Wallpaper - an amazing decorative wall covering 

When I was growing up and we visited family in France I was always fascinated with the fact that they had some of the bedrooms completely covered in wallpaper, ceiling, walls and even window surrounds! Usually in tiny flower motifs or in lighter but still very busy Toile de Jouy. I found it hideous, even at a young age!
In Switzerland, wallpaper is seldom used in interiors, usually painted walls or a variety of textured materials are used. When I came to England many years ago, I discovered that wallpaper was not the abomination I had thought it to be! Part of a long and colourful decorating tradition, wallpapers here were used sparingly, when required in a historic context or as an architectural feature in a room. I became hooked – to the point where I often collect wallpaper and frame it.

See this wonderful example of historic wallpaper from Robert Weston - Charlecote Strapwork c. 1820 was recreated for the National Trust's Charlecote Park. Originally designed by the Prince Regent's Decorator and also found at Lord Byron's Newstead Abbey.  

Wallpaper can be traced back to China at around 200 B.C. when the Chinese glued rice paper onto their walls for decoration and insulation. From China to Arabia, in the 8th Century, wallpaper was developing. Apparently Chinese prisoners in the Middle East developed their papermaking skills whilst incarcerated and this knowledge spread throughout the area. In the 10th Century, Arab people were using wood and bamboo instead of linen fibres. This allowed for much finer paper to be made.

The very earliest block prints on paper were religious and the oldest example known to man represents the Virgin and is dated 1418. In 1481, Jean Bourdichon, an artist at the court of Louis XI, painted 50 rolls of paper with angels on a blue background.  At the time, wallpaper was portable as the court moved around France a lot – this allowed for the King and his courtiers to hang the paper wherever they went. This was still a very expensive practice; even for Kings and the usual wall decoration was paint. In the UK the very earliest wallpaper is found at the Christ’s College in Cambridge which apparently dates back to 1549.

Here on the right is Lambeth Saracen, c.1690, black and brown ingrain paper, originally meant to resemble expensive embossed leather. From the collection of Robert Weston and available in a variety of colourways.

Through the ages wallpaper became more and more popular and also accessible. It really came in its own in the Victorian era, when it became a particularly popular form of wall decoration. Factory-printed papers provided a simple way of covering up plain walls with floral designs, geometric patterns, oriental themes, scenic landscapes or even animals. Printed borders were plentiful and copied from architectural mouldings such as Greek motifs or egg and dart designs.

The development of department stores throughout the UK helped in disseminating home decoration and mail order firms were plentiful. All one had to do was pick the designs from heavy and thick catalogues and order. As Victorian tastes slowly veered towards the darker colour palette, the interiors became very heavy, dark and brown.

This “brown” decade moved into the Edwardian style. Luckily this gloomy and excessive over-designed style was usurped by a reformist movement known as the Aesthetic movement. Better known as the Arts & Crafts movement in the UK, the best exponent of this style for wallpapers was William Morris (1834-1896). Based mostly on motifs from nature, these wallpapers are some of the most expressive two-dimensional designs of the era.

Here on the left Edwardian Damask, c.1901, green, recreated for the Russell-Cotes Museum. Found in the house, the 3" square was found under a light switch! From the Robert Weston  collection.

Today wallpapers come in myriad of designs, colours, patterns, machine-made or the more expensive block or hand printed variety. Borders and friezes in differing scales can also be ordered. Great at covering up all manner of uneven, flawed and pitted walls, wallpapers are the greatest cover-up a wall can wear!
The first question any client always asks me is: how much do I need to buy? How do I calculate what I need for such and such room? The answer? Adrian Rayfield of has devised a fantastically easy tool – see what he says here:-

‘I created the calculator’s on  as a resource for people to use. I have used online wallpaper calculators before and found them very long-winded or complicated to use, this is why I decided to create my own. The calculator is an online tool aimed at anyone wanting to work out how many rolls of wallpaper needed to paper any given area, DIY’ers and tradesmen alike, including myself! The wallpaper calculator is quick, simple and hassle free to use, simply enter the height of the room or feature wall, then the circumference of a room (including windows and doors) or the width of a feature wall hit calculate and the calculator works it all out for you simple! The calculator also includes a feet to metre converter as I know many people still use feet and inches.  
Once the calculation is worked out – the result shows you how many rolls (UK standard size) are needed. As a decorator I often find that people don’t have any idea on how to calculate the number of rolls of wallpaper required, and even less so when it comes to the wallpaper symbols that are found on the rolls or the wallpaper sample books. This is why I have included a page on the site with all of the symbols and their meanings.’
So thanks to Adrian, knowing how much wallpaper to buy has now become easy, quick and budget friendly. Thanks Adrian!

If your walls are really uneven, what to do? Lining paper is always a good choice, it smoothes the flaws out and if using a heavier grade, it will cover up the biggest problems. Hung horizontally and precisely this is a must do for bad walls.

Vinyl wallpapers are waterproof and tough. They can be scrubbed with medium pressure and washed. Good for bathrooms, kitchens and kid’s rooms but also useful for high usage areas like hallways. Remember though, these must be applied with fungicidal adhesive, or mould can develop underneath.

Left is Animal Magic by PaperBoy Wallpaper - a fun and humourous wallpaper for a boy's bedroom.

Textured papers are usually embossed or en relief and these can be painted too. But these days we have gone much further than the old Anaglypta and Lincrusta or even flock wallpaper!
These days, wallpapers can be made using, hessian, or other natural fibres, silk, linen, foils and even metals. They do need a paper backing and can be hung like normal wallpaper – so no need to batten the room or upholster the panels.

Summer Garden from Camilla Meijer's new 2010 collection

Finally before you get to the shops and choose your wallpaper – a few things to think about.
  • What effect do you want for your room?
  • Does it work with your window treatment?
  • Does it complement your existing soft furnishings or does it clash?
  • Look at the repeat in the design (on the rolls) so that you don’t end up with cut off patterns.
Finally do get a sample, a long one or at least the biggest one with the repeat pattern showing.

Hang it on the wall and live with it for a few days, this can be an expensive decorative feature, so you want to make sure you have the right look, feel and design.

More information:
  • ‘Japantastic’ at MODA Middlesex – Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture celebrates 150 years of friendship with Japan showing Arthur Silver’s stunning collection of textiles and wallpapers adapting Japanese motifs for the home market. until August 1, 2010.
  • ‘Very Sanderson – 150 years of English Decoration’ at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London,, until June 13th, 20
  • promotes awareness and understanding of historic wallpapers as well as contemporary wall coverings.
  • Robert Weston, an architectural historian specialises in historic wallpapers. From Georgian to Victorian and Edwardian interiors, the wallpapers in Robert Weston’s collection span 25 years of collecting fragments of original wallpapers. These traditional designs are recreated form original period wallpapers.
  • clean and contemporary wallpapers for boys of any age! Full of humour and delight, they stimulate the adventurous spirit of children.
  • contemporary wallpaper designed by Camilla Meijer. Inspired from nature the designs are dynamic and vibrant. This young designer's collection is fresh and suits any interior.

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