This frieze represents a very late example of the English Regency style in wallpaper. The Regency style is largely connected to the period between 1800-1830 and is considered the final development of English Neoclassicism, the dominant design style in Britain for most of the late 18th-century and early-19th century. The date of this paper places it at the start of the transition from the Regency period to the Victorian period of design, a transition marked by major upheavals due to the rise of mass production and the Gothic Revival style. This paper, however, was hand-made, and features a Roman-inspired design, placing it firmly in the earlier period.
The complex printing of this paper simulates bas-relief carving, and similar designs of writhing grapevines can be seen illustrated in pattern books such as Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament (1856) that reproduced carved decorations seen in ancient Roman villas. These reproductions point to the possible inspiration of this pattern. Roman villas would have been a popular tourist site in the Grand Tour, a travelling program centered on sites such as Rome, Venice, and Athens that every young British aristocrat was expected to take upon completing their education. This tour was meant to familiarize these travelers with the great monuments of antiquity to supplement their study of Classical civilization, art, and thought. As a result, Classical imagery became increasingly popular in elite interiors as indicators of wealth and intellect.
Roman imagery was also common in early nineteenth-century Britain due to the popularity of texts such as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, published originally in volumes between 1776 and 1789, and print reproductions of decoration found in the newly-discovered villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. French design was also a strong influence, particularly the contemporary Empire style originally promoted by the Roman-obsessed Napoleon. French design was still considered the height of fashion at this time and widely imitated, even in Britain which had very recently been at war with the country. Thus a frieze like this one illuminates the complex influences on British design coming from the European continent at this time.
Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.