A WALLPAPER CASE STUDY BY ROBERT M. KELLY
b. the LeBaron wallpapers
c. versions of “Garland and Tassel”
d. floorcloths and painting
e. site conditions
The first hurdle: the home that anchors one end of the village green in Old Sturbridge is not a town house, but a Towne House. Indeed, Salem Townes I, II and III are integral to the story. The house was built in the 18th century by the first Towne, but the recent refurbishing takes its cues from the inheritance of the home by Salem Towne, Jr. in 1825. And it was the scampering feet and poking fingers of Salem Towne III and his five siblings that wore down the stairs and chipped the woodwork of the hall, making refinishing necessary during the mid-20’s. So runs the hypothesis that drove the recent refurbishment.
On average, three people live in the American household of today. Like most homes of the time, the Towne House sheltered far more. At least twelve of Salem Towne, Jr.'s family and dependents occupied his father's home in the years leading up to the change in ownership. The house came to the living history museum from nearby Charlton in 1952. Though displaced, it brought a real history to Sturbridge. It was the homestead for an established yet still industrious farming family.
The first Salem Towne was self-made. By the time his house was built in 1796 he was 50 years old and owned 400 acres. He farmed but also traded in dry goods, served the community as an informal banker, and took military, legislative and judicial posts. His only son filled each of the father's roles in turn. At a time when opportunity beckoned young men West, there was continuity in the Towne household.
And yet this continuity changed somewhat in 1825. The furnishing plan speculates that Mrs. Salem Towne, Jr. may have ". . . maintained the overall look of the entry - a space passed through but not heavily used by family or guests - slightly updating the paint color and replacing the stair runner . . ."
Architectural conservator Brian Powell found that the greater part of the entry woodwork was initially painted pea green, and that a second and brighter glazed green was probably in place by 1825. It also seemed possible that floorcloths were laid in the hall; they were popular with the Townes' social class. Around 1800 floorcloths were often factory made, block printed and costly. They could last decades with occasional revarnishing. The furnishing plan notes that ". . . striped 'Venetian' carpets were popular in late 18th century entry halls, stairwells and family parlors; by the 1840s they were used primarily on stairs and in secondary passages."
Following these clues, furnishing available between 1795 and 1825 were recreated. A Venetian carpet, which could have belonged to either era, was chosen for the stair treads and midlevel stair landing. The hall woodwork would be upgraded to a glazed green, and the ceilings repainted with distemper. Supposed retentions would include a newly varnished floorcloth upstairs and down and a still-intact wallpaper with borders.
Floorcloth and carpet designs and paper-hangings models were readily available. A reproduction Venetian carpet was copied from a fragment in the OSV archives by Rabbit Goody of Thistle Hill Weavers; floorcloths were commissioned; and a reproduction of a c. 1794 wallpaper with borders was ordered from Adelphi Paper Hangings.
b. the LeBaron wallpapers
Ironically, the refurbishment gave OSV the perfect opportunity to use some already-licensed reproductions of documents from its own collections. An early sidewall, small border, and cornice border now preserved at OSV originally hung in the Lazarus LeBaron house in the nearby town of Sutton, Massachusetts. Some years ago, OSV had licensed Adelphi Paper Hangings to reproduce the sidewall and cornice border with the original distemper and block printing technology. The sidewall is called "Arabesque Pigeons" in the Adelphi catalog, and the border is called "Garland and Tassel". Now, it was OSV's turn to use these reproductions.
On inspection the ground of the document is very faded. It's hard to say when the fading took place. Specks of ink (probably from the blows of the paperstainer's mallet) are apparent. The paperhanging, too, is far from perfect — mismatches abound. For all of that, the original installation is a charming and robust example of early 19th century ingenuity.
The ensemble is well-documented in the literature. These same border designs surrounded an American copy of a different arabesque at the Barnard Capen House built in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The Capen documents are now in the collections of Historic New England. The tones of grey, pink and rose in the sidewalls and borders of the Capen House installation sound as if they harmonize well.
From a photo of the LeBaron wallpapers in situ it appears that the paperhanger mitered the angles of the small border with some attention to pattern. These niceties were observed in the recent work. However, they were not taken too far. Strict balancing and seamless pattern matching would be out of place when recreating furnishings of the early 19th century, especially in a rural area ― as evidenced by the remains of this very paper. A bonus from the project is that the small LeBaron border, never before reproduced, has been licensed by Adelphi. It's now available as "LeBaron Border."
c. versions of "Garland and Tassel"
But, this cornice border differs in three ways from the LeBaron cornice border. The Pendleton border ground is buff/yellow; there is a maker's mark on the back of the border (Anthony Chardon's); and the detailing of the tassels is reversed from that of the LeBaron border. One of the borders appears to be a copy of the other.
The garland/tassel motif appeared on a variety of surfaces in early America, among them, the walls of the Rich Hollow Tavern in East Montpelier, Vermont. An image of that stenciled wall shows the garland/tassel motif in shades of rose, black and white. It's bordered by a white scalloped band on a taupe wall.
Borrowing between wallpaper and stenciling has long been noted by Nina Little and others. In fact, Figure 150 of her American Decorative Wall Painting shows a tassel and swag border not unlike the Chardon/LeBaron border. She dates it to around 1800. The tassels in Little's photo are large and hang down between the swags, as in the wallpaper borders.
Adelphi's reproduction block print is shown below.
Adelphi's reproduction block print is shown below.
d. floorcloth and painting
A floorcloth with plain-painted field and patterned border including corner blocks, all elements appropriate to c. 1795, was made for the refurbishment by Marylou Davis. Her work is based on a fragment of a floorcloth found at Kenmore Plantation in Virginia. The fragment shows its second printing (block printed cloths were frequently sent back to a printer for a second design once they had worn). According to Davis, block printed floorcloths were readily available from merchants dealing with English or Scottish goods. These were made in seacoast towns tied to ship building and international commerce. No doubt the availability of wide canvas and labor were advantages for the trade. By 1820, there were a number of factories in the United States making block printed floorcloths.
Davis was also responsible for the distempering of the ceiling and the application of the green glaze applied to most of the interior woodwork of the hall. The effect of this bright green (is it "grass green"?) is electric. It jumps against the richly colored wallpaper. Glazed and varnished greens seem to have been popular in early America, and were often used on mantels. They were used on wallpaper as well. At Carlyle House in Alexandria, for example, a reproduction was done some years ago of the 5 pieces of "gr. varnishd Paper @ 7/" that John Carlyle bought for his house in 1773. Many early wallpapers with touches of shiny green are preserved in museum collections. At the Downs Collection, Wintherthur, a sprawling "India" paper with prominent glossy greens covers a mathematical workbook from around 1813.
e. site conditions
A screen printed wallpaper had decorated the plaster walls of the hall since 1984. This was removed mechanically by dry-scraping the walls with 4" razor tools. Soaking and removal of paper shards followed. The walls were washed clean and patched.
Glue size, an ancient standby, can still be useful for preparing plaster walls for wallpaper. It has three advantages: it can be mixed to varying strengths; it obscures none of the historic fabric; and it remains water-soluble. However, the plaster walls of the Towne House are not old, having been replaced during the move from Charlton in 1952. Plus, they presented a patchwork of different finish materials with different levels of porosity. Application of a modern all-purpose acrylic was therefore specified.
A translucent acrylic wallpaper primer was applied to the walls, followed by installation of an acid free lining paper. A lightweight paper of 90 gsm (grams per square meter) was chosen. This liner helped retain certain qualities of the plaster ― some roughness and a rolling plane. Nevertheless, the liner provided a good base for securing the block prints.
The trimming of the wallpapers followed trade practice of around 1795. Since the edge of each strip overlaps its neighbor, the seams are necessarily more evident. The goal in using shears is to make an edge which is reasonably straight and yet shows the slight wavering of handwork. The underlapping selvedge was also trimmed by hand to three-quarters of an inch, a common historic width. All wallpapers were hung with high-moisture archival pastes: pure wheat and methyl cellulose. Small amounts of commercial polymer/starch based premixes (so-called vinyl adhesives) were added to the paste for overlaps.
The engineering of the wallpaper (layout) is always important. Here, the wall space was dominated by a large hallway on the lower floor. The wall space consisted of about 1,000 square feet over a dado. There was some question about the focal point. The large tripartite window on the midlevel landing could not be ignored, but the balanced door to the upper ballroom also suggested itself.
In the end it was decided to use both architectural elements, which faced each other, as centering devices. The patterns were centered on each and then adjusted to fit the spaces between them. The fact that the horizontal repeat of the sidewall and that of the border did not coincide made this decision easier. The looseness of the pattern and the rural setting also encouraged a casual approach.
The installation was uneventful except that the trimming of the border required some care around the curve of the handrail and around the top curved section of the central window surround. The close-up below shows that the border was ramped ― cut to conform to the curve of the woodwork.
This was done by trimming the selvedge from the border, using razor blades on a plate-glass cutting surface. The straight inner edges of the border (the "rails") were trimmed out next. The flowers and foliage in the middle section were cut along their curves. This produced a storehouse of floral shapes.
One leg of a steel compass was fitted with a pencil and a line was drawn on the liner tracing the outline of the handrail. More lines were drawn to indicate the middle areas to be filled with the foliage. The floral shapes were pasted, overlapped and trimmed to fill the middle space. Finally, the top and bottom rails were put back, and relief cuts were made in the rails at intervals to conform them to the curve.
One last refinement was made. The six little Townes' had presumably wreaked havoc on the painted and papered finishes of the hallway. The young participants in the extensive Sturbridge educational programs were sure to do the same. How could the handrail border, which had scores of small cuts vulnerable to poking fingers, be protected? The solution was to apply two coats of a flat decorator's varnish to the stairwell border.
It's hoped that this precaution will forestall damage caused by curious visitors of all ages.
Acknowledgements, Sources and Further Reading
This project and article could not have happened without the cooperation of Ed Hood, Vice President of Museum Program at OSV, and Marylou Davis, art conservator and consultant in historic interior design. Sections above quote the furnishings plan, which was written by Suzan Friedlander, then-Curator of Household Furnishings. Paperhanger Elliot Peterson of Hartford, Connecticut helped me with the installation, as did wallpaper trimmers directed by Marylou Davis. The finished photos of border and hall were taken by Charles T. Lyle and are used here with his permission.
The photo of the original sample of “Pompeian” style wallpaper c.1790 appears here courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village Collections, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, accession number 22.10.63a. The OSV web site is at: <www.osv.org>
Mike Fineran helped Marylou Davis carry out the distempering and glazing work. I am indebted to Marylou for information about floorcloths. She adapted floorcloths owned by the George Washington Foundation of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Followers of floorcloths might want to see the article by Bonnie Parks: "The History and Technology of Floorcloths" at:
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1504295
Two articles in Wallpaper Reproduction News are relevant: "Plain Paper at Pendleton House" in V.7., N.4. and "Saving An Eighteenth Century Wallpaper Scheme," by paper conservator Susan Nash, V.9., N.3. The photo of the Chardon border and stamp appear courtesy of Susan Nash and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is the repository for many of Ms. Nash’s papers and photos. A special thank you to Polly Forcier, stencil entrepreneur, for sending me a slide image of the Rich Hollow Tavern.
The main article about the Towne House at OSV is here:
The extended Towne family is profiled in an article by Jack Larkin here:
For a photo and commentary about the LeBaron wallpapers in situ and the Capen House, see Richard Nylander's Wallpaper In New England, page 91; for another photo of the LeBaron wallpapers, see Catherine Lynn's Wallpaper in America, page 96. For more about arabesque wallpapers, see the catalog Les Papiers Peints en Arabesques, ed. by Bernard Jacque, Musee du Papier Peint, 1995; on page 80 Geert Wisse discusses how sidewall arabesque patterns compare to those meant for panels. For more about La Fontaine's fable of romantic (but not always heterosexual) love see:
Sources of illustrations:
1. Charles T. Lyle; 2. Old Sturbridge Village; 3. Susan Nash/MESDA; 4. Susan Nash/MESDA; 5. Adelphi Paper Hangings; 6. Charles T. Lyle.
Copyright: © 2012 Robert M. Kelly. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://wallpaperscholarblog.blogspot.com/