Historic wallpaper: Finding what’s beneath

Detail of reproduced George Brown House central hall wallpaper

Archaeology, Buildings and architecture, Cultural objects, Tools for conservation

Published Date: Feb 16, 2006

Photo: Detail of reproduced George Brown House central hall wallpaper

Wallpapers first appeared in Canada as early as the mid-17th century. These oldest papers were block-printed, hand-painted or stenciled. Pattern and colour was applied to squares of handmade paper that were pasted together to form a larger wall covering.

From 1840 onward, machine roller printing made continuous roll wallpaper increasingly available to both the upper and middle classes. Wallpaper soon became a standard wall finish, integral to the interior decorative scheme of the Ontario dwelling. Wallpaper enabled homeowners to divide walls into base, middle and upper sections of pattern and colour. Borders and fields were used in combination within the same room to accentuate architectural features. Wallpaper styles evolved and it was not unusual for a room to be renewed every five to 10 years using papers of the latest fashion in colour, pattern, backing material and allegorical themes of the day.

While intact 19th-century papered walls are not common in Ontario, period wallpaper samples can often be found in historic buildings – if one knows where to look. The evidence is usually found in concealed locations and places where earlier wallpaper has been covered by later additions: behind switch plates, applied mouldings and built-in cabinetry.

As with all historic buildings, what one often finds is a surprise. During the restoration of the Bethune-Thompson House in Williamstown, exploratory investigations revealed that the original c.1804 “Bethune” walls of the dining room and parlour, complete with their c.1825 block-printed wallpapers, had been covered by secondary walls built by subsequent owner David Thompson. The second walls were too significant to remove, but a glimpse of the oldest surviving paper was provided by wall mounted cabinet doors that open to reveal the original papered surfaces beneath, providing a window on to the past.

In most cases however, surviving scraps of original wallpaper are small and are used primarily to guide decisions about period restoration. The options are one-off custom reproduction papers or the selection of historically appropriate wallpaper from standard period patterns available from manufacturers. At George Brown House in Toronto, a scrap of the original c.1880 wallpaper used by Brown was found on a central hall wall, behind a later decorative mantelpiece. The original pattern was a bold plumed motif in a Rococo-inspired style, executed in metallic bronze ink on a thick embossed paper likely meant to imitate leather. Working with a commercial manufacturer, this historic pattern was accurately transferred and adapted to modern printing techniques.

For the later Art Nouveau-inspired dining room in the same house, an old black and white photograph provided sufficient detail to redraw the pattern, while a tiny scrap of original wallpaper found beneath mahogany trim served as a guide for the colour. These custom reproduced wallpapers for George Brown House were also made available to the general restoration market as a new “heritage” product line of period pattern wallpaper.

In dealing with historic wallpaper, whether the approach is to conserve, display and interpret samples of historic material or to reproduce and restore period appearance, the starting point is always finding what’s beneath.