Peeling back history

Selection of some of the wallpapers found at the Back to Backs. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

An exhibition at Back to Backs, a courtyard of preserved working-class houses in Birmingham literally built back-to-back, shows the layers and layers of wallpaper salvaged from the walls when the houses were restored after being acquired by the National Trust in 2004.

The houses and shops built back to back around a courtyard off Hurst Street and Inge Street, Birmingham. ©National Trust Images/Robert Morris

Collections management trainee Husnara Bibi co-ordinated a project to conserve, catalogue and research the wallpaper fragments, which have now gone on display at Back to Backs.

One of the laminates of wallpaper from the Back to Backs. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

142 different designs were found in 11 different houses. The densest ‘sediment’ consisted of 28 layers, the earliest of which dates from about 1850.

Wallpaper conservator Graeme Storey treating one of the rescued papers. ©National Trust

In some cases we know who lived with particular papers. A series of Victorian floral patterns belonged to a Police Constable, and a set of Arts and Crafts-style papers was found in the house where a brass bedstead caster lived.

One of the preserved sections ©Newman University College/Sarah Bagshaw, Hannah James, Taz Lovejoy

As part of this project, oral history material was collected from people who have worked in wallpaper manufacture and  retail and from decorators, and this is featured on a dedicated blog called Uncovering the Past.

Reconstruction of the original design by James Orton. ©Newman University College/James Orton

Students and staff at Newman University College, Birmingham, have also participated in the project by creating reconstructions of the wallpaper designs and by producing backdrop designs for the exhibition and art photography of the wallpapers and the conservation processes.

Small section of wallpaper. ©Newman University College/Sarah Bagshaw, Hannah James, Taz Lovejoy

The results of their work can be seen on the Splitting the Pattern website.

Reconstruction of the original design by Jenny Woodhouse. ©Newman University College/Jenny Woodhouse

Wallpaper afficionados may also be interested to know of the existence of the Wallpaper History Society, which for the last twenty-five years has been promoting awareness and understanding of wallpapers.

15 Responses to “Peeling back history”

  1. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    This reminds me of some bits of wallpaper I have in a box in my house. They came from the house I lived in as a boy. They had been hidden by partitions and the like, put in when the house had a Victorian renovation.. I think I know in which “safe place” the box is. I’ll see if I can find a moment to scan them and add them to my website soon so that others can see them. When I rescued the first of these in 1968, I never though it would be of interest to others. I knew it wasn’t really rubbish!

  2. style court Says:

    All of these links are great. So far I’ve only had a chance to really explore Splitting the Pattern. Wonderful to see how Jenny and the other artists are helping us look at the papers with fresh eyes — like letting in daylight and fresh air. Also, it’s interesting to see decorative elements produced for the general public because typically in art history we’re focused on the most rarefied things — the stuff more likely to have survived, as you’ve blogged about before.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, well done for saving those fragments, do publish them.

    Courtney, yes this is the ‘secret history’ of design 🙂

  4. CherryPie Says:

    I visited the back to backs last weekend. I found the wallpaper display very interesting. I couldn’t imagine living with some of those big bold patterns in the small rooms.

    I did wonder how much smaller those 28 layers would have made the room…

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Cherie, yes the taste for very loud wallpapers is difficult to imagine, isn’t it 🙂 Although in some ways tastes in wallpaper seem to be going back to that at the moment…

    Yes all those layers must have brought the walls in quite a bit. Perhaps when Edgar Allen Poe wrote that horror story about the walls coming together he was living in a place that had been redecorated once too often…? 🙂

  6. Toby Worthington Says:

    A fascinating subject, ‘peeling back the layers of decorative history’ quite literally. A few years ago when some electrical wiring was
    being worked on in my 1860 house, a half dozen border designs
    were revealed beneath a cornice. It wasn’t an easy task to separate
    those layers, but oh what satisfaction as the various patterns emerged! Best of all was discovering that the earliest of those borders bore a colour palette that was a near match to the current
    schemes in adjacent rooms~pure coincidence of course, yet it felt
    as if history was on my side.

    Thank you for the links in this post!

    • Andrew Sheldon Says:

      Toby: Do you still have your “papyropsies” (cf biopsies) or whatever such excised paper samples would be called? I have found mine, and have been busy scanning. I hope to add some of them to my website soon.

      What have you started, Emile?! I have that I have more “papyropsies” than I thought I had. More to scan!

  7. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I find it interesting that these ‘common’ wallpapers are so sophisticated, especially in comparison to the comparable average wallpapers of today found in stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s. Sometimes I feel the Popular Taste is making no progress at all, and indeed, going backwards.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Toby, another interesting example of ‘domestic archaeology’.

    And as you sat, Andrew, technology now allows for easier recording and sharing of these ‘finds’, just like the online published sightings of rare animal or plant species.

    Ckassicist, yes and I find it interesting to see some proof that the Arts & Crafts style did indeed filter down to working class interiors – the utopianist William Morris would have been delighted 🙂

  9. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    I have been busy scanning! More than half done, and half now accessible on the www. The easiest way to find the annotated scans is at It is fairly obvious which link you should click on. I think the second half will need to be a separate “exhibit”.

    All comments, suggestions, observations, information, and so on will be welcomed.

    See what you have started, Emile! My biggest surprise was that the scraps [papyropsies”] were in the first box I tried.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s fantastic Andrew, I will alert our paper conservation expert, as he will find it interesting.

  11. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    More scanning and writing today, Part two is now finished, so that is that for a while. All uploaded to I would welcome some feedback on my wallpaper bits collected years ago. Perhaps I’ll add something about the 1920s (?) top layer in the sitting room. I have some photographs of that somewhere: just have to find out which safe place they are in.

    Things have been rather quiet on the Whitford painting front this year. What will you inspire me to do next?!

  12. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    I have just come across this news item which may be of interest:

    I wonder if anyone recognised any of the patterns in my “papyropsy” scans [].

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, my apologies for the delay in responding. Thanks very much for that interesting link – a similar scenario to yours, as the wallpapers were saved prior to redevelopment. I will alert our paper adviser to the images of your wallpapers.

  14. Andrew Sheldon Says:

    You might be interested to know that my wallpaper scraps (see above, & have now been deposited in the Somerset Heritage Centre. It is good to see such things being taken seriously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: