prestwould, in 1831. This seems to have been a conscious choice at Prestwould, based on other examples in the house, and it would be interesting to know how prevalent the style was in England. 

Her examination of interior decorating is aimed at redeeming it from caricature and myth. In typical Vickery fashion, it's not an either/or choice between masculine domination or feminine frippery. She finds that interior decorating bridged gender divisions and was matrimonial in its overtones: "for the majority of polite consumers, decoration fell not within the sphere of architecture, high-design debate and fashionable patronage, but rather came within the capacious but commonplace remit of housekeeping." This homely redirection, though it might rob interior decorating of some magic, sounds right.

Even style is taken down a notch (is nothing sacred?). She admits that Georgians were obsessed with style, but explains that it was driven by something else—their obsession with status: "The grammar of decorum was deeper than the expression of a passing fashion. It was about status rather than style." 
She says that "iron convention" governed which patterns were appropriate," that Trollope's customers had "an obsession with propriety" and that they were as slavish as lords and ladies to the rule that decor should correspond to rank. These are large claims, and, in a word, some of these seem too neat. They don't allow for individual expression. 

The way that James Hewitt leaves the choice of a white sprig paper to his brother is a good example. The concern was important enough to write down, but the outcome is unclear: "I leave it to you". The final choice must have depended on what sort of sprigs were in stock, whether they were on a polished or plain ground, the taste of Joseph Hewitt, the time and money available. All of these things point more toward a negotiated choice than toward "iron convention." Just as consumers defied Sheraton's rules by infiltrating dining and drawing rooms with the contraband of feminine ornaments, it's safe to assume that many wallpaper consumers did not make safe choices, but instead were assertive in their choices and perhaps even transgressive.

Another revealing story features James Hewitt again. This successful barrister economized on his staircase (it was papered only as far as could be seen from downstairs). The exact same thing happened in a well-kept lawyer's residence in Washington, D.C. around 1800 or so. No doubt cost-cutting measures like these were common on both sides of the Atlantic. It would seem that in these cases cost was what mattered most, outpacing both status and style.


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