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The mystery of the (great hall void) wallpaper

Condition of wallpaper fragments before: the folder with former storage and dusty(!) fragments.
Condition of wallpaper fragments after: cleaned fragments digitised and documented.

By Emanuele Casafredda and Ava Salzer

We are Emanuele and Ava, collections care volunteers working with Roxane Karen Burke (collections and conservation assistant). In general, we help to maintain the collection through cleaning, preventive conservation, documentation, cataloguing and archival work. We work on everything from the manuscripts in Porteus library to the day-to-day dusting of historic fixtures in the Palace rooms.

In this case, we were presented with a large folder of wallpaper fragments that were recovered by Nicola Hale, a paper conservator with the Fulham Archaeological Rescue Group. Nicola diligently cleaned and mounted a few of the larger and more significant fragments before it was presented to us. The fragments were taken from the void space above the great hall, which had been in storage for many years. After cleaning and categorising the fragments by their appearance and materials, we documented them using condition assessments and photographs. The fragments were then counted and grouped for cataloguing and a new storage folder was produced using acid-free archival materials. Finally, the fragments were packed and accessioned into the collection.

Our workstation. Overhead view during dry cleaning of the wallpaper fragments.

The cleaning and conservation process involved several steps. First, the fragments were removed from their previous unsuitable storage. Next, all the pieces were dry cleaned using the tools pictured above. Creases were unfolded and flattened, and any staining, discolouration, loss of pigment and plaster residue were identified and recorded. A white goat hair brush was used to clean, as this material does not create static electricity. As a result, it does not attract dust – other kinds of brush materials (like synthetic bristles) can create a static charge and collect particles! A scalpel was used for ingrained dirt that had adhered to the surface and could not be resolved with a brush. Extreme care was taken not to damage the wallpaper fibres. Nitrile gloves were worn to protect against the transfer of oils from the skin, and dust masks were used to protect us from any particles in the air.

As we cleaned, we discovered different types of fragments. Materials, decoration and design varied, and it was clear that there was more than one style of wallpaper in the folder. These variations helped us categorise the fragments (153 total!) into groups.

Different types of fragments uncovered during cleaning and conservation. TL: Border pieces decorated with acanthus foliage. TR: Plain pieces without design. B: Decorative rosette (right-handed spiral).

Historically, wallpaper was hand-made; printed on design blocks made from carved fruitwood. The woodblock printing that produced our fragments’ design had three layers of colour (light yellow, darker ochre and black). The lightest colour is printed first, followed by the darker shading and then finally black to outline the design. The emergence and evolution of wallpaper as an interior finishing and industry corresponds with the Georgian era (1714-1830). This period is often defined by designs that invoke Greek and Roman architecture. This neoclassical influence can be seen in wallpaper, including our fragments, which date to about 1750.

Our investigation showed three kinds of wallpaper amongst the fragments: border, plain and rosette pieces. We identified ten border pieces that were used for the edges of the wall to frame the design. These pieces are decorated with acanthus foliage – this is a popular motif in neoclassical design like the palmette. Twelve plain fragments were uncovered that were likely from a later era. This idea is based on evidence of a different paper manufacturing process on these fragments. The remaining 131 fragments have four different kinds of rosette designs in two sizes. The inner rosettes are larger and the corner rosettes are smaller (look for these two sizes in the digital reconstruction at the beginning of this blog!) Even though the rosettes can be divided into two categories (fans and spirals) each type has a unique design.

L-R; fan model large rosette, fan model small rosette. Second Row: L-R; left-handed spiral large rosettes (two designs).
Right-handed spiral large rosette.

The digital reconstruction at the start of this blog shows an approximation of how this wallpaper would have looked when it hung originally in the void space above the great hall.

When the Palace reopens look for a conserved section of this wallpaper on display in the museum!

Dry cleaning in progress!