What do the French Revolution, the British monarchy, and the American Great Depression all share in common? Surprisingly, the answer is 25 panels of wallpaper in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The wallpaper was created around 1790 by the Parisian company Arthur & Robert, not long after the beginning of the French Revolution. At that time, many artists and businesses in France relied heavily on foreign commissions. These wallpapers were made using a block-printing technique with large wooden panels and strips of paper. For each color to be printed, a wood block was hand carved. These were covered with ink and pressed against the paper in succession to create the design.
Among Arthur & Robert’s foreign clients was Britain’s future King George IV. During the late 18th century, he was leasing a house, near Basingstoke in the English county of Hampshire, known as Kempshott Park. The then Prince of Wales chose wallpaper of an intricate and colorful design to adorn a luxurious space for him to meet privately with his illegitimate wife, Maria Fitzherbert, who lived nearby.
Long after the royal family had left Kempshott Park and some of its furnishings behind, the house was sold in 1928 to Basingstoke Golf Club. The manor was demolished in the mid-20th century due to the construction of the M3 motorway. Luckily, some of the historic wallpaper was saved from destruction when it was sold to the Saint Louis Art Museum in October 1929, just nine days before the start of the Great Depression.
The wallpaper had most recently been displayed in the stair hall at Kempshott. When the collection arrived at SLAM, the panels were installed in a period room along with a fireplace mantel from another room in Kempshott Manor and door trims from a different British house.
The Museum’s installation included a total of 25 wallpaper panels. There were 12 pilasters (each more than 9 feet tall and about 1 foot wide) and 8 large wall panels (also 9 feet tall but 3 to 4 feet wide) original to Kempshott Park. Four new panels were created for the doors in the salon-style room at the Museum, based on the original panel hung over the stair-hall door in Kempshott. One additional panel was fabricated to fit over the mantel and complement the original wallpaper.
The salon installation remained in place until around 1980, when all of the wallpaper was moved into storage. One large panel was placed back on view in the early 2000s and remains on display today in Gallery 124. Come take a close look at the intricate details of this 18th-century wallpaper, which include handmade designs of flowers, peacocks, and even mythological beasts!
A future reinstallation of the decorative arts collections will provide visitors the opportunity to view multiple wallpaper panels in redesigned galleries. Stay tuned for further information in a future blog post focused on the conservation work that made display of the large panel possible and the ongoing treatment to prepare for the reinstallation.
Elizabeth Robson was a conservation intern at the Saint Louis Art Museum during the summer of 2018. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Art Conservation at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.
Keara Teeter was a conservation intern at the Saint Louis Art Museum during the summer of 2018. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Art Conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.