Watts that pattern?

Wood block of the 'Oak Leaf' design against samples of the hand-blocked wallpaper. ©Watts of Westminster.

Wood block of the ‘Oak Leaf’ design against samples of the hand-blocked wallpaper. ©Watts of Westminster.

A small exhibition at the Fashion and textile Museum in London features the wallpapers of Watts & Co., a firm supplying ecclesiastical and domestic furnishings which is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year.

Selection of hand-blocked Watts wallpapers. ©Watts of Westminster.

Selection of hand-blocked Watts wallpapers. ©Watts of Westminster.

The firm was founded by the architects G. Gilbert Scott, G.F. Bodley and Thomas Garner. The ‘Watt’s’ name is purely fictional, having apparently been chosen because the founders wanted to keep the decorative work separate from their architectural practices.

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, hung with 'Pear' flock wallpaper by Watts. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Duchess’s Private Closet at Ham House, hung with ‘Pear’ flock wallpaper by Watts. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Scott, Bodley and Garner were known for their Gothic Revival buildings, but they also designed schools and houses in the eclectic ‘Queen Anne’ style which was popular in the later nineteenth century.

Detail of the 'Ravenna' flock wallpaper by Watts in the White Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Detail of the ‘Ravenna’ flock wallpaper by Watts in the White Closet at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Early Watts wallpaper survives at Ham House, where Bodley and Garner were involved in restoration and refurbishment work for the 9th Earl of Dysart in the late 1880s. Flock wallpaper in the ‘Pear’ pattern can be seen in the Duchess’s Private Closet, and ‘Ravenna’ hangs in the White Closet.

Michael Hall has written an enlightening article on Bodley and Garner’s work at Ham which was included in the book Ham House: 400 years of Collecting and Patronage.

Proposal by G.F. Bodley for the redecoration of the Oak Drawing Room at Powis Castle, painted by Henry Charles Brewer, c.1902, showing the intended use of Watts 'Pear' pattern silk, at Powis Castle, inv. no. 11807882.2. ©National Trust.

Proposal by G.F. Bodley for the redecoration of the Oak Drawing Room at Powis Castle, painted by Henry Charles Brewer, c.1902, showing the intended use of Watts ‘Pear’ pattern silk, at Powis Castle, inv. no. 11807882.2. ©National Trust.

At Powis Castle a cut silk velvet woven in the ‘Pear’ pattern was used for the upholstery and the curtains in the Oak Drawing Room when the room was remodeled by G.F. Bodley for the 4th Earl of Powis between 1902 and 1904.

Detail of the 'Bodley' wallpaper, originally designed by G.F. Bodley in about 1870, in an updated colourway produced for Cecil Beaton in 1952. ©Watts of Westminster

Detail of the ‘Bodley’ wallpaper, originally designed by G.F. Bodley in about 1870, in an updated colourway produced for Cecil Beaton in 1952. ©Watts of Westminster

Because Watts supplied both domestic and ecclesiastical furnishings, it was better able to weather the changes in fashion than, for instance, Morris & Co., which closed in 1940. Watts’s offering was refreshed in the 1950s and 1960s by Elizabeth Hoare, one of Scott’s granddaughters, who brought in new designers and new colourways – including a ‘think pink’ version of the ‘Bodley’ pattern for Cecil Beaton.

Selection of wallpapers in the Watts showroom at the Chelsea Design Centre, London. ©Watts of Westminster

Selection of wallpapers in the Watts showroom at the Chelsea Design Centre, London. ©Watts of Westminster

There will be a study day on the history of Watt’s & Co. at the Victoria and Albert Museum on October 25.

13 Responses to “Watts that pattern?”

  1. First Night Design Says:

    Beautiful. It would be lovely to have a twitter and other sharing icons available, by the way.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks – good point, will try to add them.

  3. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    Wonderfully illustrated, and wonderful to know about. The Wallpaper History Review of 1994/95 carried an article by Joanna Banham commenting on the then-current exhibition of Pugin’s work at the V & A.

    Banham mentions the confusion about the legacy of Pugin’s designs, which were midwifed by Crace. Crace contracted the printing work out to Samuel Scott and Williams Woollams, among others, beginning around 1845. Eventually Watts & Co. was founded in association with Sir Gilbert Scott’s eldest son in 1874, according to Banham.

    An inability to resist puns has a proud tradition in wallpaper circles. Banham’s article was titled by Christine Woods as: “Watt’s In A Name? Brief Notes On the History of the Printing of Pugin’s Wallpapers.”

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much Bob. Yes Crace is another fascinating, versatile and long-lived decorating firm, in that case spanning the period 1725-1900.

    In his recent article about Watts in Country Life Michael Hall recounts the story (or myth) that the name of the firm came about exactly by way of that pun, as the founders were jokingly discussing what to call it.

    That reminds that the British floorcovering firm Crucial Trading got its name because the owner-founders’ teenage children were constantly using the then (c.1987) trendy word ‘crucial’ 🙂

  5. Michael Shepherd Says:

    Yale University Press are publishing another volume by Michael Hall at the end of October entitled “George Frederick Bodley & the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America” which includes further research on Watts & Co. Maybe worth a look.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Michael Hall’s been busy! 🙂 Thanks for that, sounds interesting.

  7. Gésbi Says:

    Thank you for this link. I have a 19th century decorating book by Charles Blanc that to my frustration only discusses wall paper, no fabrics. The author praises their great beauty and their more democratic i.e. economic appeal!

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gésbi, yes presumably that was one of the reasons for the development of wallpaper: that it was a bit cheaper than tapestry or silk (or indeed lacquer, which they also sometimes used as wall panelling).

    But then by the time Watts was founded these ‘historicist’ wallpapers would presumably have been at the luxury end of the market, suitable for earls with antiquarian tastes 🙂

  9. Susan Walter Says:

    So that’s why Dan Cruikshank was on telly talking about the Gilbert Scotts. I watched his programme and found it very enlightening. I knew virtually nothing about them except the names and one or two buildings. I remember visiting the Midland Hotel before the grand restoration.

  10. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    True true! Because Watts supplied both domestic and ecclesiastical furnishings, it was better able to weather the changes in fashion. There is a moral there!

    Yet if you ask strangers in the street if they know the name Morris & Co. or Watts or both, most would go for Morris. I suppose it all depended on what was considered the luxury end of the market and what was available to a wider range of families.

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Susan, so the subject has been Cruikshanked, has it? 🙂 I missed that programme.

    Helen, yes it is fascinating how business success and a successful public image can be slightly different things.

  12. Andrew Says:

    Emile – here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04m3ljr – Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain

    I missed it myself, but it is available (in the UK) on iPlayer for another 3 weeks.

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you so much, Andrew, I shall watch it.

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