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Every piece Soane creates, whether furniture, lighting or fabrics, holds a story, from its historic design influences to meticulous manufacturing by our skilled British craftsmen. At Soane we thrive on exchanging these stories – they capture our imaginations and enrich our daily lives. The Journal offers an opportunity to take these conversations further and delve into other subjects that excite and inspire us. We warmly invite you to share in our musings

Lulu Lytle

Founder & Creative Director

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Wallpaper Stories

The history of wallpaper focuses on England and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when war and politics influenced each countries’ usage and manufacture. It’s interesting from a socio-economic, as well as a design and craftsmanship, perspective. Lulu’s enduring love of wallpaper traces further back, to wall decorations of the ancient world and her “absolute favourite tomb,” The Tomb of Pashedu at Deir-el-Medina near Luxor. Exquisitely painted walls depict Peshedu and his wife in paradise, cultivating the land just as they did on earth. On visiting the tomb as an Egyptology student, Lulu was astonished by the beautiful details of nature, animals and people that envelop the space. Closer to home, she had grown up in an English country house full of botanical wallpapers and nostalgically recalls William Morris & Co’s ‘Golden Lily’ – a wallpaper and fabric she says her mother used ‘on everything in the sitting room!’ 

English wallpapers emerged in the sixteenth century as an alternative to tapestries, the woven wall hangings depicting religious, mythological or hunting scenes used by the European aristocracy to decorate lofty rooms and keep out draughts. Henry VIII’s excommunication from the Roman Catholic church and a resulting reduction in trade with Europe, brought an end to the supply of tapestries from Flanders and Arras. Paper wall hangings, printed using carved wood blocks, provided an alternative means of decoration. The earliest known sample of a wallpaper was discovered in the Master’s Lodge at Christ College, Cambridge – a pomegranate motif printed on the back of a King’s proclamation dated 1509 and thought to date to the late sixteenth century. The use of wallpaper waned while puritan Oliver Cromwell ruled, then recovered following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 – a welcome return to luxury and comfort! In both England and France (where wallpaper was first made from glued together end papers produced in bookbinding), patterns tended to comprise either geometric repeats or complicated designs including, for example, flowers and urns.

In the early eighteenth century, British home affairs had an impact on wallpaper usage, with a wallpaper tax levied per square yard between 1712 and 1836. Tax evaders of the day would paste plain paper to the walls and then have it hand printed or painted in situ. The demand for wallpaper grew despite these taxes and by the mid-eighteenth century, England was the leading manufacturer in Europe, with vast quantities exported as well as supplying a wider British market. Later, The Seven Years War, Napoleonic Wars and steep import taxes in France took their toll on the wallpaper industry in England, but the appetite for colourful wall decoration persisted. Immediately after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was a surge of exports to France.

A fashion for enormous scenic wallpapers took hold towards the end of the eighteenth century, with artists commissioned by manufacturers to create wonderfully detailed views of antique, tropical or pastoral landscapes. One of Lulu’s favourites is the glorious ‘Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique’ (1806) by artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet for French manufacturer Joseph Dufour et Cie. A twenty-panel set of papers printed using multiple woodblocks, it was the largest panoramic wallpaper of its time and marked the start of a burgeoning French specialisation in such papers. It depicts the voyages of Captain Cook and is full of exotic charm, from the characterful native people to the abundant palm trees. Panoramic wallpapers were exported to America, where neoclassical scenes suited the Federal house style and designs were customised to depict American events, such as the Boston Tea Party. The French reputation for producing panoramas has endured for centuries – manufacturer Zuber, founded in 1797, today has a London shop just opposite Soane Britain’s showroom in Pimlico Road.

In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution and development of steam powered printing presses brought about mass production of wallpaper in England. It became accessible to all classes, adding colour and decoration to smallest house. There remained a market for quality handmade goods and the Arts and Crafts movement most significantly influenced the design of block printed wallpapers. William Morris, together with artists such as Owen Jones and Charles Vosey, reacted against machine production, creating botanical designs for embroidered wall hangings and in turn, hand-made wallpaper. Rather than creating literal representations of nature, flowing patterns were designed with stylised flowers and plant motifs, an approach they believed more true to the two-dimensional quality of wallpaper. Lulu’s recollections of growing up with William Morris wallpapers focus on the amazing movement – and so life – that they introduced to a room

Wallpaper fell in and out of fashion in the twentieth century, notably peaking in the 1960s and 70s when (arguably garish) bold designs and colours were used in flamboyant style. In the right hands, a rich layering of patterns and colours in wallpapers and fabrics created some fabulously opulent interiors, such as those created by Renzo Mongiardino, Geoffrey Bennison and Francois Catroux.  Lulu adores this extravagantly layered look, delighting in “the all-encompassing feel, especially when the ceiling is also papered or fabric used for a tented effect.”

The particularly English look of matching wallpaper and fabric prints is one Lulu loves, especially when botanical designs on walls and curtains are used in a room that leads outdoors. The Soane Britain collection has an ever-growing number of complementary fabrics and wallpapers, from multi-coloured botanical prints such as Palampore Blossom, to simpler scrolling, trellis or striped designs that on a light hand-painted background create a wonderfully fresh and joyful atmosphere. Below are some of the latter, including the newly launched Scrolling Fern Frond and Scrolling Fern Silhouette, both available as fabric and wallpaper. In colourways that form part of the Soane palette, it’s possible to combine these with a multitude of other Soane plains, patterns and weaves for a beautifully layered interior.

For inspiration on decorating with wallpapers and fabrics, see Soane Britain’s ‘Repeating Pattern‘ board on Pinterest

Top gallery images:  Window display at Soane Britain’s Pimlico Road showroom with Scrolling Fern wallpaper and fabric; The Tomb of Pashedu at Deir-el-Medina near Luxor; ‘Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique’ (1806), a panoramic wallpaper by artist Jean-Gabriel Charvet for French manufacturer Joseph Dufour et Cie;  Bedroom with Soane Britain’s Seaweed Lace wallpaper and fabric in Indian Yellow.

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