Arts and Crafts Essays/Of Wall Papers

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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 bonâ 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 repoussée 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.