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.

Neat And Not Too Showey

Review: “‘Neat And Not Too Showey’: Words and Wallpaper in Regency England” by Amanda Vickery in Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830, edited by John Styles and Amanda Vickery, 2006, Yale Center for British Art.

This chapter essay plumbs the significance of the Trollope and Sons letter book, a rare collection of correspondence between that paperstaining house and their customers 1797-1808. The collection is housed at the London Metropolitan Archives.

The lessons of her leading anecdote (about papers ordered by a strait-laced parson) are offered as merely “suggestive” about taste, personal preferences, and consumer choice. This sets the tone.  Indeed, her main points seem to be not about wallpaper, but rather how the correspondence might shed light on other aspects of consumer culture. The limitations are not surprising, when we consider how much of the material culture of wallpaper has been lost, and how little we know about the records that survive. It is frustratingly difficult to assign meaning to transactions, even when we have the consumers’ own words, as here.

She proves that "neat" was an important wallpaper descriptor, and "gaudy" was, too. Unfortunately, the letters reveal little about the letter-writers themselves. Still less clear is how the buying habits of the patrons of Trollope and Sons relate to the wider paper-hangings market. Vickery points out that though all agreed on the importance of taste, none could define it. If we are any clearer on what "good taste" in wallpaper consisted of based on the letter book, it seems that it was channelled toward conformity. 

The defense for the unaccountability of taste is an old theme; a suggestion is made here that taste was so taken for granted that contemporaries couldn't be bothered to comment. These defenses were no less true around 1800 than they are today. But, the way that taste was expressed in 1800 is certainly different than today, which is why we care about old letter books and other evidence.

It's true that the letters offer “rare insight into the desires and anxieties of a group of consumers."  But whether they also offer “a lexicon of the working language of consumer taste” is somewhat more in doubt. "Handsome", "neat", "pretty", and even "gaudy" remain slippery concepts, even though this essay is helpful.

These disappointments are balanced by new and useful information and several insightful passages relating wallpaper to other forms of consumer culture. Chief among the discoveries are the comments of Countess Poulett about the new trend of borders going up the corners of the room. This is not specifically dated, but it must belong to the turn of the century. This suggests that the convention (which is also mentioned in the Duppa, Slodden letter books of the 1810’s and 20’s housed at the V & A) was actually a revival style helping to modernize the papered room for neoclassical taste rather than a continuation of the very old and necessary tradition of bordering each margin of the room.

There are a few boners. She calls the 1509 Cambridge fragments the first wallpaper, but these were printed on offcuts from a printing press and stuck onto beams, and fall firmly into the “unwallpaper” category. Indeed, it is the discarded texts themselves (subsequently overprinted with pattern) referencing the end of one royal reign and the beginning of another which allow the fragments to be dated.

Her text clouds the fact that decorated paper made the audacious leap to the perpendicular wall not in the bedrooms and sanctum sanctorums of English ladies, but in full view, over the mantel or fireplace; nor are we told that this occurred at least a hundred years earlier, in many different countries, and within a less privileged social class. Her assertions that “wallpaper’s career was essentially one of pretense,” and her repeated characterization of wallpaper as an imitation are flat out wrong.

To illustrate: ground beef is derived from beef. But, that fact does not make hamburger an imitation of beefsteak. Nor is it fair to call a hamburger pretentious, just because it is not a steak. Similarly, paper-hangings are not simply less competent or sham versions of silk and chintz. They deserve unqualified recognition, particularly in a volume about material culture.

French writers understand the distinction.  Jean-Pierre Seguin observed in "Wallpapers of France: 1800-1850" that cutting-edge workshops in Paris persisted in printing flat distemper colors of the most subtle shades to render fabric-like wallpapers, when they could have easily shortened the work by using flock. Nancy McClelland got it right in 1924: “wallpaper has succeeded in being always a reproduction and yet keeping always a definite character of its own, due to its texture and its processes.”

For a contribution to a volume about gender, her observations about that subject are surprisingly slim. But, when they come, they are fresh and counter-intuitive. It's most interesting that she found no evidence in the letter books for the “gendering of interiors”: light colors and gay patterns for women, dark and grave for men, and so on.

She shows us how the costs and frequent re-paperings recorded in Martha Dodson’s account books illustrate the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of paper-hangings. Some 21% of the correspondents in the letter book in 1798 were women. Vickery compares this high involvement of women to women's purchases of silver (they were involved with only about 12% of those choices, ostensibly) and china and pictures (about the same recorded involvement, on the whole). She suggests that even this 21% probably falls short. Referring to the trade card images of Wheeley’s and Masefield’s showrooms, she comments that “choosing wallpaper a deux may even have symbolized marital harmony.”

She makes the keen observation that it was not just that ashlars and other stone types of paper were appropriate for hallways and entries on a materials basis — the neutral tones also served as a foil for the elaborate colors and patterns reserved for more important rooms. Her analysis of how the existing rules of decorum applied to the paper-hangings environment (pg. 205 and following) is persuasive. She explains why we should not be surprised that certain colors were chosen for show, or as a backdrop for pictures, or for certain rooms, or for rooms with a northern or southern exposure. These were a continuation of norms for the decoration of homes, albeit of homes that tended toward the upper end.

The essay raises interesting questions about the interplay between color and pattern. She finds that “the most consistent factor shaping the customers’ choice of paper was total decor.” A discussion follows about the coloring of paper to match other features of the home. Many correspondents mentioned color in a rudimentary way, as in “a green paper”, "a French gray”, etc., and she acknowledges that since no examples are in the Trollope archives (in contrast to other depositories, which have swatches), we are left unsure of what the letter-writers actually meant.

She also acknowledges the limitations of this sampling. Letters were exchanged only in certain situations: when problems arose; for repeat orders; when customers were at a distance; or when they had difficulty paying. Thus, even though hundreds of letters were studied, they are only part of the business. Although she does not say so explicitly, off-the-shelf orders (stock in trade, cash and carry, call it what you will) must have accounted for a certain proportion of sales. These customers had no need for letters of any sort. Unfortunately, it is not possible to guess what this proportion might be. It must have been large.

She refers to the use of common blue papers for “underpapering,” a neologism. We must assume she means as lining paper. But, it is unlikely that a common paper (a general description for a low-priced paper, often ungrounded) would have been used as a liner. Her reference to the color —blue— offers a clue that these may have been coarse blue and green lining and wrapping papers such as bagcap and lumberhand. The coarse types of liner were not much different than the so-called “sugar papers” used to wrap sugar and other confections. This last phrase is often used, in a confiding tone, by my British correspondents when they describe cheap paper. I have not yet found the heart to tell them that Americans of my generation relate as much to “sugar paper” used for sweets as we do to "excelsior" being used for packing — that is, we don’t use the term at all!

For Vickery, “neat”, though a small word, is capable of heavy lifting. She uses it so often it seems almost a synonym for the general notion of “decorum,” i.e., consumers were so anxious that their decoration should be thought appropriate that this pursuit led them toward patterns that were indisputably “neat.” This seems a little too pat. Where there no adventurous consumers?  Maybe "smart" picked up where "neat" left off.

The tendencies of “neat” toward control, repetition, restraint, and the like point toward folk art, but this implication goes unexplored by Vickery, although she does note the application of “neat” to an array of other similarly broad and relatively low-priced consumer products.



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