In recent weeks I have written about both paper-hangings and the private display of art during the Regency. Those divergent topics intersected during the second half of the eighteenth century and through the decade of the Regency to produce a unique phenomenon which occurred in the decoration of rooms in many private houses. However, this phenomenon was restricted primarily to England, though there were some instances of it in Ireland and America at about the same time.
The phenomenon of the English Print Room …
The original print rooms in great houses across the Continent were exactly what one might suppose them to be, rooms in which fine art prints were displayed. From the seventeenth century right though to the mid-nineteenth century, the print room was a feature of many homes of wealthy gentlemen who were connoisseurs of art. These print rooms were typically smaller in size than a gallery for the display of paintings, in keeping with the smaller size of most prints. The prints displayed in these rooms could be rare or unique, and were always of great value.
As had been done for centuries, the prints might be kept in cabinets or in shallow drawers in tables, should they be very fine or unusual prints. Alternately, they might be kept in albums, often leather bound, to protect them from the light. Each print was mounted on an album page of heavy paper and originally, parallel lines of ink or watercolor borders were made around the print on the paper. Often these parallel lines were filled in with a colored watercolor wash, giving the effect of a frame around the print. Or, the print might actually be framed on its page by a paper frame made especially for the purpose. By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, these paper frames had become very popular and were usually designed and produced by the same print-makers who were making the prints which they framed. Some print collectors would use a wide and varying range of frame styles for these paper frames, but others would settle on a single paper frame style designed solely for their use. Once such collector who had his own print frame design was the artist Thomas Lawrence, who had one of the finest print collections ever assembled.
In some cases, the prints were framed, sometimes under glass, and hung on the walls of the print room, skyed as paintings would have been, that is, the wall was carpeted with many prints in various sizes, hung in tiers from the cornice or crown molding to the dado or chair rail. In many cases in such print rooms, the walls were curtained, as were the walls of some painting galleries. These curtains would be kept closed over the prints, except when they were being viewed, in order to protect them from light damage.
Another version of the print room, which was found only in Britain, blended the techniques of album and wall display. The prints were mounted directly on the walls of the print room and were framed with the paper print frames typically used to frame prints in albums. They were arranged on the print room walls in skyed fashion, just as actual framed prints would have been. An example of this blended type of print room is the Print Room at Uppark in West Sussex. Prints displayed in this way were typically inexpensive and commonly available copies of popular paintings, rather than rare fine art prints. These prints might be hand-colored or, more often they were grisaille, in either shades of gray or sepia.
Print rooms of this type were more likely to be seen in the homes of those without the financial resources of affluent connoisseurs. Those with a taste for art without the wealth to afford original paintings often purchased the less expensive engravings of those works which they could display in their homes in the same way the aristocracy displayed their expensive paintings. For example, young Englishmen who took the Grand Tour on a budget would acquire prints and engravings as souvenirs, rather than paintings and sculpture. These engravings would then be displayed in the print rooms of their homes when they returned. Often, the decoration of these print rooms would be done by their wives, sisters or mothers.
By the mid-eighteenth century, many ladies, in all ranks of society, collected inexpensive prints, often on a specific theme, like animals, landscapes or mythological scenes. When they had gathered enough, they would paste their prints to the walls of a small sitting or dressing room. If they were impatient, they might decorate one wall of a room as soon as they had enough prints, doing each additional wall as they gathered more prints. Some young girls would begin collecting such prints in anticipation of decorating a small room in their home after they married. It was at about this time that many stationers, printers and some booksellers sold the paper frames, ribbon swags and other decorative paper embellishments which these ladies needed to enhance their personal print rooms.
This last type of print room was known only in Britain and occassionally in America. There are no instances of this method of print display in Europe. It also seems clear that these print rooms were seldom, if ever, decorated by professional decorators. Most of these print rooms were very personal spaces, most often decorated by the lady or ladies who used them, even in rather grand houses. There are a few instances of print rooms which were more public in nature, such as that at Uppark, but in most cases, even those were most often the product of the members of the household, usually female, who selected the prints, decided their arrangement and color scheme, and affixed the prints and their paper embellishments to the walls.
By the end of the eighteenth century, instead of pasting the prints directly on the walls of the room, it became the practice to paper the walls first with a plain paper of a single, usually pale, color. The print rooms in less affluent homes were papered with uncolored paper-hangings which were painted after they were affixed to the wall. In either case, once the paper was hung and dry, the prints would then be pasted to that, after which the paper frames, ribbon swags and other paper embellishments would be pasted to the walls to complete the design.
Paper-stainers, those who manufactured paper-hangings, soon got the idea of making paper-hangings which were essentially ready-made print rooms. These papers where covered with images of prints surrounded by paper frames and other embellishments on a solid color ground. Once hung, they were a good approximation of a print room with significantly less effort. These paper-hangings, like the earlier print rooms, were found only in Great Britain, and occasionally in America. There is some evidence that sets of print-room papers were exported to Europe, but not in high volume. These papers sold reasonably well in England, but they did not replace the real print room. Even into the Regency, there were too many ladies across the country who had their heart set on creating their own print room to be willing to settle for one ready-made of paper-hangings.
There are a few large houses that have print rooms which are still intact. One of these, the only one in Ireland, can still be seen at Castletown House in County Kildare, Ireland. This was the home of Lady Louisa Lennox Connolly, and her husband, Thomas Connolly. It is known that the prints for this room were being collected as early as 1762. This room has cream-colored walls covered with sepia-tone prints and embellishments which Lady Louisa and her friends cut out and applied to the walls. I had an opportunity to see this print room in person when I was living in Ireland years ago. Though the room is rather larger than the average print room, it is still a cozy, charming and essentially feminine room, as were the majority of print rooms created by the many English ladies who decorated their own personal print rooms from the mid-eighteenth century though the early nineteenth century.
Though the fashion for print rooms in England began in the mid-eighteenth century, it continued into the years of the Regency and there is no reason print rooms could not be woven into the plot of a Regency romance. Ladies might get together to help a friend prepare the prints and embellishments to be affixed to a print room wall, gossiping all the while. A young lady with a love of art might secretly plan her own small print room, carefully collecting prints with botanical designs or scenes from Aesop’s Fables, perhaps slipping out to the print shops from time to time to search for more prints for her collection. An impoverished widow might have to give up hope of her own print room and settle for a room papered with a set of inexpensive paper-hangings with a print-room design.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover, during the course of my research for this article, that the English print room has not faded into the mists of history. I found two different web sites which offer services for creating print rooms in the twenty-first century. I have no affiliation with either of these companies, but both of them have a number of good images of print rooms and offer services for those who are interested in having their own print rooms two hundred and fifty years after they were first fashionable. You can visit Holly Moore Interiors or The English Print Room, for more information.