This beautiful monochromatic wallpaper is an excellent example of mid-nineteenth century stylistic eclecticism. The window, surrounded by fan vaults and Gothic tracery, is a typical Gothic Revival image. However, the bunches of flowers and swirling acanthus leaves that frame the Gothic interior are Rococo Revival motifs, pointing to the enormous influence of French culture on British wallpaper production at this time. No doubt the mixture of styles, as well as the complex trompe-l’oeil effect, would have made this sidewall a welcome addition in a new bourgeois interior. However, this type of wallpaper, with its motifs of idealized Gothic architecture interspersed with floral sprigs, was not an invention of the nineteenth century. Since the 1760s, “Rococo Gothick” wallpapers of the “pillar-and-arch” type could be found in wealthy British homes. This paper is more detailed than these early papers tended to be, and the foggy wooded landscape seen out the window has the sublime sensibilities of a nineteenth-century Romantic painting.
By the mid-nineteenth century, these trompe-l’oeil Gothic papers had become the subject of criticism from design reformers such as Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. In his 1841 True Principles of Pointed Architecture, Pugin described pillar-and-arch papers “where a wretched caricature of a pointed building is repeated…in glorious confusion” as being popular with “hotel and tavern keepers.” His criticism points to both his disdain for realistic, trompe-l’oeil design and demonstrates how these types of papers were being found increasingly in lower-class interiors. It also demonstrates how the popularity of such papers in these settings seems to predate the mechanization of the wallpaper industry. However, this mechanization occurred rapidly throughout the 1840s, and by the 1850s these wallpaper were being produced in large numbers at lower costs which boosted their popularity. Despite criticism from Design reformers and the Arts and Crafts movement, illusionistic Gothic revival papers continued to be produced into the early 20th century.
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.