What goes on behind the scenes at Standen House, an Arts & Crafts family home

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Washing Wallpaper…

Willow Bough wallpaper, William Morris 1887

Willow Bough wallpaper, William Morris 1887

Wallpaper is one those items in a house that seems replaceable; a product of mass production that can be changed to suit your furniture or your mood. However, in the past, wallpaper was an incredibly rare thing and actually very valuable.

Wallpapers started out as a product that the slightly less elite (though still very wealthy) could use in place of tapestries. In fact they were hung like tapestries too – as a large sheet of paper. Now this is around the 16th century so they were hand printed and hand painted. Now as you can imagine, these wallpaper hangings did not last very long and as such not many still survive today – the earliest surviving piece dates to 1509 and is only a very small piece.

Silk Wallpaper found at Polesden Lacey

Silk Wallpaper found at Polesden Lacey

Fast forward to Henry VII and his decision to split the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, this caused a huge falling out between trading companies in Europe (especially between France and England) and as the aristocrats no longer had access to large Flemish tapestries that were oh so fashionable and popular so they turned to wallpaper instead.

Hand painted Chinese wallpaper made around 1780

Hand painted Chinese wallpaper made around 1780

By the mid 18th century, England was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe and started to make more affordable designs aimed at the middle classes. As they were more affordable and more available, manufacturers had to make certain wallpapers that would still appeal to the aristocrats and the mega rich so they started experimenting with wallpapers that acted like materials, like leather, silk and velvet. the most popular turned out to be flocked wallpaper, where a designed was pressed onto paper and then pieces of wool or silk were blown across it and they only stuck to the printed design. Oriental designs were also becoming increasingly popular so plain wallpapers were shipped off to the China and Japan, whereupon they were hand painted with oriental designs and images of everyday life.

Along came the 19th century and the development of steam-powered printing presses, this meant that wallpaper became available to everyone, not just the rich and aristocracy. It also heralded an age of more scenic wallpapers with French influences.

By the time of the 20th century, wallpaper had established itself as one of the most popular items in a house but unfortunately its reign had to come to an end and the idea of wallpaper gave way to pain painted walls towards the late 1900s.

Cleaning Wallpapers:

So over the last few hundred years that wallpaper has been around, there have been suggested many different ways of keeping it clean.

Play-Doh - known as Kutol - originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner

Play-Doh – known as Kutol – originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner

As most wallpapers were regarded as insignificant, there was little bother in cleaning them. However,  it where finer wallpapers are involved that it gets interesting. For these wallpapers, light levels were kept to a minimum and some were even varnished to protect them. Some maids dusted the wallpapers whilst others used bread dough to help get rid if dirt. unfortunately bread dough leaves behind traces that insects and molds love or they became greasy and streaky. Play-doh, the beloved children’s toy, was originally invented as a wallpaper cleaner in the 1930s. However, when a classroom of children started using it to make models, the marketing changed and it became a children’s toy.

Nowadays with historic wallpapers we use methods that involve less chemical and avoid taking the wallpaper off the wall unless strictly necessary.

Why we clean wallpaper:

We clean wallpaper in order to preserve it for longer. If we left it dusty or with stains a) it does not look very nice and b) often dirt and stains hide a bigger problem.

Cleaning wallpaper at Standen:

The water stain behind the wallpaper in the South Spare

The water stain behind the wallpaper in the South Spare

We had a similar case with the wallpaper in the South Spare bedroom. With all the rains last spring, one of the chimneys sprung a leak and seeped down through the house. The wallpaper got wet and then later dried out leaving a brown water mark. If we had left the leak the water would eventually have flooded the room and done a lot more damage. By catching it at the water mark stage we managed to repair the leak and re-point the chimney to ensure it is watertight. However with that fixed, the wallpaper needed to be inspected and cleaned to check for any further damage – damp walls tend to grow mold and attract silverfish who eat away layers of paper.  The wallpaper was dampened until the adhesive gave way and the wallpaper sheet was gently peeled away – it takes a lot of skill to keep damp wallpaper in one sheet. It was then wet cleaned – a sponge slightly dampened with a mild soap and water is applied gently to the wallpaper removing the water stains.

Left: Dirty Right: Cleaned

Left: Dirty Right: Cleaned

When the chimney sprung a leak, it also damaged some of the paper in the Larkspur bedroom. This had already been wet cleaned once (which can only be done once in its lifetime) so  historic larkspur wallpaper was pasted over the top – so seamlessly it is difficult to spot which is the original.

Our Wallpaper Conservator cleaning the Trellis wallpaper in the Dog Leg Corridor

Our Wallpaper Conservator cleaning the Trellis wallpaper in the Dog Leg Corridor

while our wallpaper conservator was here we thought it wise to ask him to clean the trellis wallpaper in the dog leg corridor. Being trapped in a small space created by a false ceiling caused dust and dirt to build up. A smoke sponge, was used to clean this wallpaper, gently erasing away any buildups of dirt and marks.



Redecorating the Drawing Room

The Drawing Room at Standen, West Sussex.

The Drawing Room as it usually looks

For the last couple of days, the house team have mainly been concentrating on emptying the Drawing Room of its contents, as the room is being redecorated next week. The paintwork is looking a little old and tired, and a new coat of paint should really brighten the room up. Of course, this does mean that there was the ‘small’ matter of where the room’s contents were going to be temporarily stored!

Standen isn’t a large house, and aside from the permanent storage spaces that are already in use, we don’t have much in the way of additional storage space for our collection. When it came to temporary storage for the Drawing Room collection, we needed to utilise other showrooms – consequently we ended up with cushions on the billiard table, and an array of ceramics safely stored on the Dining Room table…a slightly odd sight! Although there were lots of objects to be moved, members from the house team – along some of our conservation volunteers – were on hand to help, and the move went a lot more smoothly and quickly than anticipated.

Drawing Room carpet

Checking and vacuuming the Drawing Room carpet and underlay

Clearing the Drawing Room of its contents was a good opportunity to properly inspect the room and its contents – in particular, the wallpaper and carpet. The wallpaper is a William Morris design called Sunflower, and looking at it closely, we could see that there was silverfish damage in places, although the damage didn’t seem to be quite as bad as we found in the Larkspur Dressing Room last week. The carpet – also a Morris design – is huge, and almost fills the room. We were concerned that it may have fresh damage in places from carpet beetle, but because of its size, it was impossible to check the carpet thoroughly until we were able to completely empty the room – luckily, we could find no traces of new damage.

The Drawing Room is a favourite of mine – it’s such a restful room, with so many wonderful features – and with the room empty, you could really appreciate the space itself. The craftsmanship that had gone into creating its outstanding features, such as the fireplace surround and the fretwork around the windows, was particularly apparent. The room looked so different, and we all agreed that it would make a fantastic setting for a dance or a party!

Drawing Room

Almost ready for the decorators!

This is the first experience I’ve had of emptying a room, and it was interesting for me to see the logistics of safely moving heavy items of furniture and countless precious objects – and organising them so that they kept the order they were displayed in! Fragile objects are removed bit by bit, which can often seem labour-intensive (a particularly fragile teapot lid was removed from the pot itself, and carried separately), but it really is the best way to ensure existing repairs or damage are not weakened. The heaviest and largest items of furniture – such as the huge, George Jack-designed display cabinet and the Morris carpet – will remain, covered in dust sheets in the centre of room, with the decorators working around them.

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Wallpaper: layers of history

Morris wallpaper

Close up of a sample of William Morris wallpaper

Historic buildings are often known for a particular aspect of their collection – perhaps they have an unrivalled library, or a unique collection of ceramics. Here at Standen, we’re known for having – amongst other things – an important collection of William Morris wallpapers.

We are fortunate, then, to have recently hosted a regional training day focusing on the care of wallpaper. The National Trust’s Paper Conservation Adviser, Andrew Bush, led the training, which began with an account of the history and development of wallpaper. Now – wallpaper may not sound a particularly interesting subject, but it has a fascinating history…

Morris wallpaper

Sample of William Morris wallpaper

A (very!) brief history of wallpaper

Wallpaper was originally developed to line the inside of books and chests; later being used on walls. Because of these origins, wallpaper was first sold by stationers, and was produced in individual sheets, rather than rolls.

Wallpaper blocks

Examples of the printing blocks used to produce wallpaper

Wallpaper was intended to emulate textiles, and became popular first with the rich, later filtering down through society. It wasn’t really until the end of the 17th century that more ‘ordinary’ people began to use wallpaper to make their homes look neater. However, this didn’t include the homes of the poor – they started using wallpaper in the mid 1800s, when it had become much more affordable and commonplace. In the 18th century, wallpaper manufacturing and designs became more specialised; attracting taxation in 1712. Papers were marked with tax stamps, and in some cases, tax officers would visit wallpaper manufacturers at least once a day – a practice that lasted until 1836.

Many innovations in design and manufacturing were developed, with the choice of wallpapers becoming vast: from stencilled to flocked; leather to textiles; block printed to machine printed. The majority of early William Morris wallpapers were produced with the block printed method, and many of the wallpapers at Standen were also produced using this method.

Wallpaper on table

Samples of wallpapers and wallcoverings, including tapestries

Care of wallpaper

Andrew Bush spoke about how he considered wallpaper in historic buildings to be ‘live’: there are plenty of examples of wallpaper in museums, but in historic buildings, wallpaper is still in situ; still serving its original purpose. This does have it cons – creating the right conditions to protect and preserve wallpaper can be difficult, as it’s a living, functional part of a building. It’s also tempting to try and interpret the age of wallpaper purely by considering its pattern, but it’s important not to rely on this – patterns come and go and only tell part of the story. It’s better to rely on other factors – printing techniques or tax stamps, for instance – to determine the age of wallpaper.

Wallpaper samples

Wallpaper samples featuring flocked and handprinted designs

Like everything in National Trust collections, wallpaper can be affected by a number of different factors or environments – we call these ‘agents of deterioration’. Particular problems for wallpaper can include:

 – Insects: silverfish often ‘graze’ on wallpaper, because it sometimes contains starch due to glues, pastes or other adhesives.

Humidity: fluctuating humidity can cause mould and other problems. This in turn could exacerbate silverfish infestation, as they also like to feed on mould.

Structural weaknesses: old leaks and other structural problems can cause lasting damage to historic wallpapers.

Unstable materials: the quality of the paper used in wallpaper manufacture can cause issues – sometimes the acidity in the paper can have an adverse reaction to the environment surrounding it.

Therefore we have to keep a very close eye on wallpapers in our houses. If it is an especially significant piece of wallpaper, it’s important to understand exactly how stable it is – Andrew Bush recommended that a specific wallpaper monitoring process would be useful.

Wallpaper magnified

Magnifying wallpaper allows us to see how it was produced

As part of the training day, we carried out a practical monitoring exercise; assessing an area of Standen’s wallpaper for areas potentially at risk. Using a strong raking light, we concentrated on splitting the area into a number of smaller areas to assess their vulnerabilities – what were the potential risks and how would we continue to monitor them? We concluded that one area of wallpaper was patchy, and appeared to have been damaged by silverfish in the past – we shared our findings with Andrew, and he confirmed the damage was probably the result of a silverfish infestation. Although there was no immediate evidence of a current silverfish infestation, we need to continue to monitor the area by using insect traps and visual checks, as the wallpaper in this area was clearly vulnerable.

Beauty in wallpaper

Wallpaper sample booklet from the mid-20th century

This was a really interesting and useful training day. Our wallpaper is a great asset to Standen and is such a prominent feature of the house – its important that we get to know the areas that are at risk from deterioration, and how we can best care for them.