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Conservation of 1870s Wallpaper

Early this year, Wheathills was invited to a large house in Darley Dale to advise on the restoration and conservation of a section of original wallpaper that had been discovered behind a number of original mirrors. The owner was keen to conserve and display the old wallpaper and so we proposed creating a specially produced frame to protect the paper once it had been removed and carefully conserved by Sarah Bull – a specialist in conserving works of art on paper.

The wallpaper panels had been hidden since the room was originally furnished behind two pier glass mirrors and two wall mirrors. This had protected the pigments and paper from the degradative effects of sunlight. The lime plaster walls, which the paper has been pasted onto, had provided an alkaline environment, which acted as a buffer against acid degradation of the wood pulp paper.

Following detailed investigation by Sarah, the wallpaper was found to be by Paul Balin - a French designer who perfected an embossing technique using a special type of press - resulting in the creation of beautiful designs in relief based on historic textiles.

This wallpaper is a luxurious example of this technique and was described by the manufacturer as an 'Imitation of an Italian Renaissance velvet with silver and gold lame´ - and is believe to date from c.1870-1880. The paper was machine made with a chemical wood pulp paper and the surface printed with flock was added to the design with adhesive.

Uncovering Historic Wallpaper
Replacing Historic Wallpaper

Following more detailed inspection Sarah was pleased with the papers condition; “The colours were fresh, although the surface was dirty. Sunlight can fade some pigments irreversibly and paper is a vulnerable medium - absorbing acidity and atmospheric pollution from open fires and cigarette/cigar smoke. The glass mirrors have provided a practical barrier against some of these effects.”

The paper surface was dirty with debris bound with cobwebs that had accumulated over the years, with some areas of damage, “These areas of insect damage, which was probably silver fish have continued undetected behind the mirrors. There was evidence of mould attack where condensed moisture may have become trapped. This weakens the paper considerably to the extent that it becomes a little bit like blotting paper.”

The wallpaper would have been reasonably heavy to hang due to the added flock and metal pigment used. It was lined onto the walls with a thick, coarse starch paste. The wallpaper was surface cleaned in situ with soft hair brushes, smoke sponges and vacuum suction before being removed, as Sarah explains:
"The original starch adhesive had degraded and embrittled enabling dry removal with the use of long palette knives sliced between the wall and the back of the wallpaper. We had to remove the paper in its original vertical strips otherwise it would have been too large to handle in one piece. We worked with steam to release areas where the adhesive was still adhering the paper to the wall."
The wallpaper was taken back to Sarah's studio in Gloucestershire in a rolled format to complete the conservation process.

Initially all debris including old lime plaster was removed from the verso with local moisture. The wallpaper was then lined onto Japanese tissue with proprietary conservation grade wallpaper adhesive. This thin but strong lining supported the weak areas where there was evidence of mould damage and provided overall dimensional stability.

Fully Concerved 1870 Wallpaper

The wallpaper fragments were then mounted onto museum quality board and behind UV filter glass in a large gilt frame created by Wheathills. The frame will help preserve the wallpaper for future generations to come and appreciate its luxurious quality and design whilst removing the environmental risks of having it hung open to the elements.

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