JAIC 2004, Volume 43, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 91 to 110)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2004, Volume 43, Number 1, Article 7 (pp. 91 to 110)

INVESTIGATION, ANALYSIS, AND AUTHENTICATION OF HISTORIC WALLPAPER FRAGMENTS

FRANK S. WELSH



3 EVALUATING THE CONTEXT OF THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

The second principal point to consider is an examination and evaluation of the context in which the evidence is found. For a project where the use of wallpaper is unknown, studying the layer structure of the associated coatings and their substrates is essential. If the investigation yields neither paper fragments nor fiber evidence, then the nature of the plaster, size, or even composition of the first and/or second paint layers on the plaster may provide convincing evidence for the use of wallpapers. In 18th-century buildings, the particular paint color used on the wood trim might also suggest the use of wallpaper but is not in itself conclusive evidence of paper use. Conversely, any of these factors could also indicate that the walls were never papered but always painted.

One site where paint usage was a determining factor was the Isaiah Davenport House (ca. 1820) in Savannah, Georgia. There the microscopical analysis of paint layer sequence provided substantial evidence of wallpaper use at time of construction. A multi-layered paint cross section from the plaster walls in the first-floor Stair Hall (fig. 8) shows the original glue size on white plaster. The presence of a glue size does not necessarily confirm the use of wallpaper but can suggest its use. In this case, comparative analysis of paint layers on the first-and second-floor Hall walls, combined with analysis of a light green finish, presented convincing evidence that wallpapers were used originally and that the walls were not painted until ca. 1840.2

At Kenmore (1775), in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the paint layer structure contraindicated wallpaper

Fig. 8. The original glue size is shown at the bottom of this multilayered paint cross section from the plaster walls in the first-floor Stair Hall at the Davenport House (ca. 1820) in Savannah, Georgia. Prime and finish coats are also shown (25x).
usage in the first-floor northwest chamber. A multi-layered paint cross section from the plaster wall (fig. 9) shows that the walls were initially coated with glue size, then painted with the same prime and finish oil paints used on all the wood trim in the room. While the discovery of glue size on plaster is often viewed as an unequivocal indicator for the use of wallpaper, this conclusion may be misleading. Glue size was not used on plaster walls only as preparation for paper; it was also used as a sealer before priming with paint. All the plaster from the four principal rooms at Kenmore was
Fig. 9. This multilayered paint cross section from the plaster walls in the first-floor northwest chamber at Kenmore (1775) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, shows that the walls were initially coated with a glue size (arrow) and then painted with the same prime and finish oil paints used on all the wood trim in the room (25x).
sealed originally with glue size, which, during application, was slopped over onto much of the wood trim. The walls in the northwest room were painted, but walls in the other three rooms were papered.

Another example demonstrating the importance of evaluating the physical context is found at Adena, the Latrobe-designed mansion in Ohio. All paint and wallpaper were removed during a 1953 restoration; nevertheless, as thorough as the scraping was at that time, thick areas of accumulated paint remained in the corners and crevices of the moldings around doors and windows. The samples revealed a remarkably extensive decorative palette consisting of 17 different paint colors and evidence of graining and marbling as well as wallpapering. The plaster walls in the six rooms showing evidence of paper were never finished with a white or skim coat of plaster, as were the walls in all other rooms. The rough or brown coat of plaster served as the finished surface, suggesting that the walls were intended to be covered with paper and, consequently, did not require the additional expenditure for a finish coat of white plaster. This interpretation is corroborated by substantial documentary evidence, including an 1821 insurance survey of the house indicating the use of wallpapers and a bill to Thomas Worthington from Thomas & Caldcleugh of Baltimore for the sale of a drapery-patterned paper and border.

At the Woodlands (1780s), the Philadelphia country seat of William Hamilton, the first-floor southeast Parlor walls were originally sheathed with large wooden boards much like those at Gunston Hall (1755) in Virginia and Verdmont (early 1700s) in Bermuda. The unpainted board walls in the Parlor at the Woodlands retained many layers of wallpaper. The earliest one had a delicate design on a bright bluish green background.3 It was adhered to a thick linen canvas backing—almost like burlap—that had been nailed, rather than glued, to the board walls (fig. 10). Hanging the paper in this way disguised the imperfections and joints of the sheathed wall and is consistent with the best techniques of wall-paper installation in the period. The context of this paper, on canvas nailed onto unpainted board walls, contributed to the evaluation process and to its authentication as the original finish on the walls.

Fig. 10. In the southeast Parlor at the Woodlands (1780s), woven flax canvas (upper right corner) was tacked to unpainted board walls. This patterned, bright bluish green wallpaper was then glued to the canvas.


Copyright 2004 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works