French Scenic Papers

In recent months I have embarked upon a series of articles here about both the London Panorama and various aspects of paper-hangings. In the French scenic papers these two topics intersect. Though Robert Barker’s London Panorama pre-dates by more than a decade the scenic papers produced with such style in France, they share the same antecedents. And Mr. Barker’s name for his unique invention supplied the alternate adjective for these elegant paper-hangings, as they also came to be known as "panoramic" papers.

A little history about how the outside came inside the English home …

Though by the decade of the Regency the French excelled in the design and production of scenic papers, such papers actually had their origins in England. From the seventeenth century, a number of the great manor houses across England contained a room painted to give the impression that it had no walls and was open to nature. Typically, these were "public" rooms, that is, those rooms in which guests would be entertained, such as a drawing room. Occasionally, a bedchamber might be painted with such a mural, but as this was a very unique and expensive form of decoration, most people preferred to be able to show it off to their guests. Some of these rooms might depict a panoramic scene of a famous or mythical location, while others might be painted to show a view of the very property on which they were situated. In most cases, the upper part of the wall, above the dado, was covered with smooth plaster, then painted in a continuous trompe l’oeil view of an outdoor scene. The wall below the dado was often painted to resemble a balustrade or fence separating the viewer from the open space depicted in the painting. It is believed that these scenic mural paintings were the inspiration for Robert Barker’s invention of the panorama painting.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, French paper-stainers developed a method for creating papier peint panoramique, literally, "painted panoramic paper," what were also called scenic paper-hangings. These papers enabled more people to have a room with the appearance of an expensive mural landscape painting at a much lower cost. By this time nature was once more revered by many people and views of nature were welcome in the home. Like Robert Barker’s popular panorama paintings, these scenic papers provided a 360º view of well-known landscapes of great interest. The very first of the great French scenic papers was designed and printed by the firm of Joseph Dufour et Cie between 1804 and 1806. Entitled Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, also know as "The Voyages of Captain Cook," they were a series of vignettes of the important events from the three exploratory voyages of Captain Cook. The set consisted of twenty rolls of paper, all hand-printed with wood blocks, in full color. Each set was accompanied by a booklet which briefly outlined Cook’s voyages, and then listed the scenes from those voyages to be found on each strip of wallpaper in the set.

The Voyages of Captain Cook was extremely popular, and soon many of the larger French paper-staining manufactories were hard at work designing and printing their own scenic paper sets. But this was not an undertaking to be entered into lightly. Each set of scenic paper-hangings required between 3,000 to 5,000 individually hand-carved wood blocks, one for each color to be printed on each section of each roll of paper which completed the full set. The English paper-stainers chose not to invest in the manufacture of such complicated papers, leaving their French counterparts with no serious competition in the field of scenic papers. However, the embargo on French goods imported into England during the Napoleonic Wars meant that these French papers were not a serious threat to the English paper-staining industry at that time. Which is not to say that the odd set of French scenic paper was not smuggled into Britain along with French brandies and French silks.

French scenic papers were very popular in the young United States, which was still friendly with France. Sets of these paper-hangings were often imported by prosperous Americans in order to display their wealth and taste. In fact, Joseph Bonaparte himself installed a set of the Cupid and Psyche papers in his house in Philadelphia. Most sets of scenic papers ranged from twenty to thirty rolls, typically about twenty inches wide and between twelve to thirteen feet in length. Each set of papers intended for shipment abroad was very meticulously packaged. Once each roll was completed, it was carefully wrapped, first in paper and then in tin foil. All the rolls of the set were then placed in a water-tight container, usually a barrel, ready to be loaded aboard the ship which would carry them to the United States. However, this same packaging was most convenient should a set of French papers be intended for clandestine delivery to an English buyer.

Since these scenic papers were not custom-made for a particular room, each paper roll was designed so that the lower two-thirds contained the bulk of the scene, with the upper third primarily sky. As with the Chinese papers, this upper portion could be cut away as needed to fit the paper to the wall of the room in which it was to be hung. And as with the Chinese papers, some of these scenic papers were pasted to a heavy paper or muslin stretched over battens and then mounted on the wall. In that way, they could easily be moved to another location. But unlike the Chinese papers, each roll in a set of French scenic papers was numbered on the back. Included with each set was a lithograph or engraving of the complete scene, with numbers corresponding to the rolls to show the correct order of placement for each roll.

Scenic papers were intended to show a romanticized, idealized view of the scenes they depicted. They were most effective when hung in rooms with little furniture set against the walls to allow the best view of this illusory paradise. For that reason, they were most commonly hung in dining rooms or drawing rooms. Even in a room with minimal furniture blocking the walls, most of the rooms in which scenic papers would be hung contained doors and windows which interrupted the design. Without careful placement, the panoramic illusion could be seriously damaged. For that reason, most people employed a professional paper hanger to hang a set of scenic papers, even if they might have had their household servants hang other types of paper-hangings. Without professional installation, some curious anomalies resulted, some of which are with us to this day. One observer wrote about a paper in the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, with a city scene in which a street vendor is offering a little girl a hot bun, apparently purchased by her mother. But the vendor is on one side of a window opening and the little girl with her outstretched hand is on the other, never able to grasp her treat.

Other hanging anomalies have been recorded in several rooms which still contain their scenic papers. A number of themed scenic papers were produced, including Les Amours de Psyche (Cupid and Psyche), Paysage Indien (Hindostan Scenery), Vues d’Italie (The Bay of Naples), Les Paysages de Télémaque dans l’île de Calypso (Telemachus on the Isle of Calypso), Les Monuments de Paris (The Monuments of Paris), Les Francais en Egypte (The French in Egypt) and Les Rives de Bosphore (Banks of the Bosphorus). In some cases, certain scenes were cut from the wall paper sets, centered on a wall and surrounded by an appropriate paper border, similar to an English Print Room. Another, more peculiar anomaly was the practice of hanging strips of more than one themed paper along side one another in the same room. Strips from the Telemachus set are often found hung along side strips from the Bay of Naples or the Hindostan sets. Strips from the Monuments of Paris have been found mixed with those from the Hindostan or Bosphorus sets. No one is quite sure of the reason for this mixing and matching of themed scenic papers, but it occurred in houses in both the United States and Europe.

Scenic papers were produced in France from 1804 until the fashion for them finally died out in the early 1840s. In many cases, the same wood blocks which had been carved at the beginning of the century were still used for the papers produced at mid-century. In light of the huge investment in carving all those blocks, this made much economic sense. However, the French paper-stainers were aware of changing fashions and reflected those changes in their scenic papers. For example, The Monuments of Paris set was re-issued several times, and each time any significant new buildings in Paris were added and any which had been demolished were removed. The small figures of the people strolling about the city were given new costumes in keeping with current fashions. The wood blocks used for a scenic paper depicting one of Napoleon’s victories was reworked after his exile to present another military victory, with the figure of the erstwhile Emperor printed over with that of the new victor. In one instance, figures of native Americans were added to a Hindostan set to create a fantastical view of early America.

Despite the embargo of all French goods during the first half of the Regency, there are records of several sets of French scenic papers making their way into England. And once Bonaparte was deposed and exiled, French goods could be more easily brought into Britain by travellers to France. Though the prohibition against French paper-hangings continued, it was often ignored. The Regency coincides with the Romantic period, in which the natural world was venerated, in part as a reaction against the growing Industrial Revolution. What could be more soothing to the soul than a room in one’s home in which one could contemplate an idealized and perfect landscape? The French scenic papers provided a small slice of paradise always available to the family and their guests in the Regency homes of the affluent and cultured classes.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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