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Of Wall Papers








While the tradition and practice of mural painting as applied to
interior walls and ceilings of houses still linger in Italy, in the form
of often skilful if not always tasteful tempera work, in more western
countries, like England, France, and America, under the economic
conditions and customs of commercial civilisation, with its smoky
cities, and its houses built by the hundred to one pattern, perhaps, and
let on short terms, as regards domestic decoration--except in the case
of a few wealthy freeholders--mural painting has ceased to exist. Its
place has been taken by what after all is but a substitute for it,
namely, wall paper.

I am not aware that any specimen of wall paper has been discovered that
has claims to any higher antiquity than the sixteenth century, and it
only came much into use in the last, increasing in the present, until it
has become well-nigh a universal covering for domestic walls, and at the
same time has shown a remarkable development in design, varying from
very unpretending patterns and printings in one colour to elaborate
block-printed designs in many colours, besides cheap machine-printed
papers, where all the tints are printed from the design on a roller at
once.

Since Mr. William Morris has shown what beauty and character in pattern,
and good and delicate choice of tint can do for us, giving in short a
new impulse in design, a great amount of ingenuity and enterprise has
been spent on wall papers in England, and in the better kinds a very
distinct advance has been made upon the patterns of inconceivable
hideousness, often of French origin, of the period of the Second
Empire--a period which perhaps represents the most degraded level of
taste in decoration generally.

The designer of patterns for wall papers heretofore has been content to
imitate other materials, and adapt the characteristics of the patterns
found, say, in silk damask hangings or tapestry, or even imitate the
veining of wood, or marble, or tiles; but since the revival of interest
in art, the study of its history, and knowledge of style, a new impulse
has been given, and patterns are constructed with more direct reference
to their beauty, and interest as such, while strictly adapted to the
methods of manufacture. Great pains are often taken by our principal
makers to secure good designs and harmonious colourings, and though a
manufacturer and director of works is always more or less controlled by
the exigencies of the market and the demands of the tentative
salesman--considerations which have no natural connection with art,
though highly important as economic conditions affecting its
welfare--very remarkable results have been produced, and a special
development of applied design may almost be said to have come into
existence with the modern use of wall papers. The manufacture suffers
like most others from the keenness and unscrupulousness of commercial
competition, which leads to the production of specious imitations of
bona fide designs, and unauthorised use of designs originally intended
for other purposes, and this of course presses unfairly upon the more
conscientious maker, so long as the public do not decline to be
deceived.

English wall papers are made in lengths 21 inches wide. French wall
papers are 18 inches wide. This has probably been found most convenient
in working in block-printing: it is obvious to any one who has seen the
printers at work that a wider block than 21 inches would be unwieldy,
since the block is printed by hand, being suspended from above by a
cord, and guided by the workman's hand from the well of colour, into
which it is dipped, to the paper flat on a table before him.

The designer must work to the given width, and though his design may
vary in depth, must never exceed 21 inches square, except where double
blocks are used. His main business is to devise his pattern so that it
will repeat satisfactorily over an indefinite wall space without running
into awkward holes or lines. It may be easy enough to draw a spray or
two of leaves or flowers which will stand by themselves, but to combine
them in an organic pattern which shall repeat pleasantly over a wall
surface requires much ingenuity and a knowledge of the conditions of the
manufacture, apart from play of fancy and artistic skill.

One way of concealing the joints of the repeat of the pattern is by
contriving what is called a drop-repeat, so that, in hanging, the
paper-hanger, instead of placing each repeat of pattern side by side, is
enabled to join the pattern at a point its own depth below, which varies
the effect, and arranges the chief features or masses on an alternating
plan.

The modern habit of regarding the walls of a room chiefly as a
background to pictures, furniture, or people, and perhaps the smallness
of the average room, has brought rather small, thickly dispersed, leafy
patterns into vogue, retiring in colour for the most part. While,
however, we used to see rotund and accidental bunches of roses (the
pictorial or sketchy treatment of which contrasted awkwardly with their
formal repetition), we now get a certain sense of adaptation, and the
necessity of a certain flatness of treatment; and most of us who have
given much thought to the subject feel that when natural forms are dealt
with, under such conditions, suggestion is better than any attempt at
realisation, or naturalistic or pictorial treatment, and that a design
must be constructed upon some systematic plan, if not absolutely
controlled by a geometric basis.

Wall papers are printed from blocks prepared from designs, the outlines
of which are reproduced by means of flat brass wire driven edgeways into
the wood block. One block for each tint is used. First one colour is
printed on a length of paper, a piece of 12 yards long and 21 inches
wide, which is passed over sticks suspended across the workshop. When
the first colour is dry the next is printed, and so on; the colours
being mixed with size and put in shallow trays or wells, into which the
blocks are dipped.

A cheaper kind is printed by steam power from rollers on which the
design has been reproduced in the same way by brass wire, which holds
the colour; but in the case of machine-printed papers all the tints are
printed at once. Thus the pattern is often imperfect and blurred.

A more elaborate and costly kind of wall paper is that which is stamped
and gilded, in emulation of stamped and gilded leather, which it
resembles in effect and quality of surface. For this method the design
is reproduced in relief as a repoussee brass plate, and from this a
mould or matrix is made, and the paper being damped is stamped in a
press into the matrix, and so takes the pattern in relief, which is
generally covered with white metal and lacquered to a gold hue, and this
again may be rubbed in with black, which by filling the interstices
gives emphasis to the design and darkens the gold to bronze; or the
gilded surface may be treated in any variety of colour by means of
painting or lacquer, or simply relieved by colouring the ground.

But few of us own our own walls, or the ground they stand upon: but few
of us can afford to employ ourselves or skilled artists and craftsmen
in painting our rooms with beautiful fancies: but if we can get
well-designed repeating patterns by the yard, in agreeable tints, with a
pleasant flavour perchance of nature or antiquity, for a few shillings
or pounds, ought we not to be happy? At all events, wall-paper makers
should naturally think so.

WALTER CRANE.





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