Conservation of wallpaper.
- Catherine Rickman
- and Tanya Millard
The deterioration of wallpaper is caused by the inherent and external dangers common to all works of art on paper (see Paper, §VI). These include acidity (from the paper, support, media, and environment); accumulated dirt and accidental damage; extremes of temperature and humidity; biological attack; and damage caused by overexposure to light. Wallpaper is also subject to damage resulting from defects in the fabric of the building that acts as its ultimate support (see Phillips 1981).
Many of the earliest surviving European wallpapers have been discovered on wooden beams and panels or inside cupboards and boxes. Wood acids, insects, and the natural movement of the wood itself usually result in the paper becoming extremely discolored, brittle, and fragmented. Papers hung on a plaster wall have often fared better, but dampness in the wall may cause staining, mold growth, and contribute to insect activity, especially attack by silver-fish. Additionally, settlement cracks will tear the paper. Wallpaper mounted on canvas and attached to the wall with wooden battens is protected to some extent from these problems. However, the acidity of the aging canvas and adhesives, combined with the continual expansion and contraction of the support (related to changes in relative humidity), can themselves cause discoloration, weakening, and splitting of the paper, while crumbling plaster and dust accumulates in the space behind.
Many standard paper-conservation techniques can be applied to the preservation and restoration of unused samples and archival wallpaper. A unique approach, however, is necessary for the treatment of wallpaper on the wall. The treatment is complicated by vertical orientation and scale, interaction with the building, and the difficulty of maintaining ideal environmental conditions in the historic interior. Each case has to be separately assessed, and the extent of conservation or restoration treatment required will further modify the conservator’s approach.
In the hypothetical case of multilayered 19th-century machine-printed wallpaper fragments, found behind paneling in a house undergoing renovation, the conservation treatment may simply involve surface-cleaning one or more repeats of the pattern and removing these from the wall for preservation in an archive. In contrast, a stateroom in a great house hung with 18th-century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper or with 19th-century French papiers peints will demand much more extensive work. In addition to initial examination, documentation, and photography, treatment might then include surface cleaning; consolidation of media; separation from the supports and removal of the paper from the wall; removal of secondary supports such as paper, canvas, and plaster; reduction of discoloration; repair and relining; remounting and/or rehanging; and retouching. Meanwhile, building defects would have to be remedied and, if necessary, modifications to other decorative features of the interior carried out.
In practice, the conservator will try to preserve papers in situ and choose appropriate options from the following treatment stages. The initial stage is surface cleaning, which involves removing dust, soot, and accretions such as insect excrement, spider webs, and paint residues, with soft brushes, low-suction vacuum-cleaners, erasers, and sponge rubbers. Solvents, mainly water, can sometimes be used locally with the help of poultices and gels. The next stage is to consolidate flaking, powdery, or fugitive pigments and media (especially common on 19th-century block-printed wallpapers), using a variety of natural and synthetic polymers applied by spray, brush, syringe, or aerosol. If wallpaper that is mounted or hung on plaster has to be removed (perhaps to be rehung in another room, to facilitate repairs to the building or simply for thorough conservation treatment), then removal is often effected by scalpels and spatulas inserted between the paper and the wall. This process may be carried out while the paper is dry, or after varying degrees of moistening by spray, humidification, or direct wetting intended to soften the original adhesive. The use of steam will soften less easily soluble adhesives, and if enzyme solutions are applied at the same time the structure of the adhesive can be broken down. If moisture or steam is used the paper must be surface cleaned first, otherwise any stains may become permanently fixed in the paper. Very fragmented or fragile wallpapers may have to be temporarily faced with thin tissue-paper and a reversible adhesive before removal from the wall. Wallpaper mounted on canvas can often be de-backed by removing the linings by standard methods, after releasing fixings around the edge of battens. In extreme cases, where none of the above methods are effective, the wall behind the paper may have to be dismantled. Once the wallpaper is off the wall, further conservation treatment can proceed: cleaning, the removal of old backings and supports, chemical stabilization, repair, relining, and, if required, retouching. For this, standard paper-conservation techniques can be used, albeit on a larger scale than usual and with the important exception of treatment by immersion, which is rarely possible.
When the treated paper is rehung, various techniques are again possible. A choice is made according to the condition and structure of the walls and surrounding features. The conservation principle of reversibility precludes pasting the treated wallpaper directly on to a wall. Instead, the same effect can be achieved by first lining the prepared wall with a polyester fabric release layer between two layers of acid-free paper; if it is necessary at a later date to remove the wallpaper, in theory the paper support can be separated from this release layer. Alternatively the paper can be relined with a final support of a natural or synthetic textile and attached by its borders to the wall by means of wooden stretchers. An expensive but more desirable variation is to mount the conserved wallpaper on panels of acid-free honeycomb board faced with acid-free paper, or on screens constructed according to the oriental pattern, like the Japanese karibari board. Panels can be screwed to the wall or even secured with magnets.
Inpainting, or retouching to restore missing areas of the design, though not often practiced in other fields of paper conservation, can represent a major proportion of the cost of wallpaper conservation. Various techniques of reproducing historic papers, for infills or even whole rooms, are increasingly the province of the conservator, working with artists and printers.
After conservation and restoration, wallpaper that is displayed in situ in a historic interior should be protected from future damage by careful building maintenance and environmental controls. Barriers and glass or Perspex (Plexiglas) panels may be necessary to protect the paper from passing visitors.
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