CONSERVATION OF SCENIC WALLPAPERS: SAUVAGES DE LA MER DU PACIFIQUE
1 INTRODUCTION AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
CAPTAIN JAMES COOK OF THE ROYAL NAVY first sailed from England to the South Sea Islands in 1769. Altogether he made three expeditions before his death in 1779. Cook's adventures captured the imagination of many Western Europeans at a time when there was considerable interest in the primitive and exotic. His discoveries lent support to the prevailing notion of the inherent moral superiority of “the noble savage,” an idea expressed in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau ((1712–1778).
In 1784, accounts of Cook's voyages were set forth in an official three-volume publication. Accompanying this was a separate folio atlas containing sixty-one engravings of landscapes, portraits, and indigenous artifacts. This documentation provided the imagery that was later to be translated into the “picturesque.”
In a effort to satisfy a growing demand for the exotic, it is not surprising that in 1806 a French painter, Joseph Dufour, collaborating with a designer, Jean-Gabriel Charvet, chose to commemorate Cook's exploration in the production of a twenty-panel set of scenic wall papers entitled Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique (“Savages of the Pacific”). Dufour realized almost immediate success from the sale of these papers and enjoyed a lively trade with America. The Neoclassic spirit currently in favor was accented handsomely in houses of the Federal period by the exaggerated elegance of Charvet's scenes.
Machine-made continuous paper, just invented, was not yet commercially available when Dufour undertook his project. Instead, small rectangular handmade sheets were joined at the edges to form long rolls which were later cut to the desired length (approximately 24″ by 98″ or 61 × 249 cm). A toned, water-based ground layer was then applied by brush to the entire panel to act as an undercoat for subsequent printing. This light blue layer also served as the sky tone in unprinted areas. Designs for each color were carved on separate blocks, and as many as sixty were required to print a single panel. Alignment of the many blocks must have been a significant problem, especially considering the expansion characteristics of the paper support. With the printing of each water-based color, the paper expanded in reaction to the moisture. It is quite remarkable, then, that Dufour was able to achieve such a precise degree of registration. Guide marks found in the unprinted edges of each panel partially indicate how this technical difficulty was overcome.
Dufour achieved a richness and intensity of color that was unique to this method of production. However, the extreme thickness of the media application and its solubility in water presented problems in hanging the paper, and later would create difficulties for those involved in the preservation and display of Dufour's Sauvages de la Mer du Pacifique.