THE HISTORY, TECHNOLOGY, AND CONSERVATION OF ARCHITECTURAL PAPIER MÂCHÉ
“Frames for pictures and divers fine pieces of embossed work with other curious moveables, may, as trial has informed us be made of it [paper] … either painted or overlaid with foliated silver or gold, as the artist pleases,” wrote Robert Boyle in the 17th century (Boyle 1966, 111:485–86). He was not the first to think of paper fiber as a material appropriate for the production of three-dimensional objects, and he was certainly not the last. It is no surprise to any craftsperson familiar with the material that objects were made from paper pulp in China virtually as early as sheet paper and subsequently by the other cultures to which papermaking spread (Osborne 1975).
Most people think of “papier mâché,” as molded paper came to be called, as 19th century tea trays, desk furnishings, and small furniture—what Boyle may have anticipated by the term “curious moveables” (Dickinson 1925; Devoe 1971; van der Reyden and Williams 1986). More surprising is the vogue that papier mâché enjoyed as an architectural material starting in the middle of the 18th century. The novel material was intended as a replacement for the laboriously modeled plaster and carved wood that had been used to create elaborate interiors during this and earlier periods. Papier mâché was often used as sculptural relief for ceilings and walls in imitation of plasterwork and was generally painted white. It was also used as decorative border or fillet in imitation of carved and gilded wood to border the “surbase” (chair rail) doors, windows, chimney pieces, cornices, or anywhere else it might look attractive. This border might be burnished with water gilding or finished with the cheaper oil gilding. The makers were explicit in selling its advantages to the public. In 1754 Augustin Berville advertised in Dublin that he made a “Pasteboard Stucoe” with which he could “finish in three or four Days, with as much Boldness, Relief and Beauty, as that of any other Stuccoe, the fullest and richest Design or Ornament for a Cieling … without sullying or hurting the Furniture or lumbering the Room” and that his ornament was “by much the cheapest, and not subject to split or crack, or fall from the Cieling, and may be taken down at Pleasure and removed and fixed up in any other place” (quoted in Longfield 1948, 57).