though papier mâché was quite commonly used in interiors of the 18th and
19th centuries, both in conjunction with wallpapers and as a substitute for plaster
mouldings, the extent of its survival is often not fully realised. Studies of
more familiar materials such as plaster and wallpaper have eclipsed investigations
into its use and conservation, and in any case it can be difficult to identify.
mâché ornament can survive extremely well in stable conditions, but it is
vulnerable to damage and, where paint removal is involved, failure to identify
it can lead to spectacularly disastrous results – careful testing of cleaning
systems is essential. Since no companies now manufacture papier mâché its conservation
and repair can be problematic. Where sections of papier mâché mouldings
are missing it is possible to remodel individual pieces to fit, but it can be
difficult to match material mixes and methods of production.
mâché is principally composed of pulped or layered paper that has been pressed
into a mould, generally with a binder such as starch glue or oil, with perhaps
the addition of whiting or gypsum fillers. Later variants include carton pierre – a pulp of paper with a high gypsum plaster content. The shallow relief moulded
wallpapers such as Lincrusta and anaglypta or impressed panels of Tynecastle are
close relations, and architectural papier mâché also has connections with the production of mirror and picture frames and japanware (imitation lacquer ware),
where its use is better documented.
more common fibrous plaster, which uses a fibrous mix to give added flexibility
to gypsum plaster, developed out of papier mâché and some manufacturers,
such as Jacksons, made a direct switch from one to the other. Another alternative
– composition, or compo – also found favour during the late 18th-19th century
mania for artificial materials. Unlike papier mâché or carton pierre,
compo had no fibrous content but relied on the use of oils for its flexibility.
Moulded rather like a putty, it was particularly popular for cast ceiling decoration.
HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT
use of papier mâché in this country can be closely related to the first
widespread use of wallpapers from the late 17th century, which were made from
linen or cotton rag. It is generally accepted that much of the production of papier
mâché in Britain resulted from the paper hangers’ prudent use of off-cuts,
as papers were taxed per sheet through most of the 18th and earlier 19th centuries.
Early 18th century accounts of its production are rather scarce, but quite grand-scale
use of papier mâché mouldings – such as those at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill
– occur from about 1740 onwards, with quite a concentrated use corresponding with
gothic or rococo decorative schemes in the mid 18th century.
mâché was used by the paper hangers to produce fillets which masked the edges
of wallpaper pieces. In this respect the material made good use of their offcuts.
Trade cards from some 18th century paper hangers – such as Masefield’s or James
Wheeley of London – also offered a range of papier mâché mouldings to be
used as an alternative to plaster or compo. The material was supposed to be more
durable than plaster and, importantly, for vaulted gothic ceilings such as at
Strawberry Hill, was lighter and less dangerous should there be a collapse. These
‘off-the-shelf ’ mouldings also allowed a client to select a whole decorative
scheme at once and had – at least by the 19th century – the distinct advantage
that they did not need to be installed by a specialist.
Wills and John Cornforth have demonstrated that frame makers also carried architectural papier mâché mouldings. But indications are that interior schemes using
these papier mouldings were, for the earlier and mid 18th century at least, the
province of the more well-heeled members of society, and it was not until the
later 19th century and the advent of mass production that papier mâché came to be used for architectural detail in more ordinary households.
accounts of papier mâché from the 18th century indicate that the paper
pulp method of production was the most usual. Alastair Laing quotes Lady Luxborough,
for example, describing in 1751 how ‘the paper is boiled to a mash and pounded
for a vast while, then it is put into moulds of any form.’ Pounding was necessary
to achieve a uniform surface, without which the result would be an unconvincing
imitation of plaster. The implication might be that pulped paper mouldings dominated
this period of production. But exuberant mouldings reused in the estate church
of Witley Court in Worcestershire, for example, are quite clearly made up through
the layering of discarded paper sheets with a binder, and it seems that for most
of the 18th century neither method of production dominated.
mouldings fixed onto the beams of a coffered ceiling at Dinefwr, Dyfed
| Detail of an 18th century ceiling rose in a Sussex townhouse. Distinctive brown papier mâché can be
seen inside the moulding with
just discernable curled paper edges. This moulding is made from layered paperr
pieces, but has not been mechanically pressed.
relationship of architectural papier mâché production with that of japanned
ware is less clear, although advances in production and patents relating to papier
mâché seem largely to have been made by japanners such as Henry Clay in the
1770s. The heavily varnished japanned ware required an extremely smooth but durable
surface, which pulped papier mâché did not consistently provide. This led
to the introduction of what Clay patented as ‘best’ work, where layers of
paper were applied alternately to either side of a piece of board, thus avoiding
distortion through shrinkage. This method produced a robust and flexible panel
which proved invaluable in interior fittings, but less so for the production of
three-dimensional ornament. Patents exclusively relating to layered paper compressed
into moulds suggest further refinements of papier mâché production continued
along these lines until 1839, when JF Saunders patented Improvements in Certain
Descriptions of Paper, Papier mâché &c. Capable of Being Produced from Pulp Paper.
By the 1840s blanks of paper pulp made from off-cuts were being supplied direct
to the makers of smaller papier mâché objects; predominantly wood-pulp
papers rather than the linen or cotton rags of the 18th century. In 1815 Jennens
and Bettridge had patented refinements for using both pulp and layered paper,
but from the 1840s Charles Frederick Bielefeld came to dominate the production
of papier mâché ornament, patenting not only the materials for the mouldings
but also for the reproduction of the moulds themselves. Wear and tear on the moulds
was considerable in 19th century papier mâché production, as manufacturers
used mechanical presses, and Bielefeld’s patent included the use of iron filings
in the mix to provide the necessary durability and resilience. His layered papers
by this time were allowed to dry naturally, before being oil-saturated and dried
a second time in stoves.
mâché panel, however, was not solely used for japanned ware. It was used in
the fitting out of ships and also, more experimentally, for a sort of pre-fab
housing, where panels of papier mâché were bolted together. The Illustrated
London News featured such a project by Bielefeld in 1853, reporting how the
buildings had been exported to Melbourne after testing in British downpours in
Staines. They are reported to have survived. Panels of papier mâché could
also be painted and used in rather grander decorative schemes, and Jones notes
that panels made by Clay and painted by Angelica Kauffmann were used by Adam,
for example at Kedleston Hall.
the 19th century the production of architectural papier mâché had become
dominated by manufacturers in London and the Midlands, associated principally
with the wallpaper and japanned ware trades. Bielefeld was London based and his
production of papier mâché mouldings was so successful that he was able
to produce catalogues for off-the-shelf purchase, giving the buyer moulding dimensions
and even sectional views of the pieces to illustrate their profiles. His work
in the Reading Room of the British Museum has most recently been repaired. At
the same time, Jennens & Bettridge were producing catalogues of their papier
mâché goods in the Midlands. Mouldings by this time varied from cornices and
ceiling roses through to quite elaborate capitals, and ranged stylistically from
medieval Gothic through to scholarly Greek: the original association with the
18th century gothic or rococo styles had been lost.
reasons for the decline in the production of architectural papier mâché are hard to pinpoint. Innovations of Lincrusta in the 1870s and anaglypta in the
1880s allowed mass production of shallow relief using wood or cotton pulp and
various binders on continuous canvas backings. Carton pierre, which used the quick-set
of gypsum combined with the flexible fibrosity of paper, certainly became more
popular by the later 19th century and was used to great effect in many theatres
and early cinemas. It in turn was supplanted by fibrous plaster, which omitted
the paper content in favour of individual fibre. The production of japanned ware
simultaneously began to wane after a rather disastrous showing at the Great Exhibition
of 1851 at which the japanners were held to have exhibited a singular lack of
taste (architectural mouldings were also displayed), but also as electroplating
replaced the vastly expensive and appalling working conditions of japanning. Experimentation
with cast paper panels continued with the production of anaglypta and later Tynecastle,
but papier mâché by then had all but disappeared. Architectural papier mâché ceased
to be commercially produced by the middle of the 20th century.
CONSERVATION AND REPAIR
mâché mouldings and panelling at Baggrave Hall, Leicestershire
| Papier mâché ceiling decoration in the hall at Dinefwr, Dyfed
principal problem when dealing with architectural papier mâché is how to
identify it. Horror stories abound about fireplaces and doors losing their mouldings
together with their paint layers, when owners have been undertaking rather gung-ho
paint removal. Early papier mâché is particularly difficult to identify
as it tends not to have an oil content and, as a result, there is less likelihood
of the telltale distortion inherent in most later types. Carton pierre and fibrous
plaster are also difficult to distinguish from plaster mouldings – and from papier
mâché – unless broken.
close visual inspection will help. Papier mâché mouldings can appear quite
flat in contrast with more three-dimensional lime plasterwork, but the same can
apply with the more common composition work and distinguishing the two can be
difficult. If access is possible, it may be helpful to tap the surface of the
deeper mouldings: papier mâché will almost always sound hollow, unlike
composition or gypsum. At the same time, look for evidence of fixings, particularly
tack-heads, gaps between the mouldings and the wall or ceiling which appear to
have been filled, or simple distortion of the moulding: most mid–late 19th century papier mâché has some oil content, and may appear distorted where polymerisation
of the oils has caused the piece to contract slightly. Oils will also usually
give the papier mâché a yellow or brown colouring.
breaks can be seen in the pieces, papier mâché mouldings will usually be
hollow at the back, and where paper pieces have been used rather than a pulp to
form the moulding, the material will be quite simple to identify. It can be hard
to distinguish between papier mâché and carton pierre, particularly as
some papier mâché was finished with a coat of whiting and size to produce
a smooth surface of gesso which could then be gilded, and some carton pierre was
applied on continuous paper backings. It is, however, relatively rare for papier
mâché to be gessoed.
several cases, the applied papier mâché ornament will be quite at odds
with the overriding architectural style of the room in which it is used. Many
18th century schemes combine rococo birds with austere palladian doorcases or
fire surrounds, or the mouldings appear over- or under-sized for the space in
which they have been applied. Obviously such stylistic ‘mistakes’ do not guarantee
the presence of papier mâché, but they can be useful indicators.
hardness of oiled papier mâché is comparable to hardboard, whereas earlier papier mâché tends to be more vulnerable to damage or disintegration, but
in either case pieces should only be eased back into position and held by light
tacks; never forced. For missing pieces moulds can be cast as for plaster, but
matching the material remains a problem. As methods of production were in continuous
development through the 18th and 19th centuries, it is often unlikely that an
exact match of either material content or method of production will be possible.
There is, however, no practical reason why papier mâché should not be used rather
than gypsum mouldings, and a number of specialist contractors will still undertake
- J Cornforth, ‘Putting up with Georgian DIY’, Country Life, 9 April 1992
- Y Jones,
Georgian and Victorian Japanned Wares of the West Midlands, Wolverhampton
Art Gallery & Museums Exhibition Catalogue, 1982
- C Hind
(ed), The Rococo in England, The Georgian Group, London, 1984
- A Laing, Foreign Decorators and Plasterers in England
- T Rosoman,
London Wallpapers: Their Manufacture and Use 1690-1840, English Heritage,
- G Wills,
English Looking Glasses: A Study of the Glass, Frames and Makers (1670-1820),
- C Woods,
‘Proliferation: Late 19th Century Papers, Markets and Manufacturers’ (England)
in L Hoskins (ed) The Papered Wall, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2002
HARRIET HAWKES is currently a part-time conservation officer and undertakes occasional research for the Architectural History Practice. She became interested in the use of papier mâché in architecture whilst working for the Georgian Group in the early 1990s.
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