A Brief History of Wallpaper in the U.K

With it being International Wallpaper Week (check out their website to see all the amazing stuff they’re doing) I thought there’s no better time to write a brief history of wallpaper in the U.K. Wallpaper has a long rich history in this country dating all the way back to the Renaissance Period and it marked a transition away from the tapestry decorations of the Middle Ages, which were simply too expensive for the newer members of the elite.

A French tapestry from the pre-wallpaper era

Prior to the now ubiquitous machine printing of wallpaper there were two main techniques for creating wallpaper: hand-painting (as straightforward and laborious as it sounds) and woodblock printing where one would carve a design into a block of wood before coating it in ink and using in a similar way to a stamp to imprint designs. Way before the likes of Andy Warhol and Brian Eno became celebrity wallpaper designers an artist named Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was an important figure who had taken his artistic inclinations to wallpaper. 

In the early days of manufacturing England and France were vying to be the top wallpaper producer in Europe. However, following Henry VIII’s official excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1538, the English aristocracy found it far more difficult to import tapestries from Flanders and Arras. The knock-on effect of this was that the English gentry turned to wallpaper for decoration, which led to a boom in the internal wallpaper industry.

British production of wallpaper continued to succeed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries bar a brief period of instability where head of the Protectorate Oliver Cromwell banned the manufacture of wallpaper due to it being determined frivolous and against puritan values. This only lasted for six years however and soon the upper classes were once again clamouring for the right to decorate their homes. In fact, wallpaper was so popular that Queen Anne deemed it worthwhile to impose a wallpaper tax that lasted from 1712-1836. 

During periods of peacetime in the 18th century wallpaper was a major export for England with the middle and upper classes across Europe keen to get a hold of the product. The market for wallpaper changed dramatically in 1813 though due to the development of steam printing. The industrial revolution transformed how wallpaper was made and the perception of the product – it was no longer only for the super-rich as mass production had made it accessible to a much wider range of people. Since then wallpaper has gone in and out of fashion as trends have ebbed and flowed but its history in the U.K. depicts a timeline of major cultural events and we’re sure it has a big role to play in the future of our country.

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