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Wall Coverings

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THERE is little doubt that wall coverings were among the portable furnishings carried about in chests when the lord with his retinue moved on. The builder left the walls bare, and even the interior castle walls unfinished. Those which were coated over with plaster were in early days undecorative, and needed some furnishing drapery, or rather coverings, to hide their imperfections. Thus the arras or tapestry became a necessary part of the furnishings which were then conveyed from place to place, whether the buildings occupied by their owners were temporary or more permanent homes.

Wall coverings were in turn of arras or tapestry, of wood, plain, carved, or painted ; and later walls were adorned with paintings placed upon specially prepared panels. Hangings were sometimes of more flimsy materials than tapestry, and in due course the woven fabrics were replaced by wall papers.

There is much to interest and attract the home connoisseur in all these wall coverings in that in nearly all cases they signify home employment and an expenditure of artistic taste.


The women of England have always been expert needleworkers, and some of their handiwork for the adornment of the home is referred to in another chapter. In quite early days kings and nobles when furnishing their castles had to seek the assistance of continental weavers, who, as history records, in due course came over and taught British workers how to produce the wall coverings and other textiles needed for house-furnishing purposes.

The wall coverings so necessary then for use in draughty towers and great halls were hung or suspended from hooks or nails driven into the walls. When the time came for removal they were taken down and rolled up for transport, being often packed in the large chests in which so much of the portable property of the owner was conveyed. It should be noted that while the arras or tapestry was primarily a wall covering many such textiles served as curtains or divisions of rooms. Textiles were used as screens for dividing off sleeping compartments of the women, and for rendering private the smaller, portions of the great hall.

The large tapestries made with such labour in mediaeval days were no longer removed when dwellings became more permanent. An improvement was then possible, in that the woven fabrics were specially prepared for certain spaces, and were made specific in size to cover such walls. Round towers were no longer hung so as to leave spaces " behind the arras," and unsightly corners were filled with panels of wood, and tapestries were used as ornamental wall coverings in better furnished dwellings. The continental looms were busy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and it was from such sources that much of the tapestry which has remained originally came.

The term arras is derived from the Italian factory from which so many wonderful tapestries were produced. Paris was the seat of several important works, and notorious for some clever weavers, and it was in Paris and its vicinity that the royal tapestry works were established, the most notable being the Gobelins. High-warp tapestries were made at Lille in the fourteenth century, and there, too, were made hangings with armorial bearings, and many beautiful textiles on which were woven the white fleur-de-lis, the arms of the city. The guarantee mark of Lille was an escutcheon of gules with a fleur-de-lis argent. Most of the works produced at Lille may be classified as furnishing tapestries. Brussels was early an important seat of the industry, a factory being established there by Louis XII. The marks adopted at Brussels consist of a shield, on either side of which is a capital letter B, placed face to face. It is surmised that the device was adopted in Brussels during the government of the Duke of Burgundy. There were tapestry weavers at work in the fifteenth century at Audenarde. One famous piece, the work of Van der Goton, represents the history of Eurydice. In the first scene there is a landscape with a group of nymphs near a fountain, Eurydice having been stung on the heel by a serpent. In the second tapestry there are representations of the entrance to the infernal regions, and Orpheus is seen carrying his lyre, presenting himself before Pluto, seeking to obtain permission to search for Eurydice on the banks of the Cocytus. There were early tapestry factories at Tournay, and at Antwerp, chiefly noted for fifteenth-century productions.

The famous Flemish tapestries woven in the factory established in the reign of Louis XIII. in the house of the Gobelins have gained world-wide notoriety. The Gobelins was originally a dye - house dating from the fifteenth century. Louis XIV. added to its reputation by introducing embroiderers, goldsmiths, cabinet-makers, and chasers of metal, so that the royal factory at Gobelins became more closely identified with the manufacture of furniture and furnishing upholsteries than any of the other tapestry works in France. In an historical account of the processes adopted there, given by M. Lacordaire, it is stated that in weaving tapestry the coloured threads could not be carried from one end to the other of the warp as in ordinary figured tissues, as there would have been still greater loss of thread, and too great a thickness of the tissue. It was, therefore, found necessary to invent a process of partial weaving, economising the woollen or silken threads which formed the woof. This portion of the work was executed on looms with vertical and sometimes horizontal warp. The pieces of wood of the framework which were parallel with the warp differ, making the distinction between high-warp and low-warp looms, both looms working smooth carpets on the reverse side, raised velvet or high-pile carpets being worked on the right side only.

There was a royal manufactory at Beauvais, founded in 1664, low-warp looms being chiefly used. It was there that chair seats, curtains, and valences were woven. The mark was a fleur-de-lis, with various initials, frequently AC or ACC. Some fine examples of this factory are to be seen in the Wallace Collection in Hertford House.

Italian tapestries are to be seen in most of the chief museums. Ferrara was one of the oldest manufactories where tapestry was manufactured in Italy, many fine examples of fifteenth-century work being extant. There were workshops in Correggio in Modena, in 1480, and in the town of Modena Flemish workmen established a workshop soon afterwards. Tapestries were made at Florence in the sixteenth century, and also in Venice and Naples. There were factories in Rome where many splendid tapestries for the Vatican were woven. One works was established by Pope Clement XI., and improvements were made by Pius VI. in 1775. Leo VII. in 1823 made an attempt to reestablish the tapestry industry, but it was not very successful.

There is still much old tapestry in this country. In many manor houses odd panels are to be found; and it is no uncommon thing for a large piece which has occupied a prominent place in some old house for centuries to be seen in the galleries of a London dealer. Such pieces are also offered in the London salerooms, although much of the interest in them is lost owing to their present owners frequently being unable or unwilling to state with accuracy where they came from, for whom they were first made, or by whom they were worked. A short time ago three such panels were disposed of by one of the leading London auctioneers. The largest was 12 ft. 8 in. by 9 ft. 9 in., the work of a sixteenth-century Flemish weaver. It was a veritable picture representing a park scene with trees, animals, and birds in the fore-ground, and buildings in the background, its deep border being composed of vases of flowers, fruit, and cartouches, among which were intermixed small woodland scenes. This beautiful piece, so suitable for a country house, came from Anderson Manor, in Dorset. At the same sale there was a small panel of Aubusson tapestry, measuring 4 ft. 9 in. by 4 ft. 4 in., its subject being buildings and trees.


As in many other divisions of house furnishing there was concurrent use of a variety of wall coverings. When the barons who moved on from castle to castle, or retired to another stronghold when pressed by foes, continued to take with them the arras to cover walls, there were some who had advanced in architectural comfort. History tells that the walls in Windsor Castle were panelled with oak between 1216 and 1272, during the reign of Henry III. In 1233 the Sheriff of Hampshire was commanded to take care that the wainscoted chamber of the King in the Castle of Winchester "be painted with the same histories and pictures as it had been previously." That is an early instance of painting scenes upon wooden wainscot. Many such scenes in brilliant colours, sometimes gilded, were painted, but the few remaining examples of painted wainscot are now faded, and few indicate the richness of their original colourings.

Frescoes and paintings upon plastered walls were not uncommon at an early date. Visitors to the Old Parliament House within the precincts of Westminster Abbey note fragments of the historical pageant which once adorned those walls in frescoes. In some of the earlier cathedrals and churches Saxon and Norman frescoes are visible, and many such decorations are known to have been painted in the Middle Ages when dole cupboards and ancient credence tables, such as are now among the rarer furniture antiques, were new.

The use of paint to imitate textiles upon walls was a well-known form of decoration which goes back to a very early date. Instances are given in royal records, such, for instance, one wherein it is stated that in 1236 it was ordered that the great chamber of the King at Westminster should be painted with " good green colour in imitation of a curtain, so that the first time the King enters he shall find the aforesaid chamber and wardrobe painted and ornamented as aforesaid." Again, in 1260 it was ordered in reference to the King's chamber in Windsor Castle " and in our great chamber there on the blank wall at the head of our bed to have painted the resemblance of a curtain or hanging." Such imitations of curtains became fairly common, and while the common people coloured their walls in self-colouring or whitewash the wealthier imitated hangings and sometimes painted imitations of tapestry pictures.

The most beautiful wall coverings are those upon which paint has been unknown, although in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries some of the splendid linen-fold and parchment panelling was painted vermilion—a gorgeous setting to the sombre oak furniture, although not in accord with modern ideas of artistic decoration. It appears a vandalism now to coat with paint oak wainscot, and yet some of the richly decorated strap ornament and even inlaid marqueterie of Tudor and Elizabethan days was in late Georgian and Victorian times covered with coat after coat of paint.

Wall papers in lieu of arras or wood are, of course, a comparatively modern innovation. The leathern hangings and wall panels of Spain, where the Cordova leather work won such world-wide reputation, were of an earlier date. They were costly, although remarkably effective. The enrichment of leather for furniture as well as for wall coverings produced by the cuir boulli process was an art peculiarly Spanish. In modern times attempts have been made to reproduce those leathers, as well as the oriental papers of more recent date, with considerable success, but neither come up to the genuine antiques. Japanned wall papers were shipped by the East India Company, and by Dutch merchants in the seventeenth century. Early in the same century papers printed or blocked by hand were made ; the process, known as block printing of paper in imitation of velvets, originated in 1634. A little later, in 1638, Christopher of London obtained a patent for leather decoration. It was not until the reign of Queen Anne that cheap printed fabrics for wall coverings came in. At that time cottons and cheap printed fabrics took the place of more costly materials.

Wall papers, as it has been stated, were imported to this country from China and Japan. In 1744 Jackson, of Battersea, produced panel pictures printed in oil from wooden blocks. Another improvement was made when Reveillon established a factory in Paris, in 1760. Wall paper, as we understand it today, is, however, quite a recent invention, and it was not until 1830 that it came into general use in this country, the great cheapening of wall paper taking place in 1861 after the abolition of the paper duty.

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