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Reviews

Read my triple-play: three reviews of Amada Vickery's use of the Trollope Letter Books:

Review: "Neat And Not Too Showey" (about her chapter in "Gender, Taste and Material Culture", the collection of essays edited by Styles and Vickery, 1996).

Review: "Behind Closed Doors" (about her book-length "Behind Closed Doors", Yale University Press, 2009).

Review: "Wallpaper and Taste"
(about the wallpaper chapter in "Behind Closed Doors).

 

Review: Wallpaper in the Royal Apartments at the Tuileries, 1789-1792, by Bernard Jacque, in the journal Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 2005-2006 (Bard Graduate Center).

By Robert M. Kelly

The story of the royal family's dwindling fortunes during the French Revolution is a gripping one. It becomes more personal by learning why wallpaper was chosen to decorate the empty apartments of the Tuileries in Paris after the family was forced to abandon Versailles.

This article is ostensibly about the royal wallpaper choices, which were significant in both price and effect. But, it is much more than a case study. M. Jacque, longtime curator at the Musee du Papier Peint, has a magisterial grasp of the history of wallpaper, and he provides information that is useful far beyond the confines of princely palaces.

Jacque does justice to the subject, but like a seasoned jazz musician he cannot resist throwing in a few extra beats now and then. His enthusiasm for wallpaper is contagious. It is surprising that the editors at Bard were able to limit him to only one exclamation point, and only 30 pages.[1]

None of the wallpapers he describes survive, but by studying the billing records of the firm of Arthur & Robert (formerly Arthur & Grenard) and other documentation in the Nationales Archives, he's able to paint a believable picture of what they looked like. For example, the bills give the running feet of cornice border, and from this he estimates the size of the rooms, which could be very large (the Queen's Dining Room, almost 114 feet in circumference), or more intimate (Madame Royale's Study, about half that size). No less important are the 8 color illustrations of surviving late 18th century installations elsewhere, for they show very similar styles and colors and bring the text to life.

The section on Madame Royale’s cabinet d'entresol amounts to a useful mini-glossary of French wallpaper terminology because he clarifies the French terminology. Here we learn to distinguish between camees and cantonnieres, and that “objets en feuilles” (objects in sheets) is the general term for a variety of vases, medallions, overdoors, rosettes, and other wallpaper ornaments.

Wallpaper use at the Tulileries was extensive, amounting to thousands of yards and almost 20,000 livres by the time the family moved on to their last, fateful accommodations. As to why they decorated so much, Jacque explains that in the new setting "…monarchical ceremony, although subdued, continued in full public view. The sovereign still retained broad powers, not to mention a real popularity. It mattered, then, that the king was surrounded by décor suited to his status and functions."

But the king hesitated to spend too much because of the political and financial crisis, and because he hoped to return to Versailles. The solution to the decorating crisis was wallpaper. By 1784 it had attained status appropriate for royal use, at least in private rooms, though it cost far less than fabric. And unlike the silk woven in Lyons, wallpaper had the advantage of being almost immediately available.

But Jacque is careful to place this particular wallpaper installation in context. Much of it was custom handwork, in which single sheets were trimmed and pasted onto plain paper. In contrast to sidewall papers, this type of work was done with more carefully printed motifs, and more creatively hung, and was therefore the most expensive type of installation.

Not everyone was thrilled with the decoration. An anonymous letter writer criticized Thierry de Ville d'Avray, the official having the most to do with the installations. The writer was of the opinion that "In royal residences such décor [wallpaper] is only suitable for the lodgings of domestics".

But any opposition would have been easily overcome by a supremely important voice, that of Marie Antoinette, who by this time was a well-known consumer of wallpaper. She apparently went hog-wild in her dining room, creating an entirely new style by using pale green grounds, wide borders of floral twists, and no less than 229 rosettes in spandrels, undoubtedly at the corner of panels. Even the cornice decoration was composed of four different borders.

The wallpaper in the study of Madame Royale was especially elaborate and the most expensive. Other important rooms dissected by Jacque are: the King's Study (arabesques) and the King's Bedroom and Alcove (arabesques again, but this time in avant-garde colors).

He suggests that other important Parisians, having seen these examples during official and semi-official visits, went on to create similar rooms. Jacque is especially good at this detective work and by locating and comparing like to like he makes a persuasive case for the royals as real fashion leaders. They not only used the best materials, but also used them with wit and imagination. Jacque says that they were following the French court tradition of using decorative materials with "… great artistic audacity, even in difficult times", which certainly applies here.

He singles out the forward-looking color combination of black, orange and violet in the decoration of the King's Bedroom as being especially important. It predates by almost a decade the transformation of the French color palette from warm colors based on florals to decidedly acidic tones.

Style-wise, he singles out the Queen's use of floral twist borders on plain grounds as innovative and influential. In the King's quarters, he ruminates on the strange combination of rich floral borders surrounding austere antique images. The borders looked backward to the rococo while the antique prints were a wellspring for what became, some years later, the fully implemented Neoclassical style.

Arthur & Robert, suppliers of the papers and installers, were hugely important because of their appointment as royal manufacturer, and because they employed over 400 people. This article makes a good case that they rivaled the factory of Reveillon. Reveillon has long overshadowed other makers in historical accounts but in retrospect, he appears to have been a bit of a loudmouth.

The review of the French wallpaper industry is excellent. It always comes as a slight shock to recall that although dominos and papier de tapisserie were well established in France, good-sized factories producing joined paper did not exist until the 1770s.

In 1772, an Irishman by the name of Edouard Duras began importing the latest patterns from England and producing them in a factory in Bordeaux. Within a few years he faced stiff competition from a nascent French industry, which, Jacque writes, quickly “…transformed an item formerly considered an imitation…into a truly autonomous product”. This they did by “…calling on the best designers, reviving and perfecting once obsolete techniques, establishing a vast network of international sales, and adapting themselves to various methods of hanging…”

What is astonishing in retrospect is the seeming ease with which the French pulled this off. Within the space of a generation they were a powerhouse of invention and produced all classes of goods. Within a few more years they had almost totally eclipsed the English as America's preferred wallpaper supplier. And the contrast with America could not be starker. Even though Irish paperstainer Edward Ryves was beginning production in Philadelphia at about the same time as Duras in Bordeaux, the progression of American production is entirely different.

By 1800, there were 49 Parisian firms of over 100 employees, and among these, 6 were making wallpaper. There were also 10 wallpaper firms with 50 to 99 hands. They were joined by many smaller shops in Paris, not to mention the rural shops sprinkled throughout the countryside.

There are a few spots where the text is awkward and on one occasion it seems wrong. Figure 2 is an instructive watercolor of a proposed arabesque installation. The caption describes it as a "decorator's sketch"; it was probably done by someone in the design end of the factory, or maybe in private practice. But in the text, it is described as a "paperhanger's sketch".

This confusion probably occurred because the word "decorateur" was sometimes used to describe a French installer. But "decorateur", when applied to paperhangers, seems to have had a particular meaning relating to the job of arranging paneling.

 

As Geert Wisse writes:

"… these paperhangers became "decorators" when their services were offered to customers; "...herewith are papers which our decorator will arrange for you..." wrote the same Dollfus to an Alsatian client on September 18, 1791. This staff was trained by serving apprenticeships in Paris. If a "decorator" was not coming to the place and pasting the wallpaper, manufacturers sent the customer a diagram, many of which appear among the invoices in Mulhouse"[2].

Thus, a paperhanger could be a "decorator" in the sense of arranging panels, but it is highly unlikely that they were adept at rendering the artwork.

Despite providing such a lot of information on the cut and paste type of installations on plain grounds, with their obvious parallels to the English print rooms of some 50 years earlier, the print rooms are never mentioned by Jacque.

Here I think an opportunity was missed, because although he found excellent illustrations of the late 18th century types, they reveal such a different character than the earlier print rooms that they raise the question of how and why they differ. No doubt he will do so in a later publication, or maybe this part of his article wound up on the cutting-room floor, along with the rest of his exclamation points!

-- the end --

 

1. Efforts are underway to translate his PhD dissertation from a few years ago, a material history of wallpaper, into English. When that is done, the English-speaking world will have an opportunity to ramp up to continental scholarship in wallpaper, which has been considerable over the last 10 years or so.

2. This quote is from Geert Wisse's chapter on installation in the French language book "Les papiers peints en arabesques du XVIIIe siecle". The translation is my own.

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