The Wallpapers of Belsay Hall

Enter Belsay Hall and you will find that although it is unfurnished, there are mid to late 19th- and early 20th-century decorative wallpapers which once formed the backdrop to the living spaces. Elaborate Indian-chintz-inspired ‘tree of life’ designs cohabit with varnished ‘sanitary’ wallpapers, as well as 1890s Aesthetic Movement and William Morris designs. Different technologies were employed in production such as hand-block methods, flocking and machine printing. The wallpaper is an interesting key to understanding the house, from its 19th-century owners and servants to those who were later stationed there during the Second World War.

Paper conservator completing treatment of the wallpaper in one of the main bedrooms at Belsay Hall
Paper conservator James Caverhill completing conservation treatment of the wallpaper in Stephen Middleton’s bedroom

Revealing the Layers of History

As part of conservation work on the building’s fabric, English Heritage has surveyed the internal decorative finishes of Belsay Hall. This was first done in 1986, with an investigation of paint schemes, and then in 2016, with a survey of the wallpapers by Dr Philippa Mapes, conservator and wallpaper specialist. Further work has involved carefully lifting sections of the wallpapers and paint to reveal older layers underneath.

Drawing on these investigations, we have recently carried out remedial conservation treatment of the wallpapers, supported by Heritage Lottery funding. We have gently cleaned the wallpaper using soft brushes and sponges. Loose areas and seams of wallpaper – caused by damp environmental conditions, physical damage and pest activity such as silverfish – have been re-adhered. Silverfish had eaten the paste attaching the wallpaper to the walls and damage was particularly focused around the windows. Such areas have been treated with a water-based pesticide.

Fresh surface scratches and small areas of damage have been painted in and toned to match the wallpaper using watercolour pigments. Some sections were able to be washed with distilled water to improve their appearance and in some cases, paper fragments were lined with an internal support of Japanese tissue and either reattached to the wall or placed in archival storage.

This conservation work, alongside the surveys done in the past, has helped us understand the various layers of wallpaper each generation has chosen for the hall. Below you can read more about these layers of history and the different wallpaper schemes we have discovered.

In the anteroom the wallpaper design is visible as a raised pattern underneath the modern emulsion paint (above). The pattern has been identified as John Henry Dearle’s design for Morris & Co, called ‘The Golden Lily’ (below)
In the anteroom the wallpaper design is visible as a raised pattern underneath the modern emulsion paint (above). The pattern has been identified as John Henry Dearle’s design for Morris & Co, called ‘The Golden Lily’ (below)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London (bottom image)

The Anteroom

The original wallpaper in the ground-floor anteroom was painted over with cream coloured emulsion paint. In 1941, Sir Stephen Middleton, owner of Belsay Hall, wrote a letter to the estate manager asking him to arrange to ‘freshen up’ the anteroom, suggesting it was looking tired. The paint flattens the original appearance of this room, but we can glimpse the original pattern in certain areas, for example, above the mantelpiece, where the thickly printed pigments of the original wallpaper have left a raised pattern still visible under the paint.

We have been able to identify the wallpaper pattern as ‘Golden Lily’, designed by John Henry Dearle for Morris & Co. The wallpaper is likely to have been hung when this room was made into a separate room from the dining room in 1912. However, it may well have been applied earlier as it was produced from 1897.

Small sections of the overpaint have flaked off to reveal what may be olive green and mandarin blue pigments in the original wallpaper, supporting the identification.

This area of the wallpaper in Elinor’s bedroom shows abrasion marks caused by a dartboard hanging on the wall.
This area of the wallpaper in Elinor Middleton’s bedroom shows abrasion marks caused by a dartboard hanging on the wall

The Middletons’ Bedrooms

The bedrooms of Elinor and Sir Arthur Middleton have the same multi-coloured floral wallpaper possibly dating from the late 19th or early 20th century. The base layer of the stylised daisy pattern in the background is likely to be machine printed, with the larger flowers block printed onto it.

An area of the wallpaper in Elinor’s room shows wear marks from a dartboard that soldiers used when the house was occupied by the Army during the Second World War. There are also pinprick holes caused by the darts. Similar marks and holes can be found in other rooms at Belsay, suggesting different dartboards of a similar design in use by different army units. Archival evidence suggests only officers were billeted in the principal rooms, with other ranks elsewhere.

The wallpaper in Sir Arthur’s bedroom, probably installed in the late 19th century, was still visible in the 1990s. During recent conservation work, flock paper was discovered beneath the later wallpaper, and is thought to date from the 1850s. Flocked papers were produced by stencilling or block printing adhesive on to wallpaper, then sprinkling coloured powdered wool or other cloth over it, to resemble velvets or brocades.

Multi-coloured floral wallpaper, possibly of French origin, found in the east and west bedrooms of Belsay Hall.
This floral wallpaper, possibly of French origin, is found in the west and east bedrooms of Belsay hall

The French Connection

From diary evidence, we know the multi-coloured floral wallpaper in the west and east bedrooms of the hall was installed in the 1880s. It was manufactured using the block-printing process and was once thought to be either by Morris & Co, Jeffrey & Co or Essex & Co, all leading wallpaper makers of the time. However, the wallpaper width is not typical for English wallpapers, indicating it might have been of French origin. The paper has a bold chintz-style ‘tree of life’ pattern which appears to imitate crewel-work embroidery, a type of surface embroidery using wool.

We have found a French 19th-century textile with the same design, but its provenance remains elusive. Enquiries are proceeding to identify its designer and manufacturer, but as matters stand it seems from diary entries that in the 1880s a French wallpaper was installed at Belsay. This may have been ahead of its time, as papers imitating embroidery and tapestry were popular in the period from around 1910 to the 1930s.

Fragments of wallpaper shown after conservation and reassembly.
These fragments of wallpaper were originally from the Estate Office at Belsay. They are shown here after conservation and reassembly, when the original pattern of the wallpaper became more visible

William Morris at Belsay

As well as in the anteroom, we know that William Morris wallpaper was installed in the Estate Office. This was discovered by linking photographs taken in the 1980s with samples of wallpaper in the archive and scraps of wallpaper remaining on architectural elements removed from the Estate Office.

Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was able to identify it as an 1880 William Morris design called ‘Poppy’. It was manufactured in 1881 by a company called Jeffrey & Co by colour woodblock print on what appears to have been handmade paper. The Middletons were installing expensive decorative wallpaper at the cutting edge of contemporary design even in a functional space like the Estate Office.

The wallpaper on the servants’ stairs (top) with a detail of the original Greek anthemion pattern border (bottom left) and the new strip which was later placed on top with an Aesthetic Movement daisy pattern (bottom right)
The wallpaper on the servants’ stairs (top) with a detail of the original Greek anthemion pattern border (bottom left) and the new strip which was later placed on top with an Aesthetic Movement daisy pattern (bottom right)

Sanitary Wallpapers

Sanitary papers were designed to be wipeable and therefore easy to clean, and were typically installed in functional or servants’ settings. They were often varnished for durability, which makes it hard to know the original colour, as the varnish can darken and yellow with age.

Servants’ Stairs and Corridor
The wallpaper here dates from the late 19th or early 20th century and is an example of a dado paper (paper used to cover the lower part of the wall, between the skirting board and chair rail in passageways, halls and staircases). It bears similarities to BJ Talbert designs, who worked for Jeffrey & Co in the 1870s and 1880s. It was printed using oil-based colours and coated in a varnish to make it hardwearing. The wallpaper is machine printed in a geometric pattern in black on what was originally a pink background. Its colour has now become a dark terracotta as the varnish coating, now embrittled, has yellowed with age.

The dado paper has a border at waist level. On the ground floor this consists of a border in the same colour scheme, machine printed with a Greek anthemion (radiating petals) pattern which echoes features of Sir Charles Monck’s original early 19th-century neo-classical decoration of the hall. On the servants’ stairs and half landing, a different machine printed border has been placed over the top of the anthemion pattern. It has an Aesthetic Movement daisy pattern in terracotta, black and orange-red.

The reason for adding the new strip remains a mystery. It may have been installed to cover damage to the underlying wallpaper. Alternatively, it may have been part of a more general upgrade of the servants’ staircase that took place in 1914.

The New Kitchen at Belsay Hall with a wallpaper pattern that gives the appearance of ceramic tiles
The New Kitchen at Belsay Hall with a wallpaper pattern that gives the appearance of ceramic tiles

Behind the Scenes

Some rooms at Belsay, which are not open to the public, contain other clues to how the property has been decorated at different periods.

The New Kitchen
The wallpaper in the New Kitchen is an example of 1920/30s paper intended for use in kitchens and bathrooms, being more economic to install than ceramic tiles. It was printed on machine-made paper with a white background, then overprinted to resemble tiling. The background white colour is likely to be a ‘satin white’ pigment (a mixture of chalk and alum) or a finely divided white pigment that has been polished to give a sheen in order to better resemble white tiling. Over this, the tile pattern with floral details has been machine printed in grey, red, yellow, blue, green and black.

Oak design dado wallpaper with a wave pattern border below a flower paper
The servants’ bedroom wall decor with an oak design dado wallpaper and wave pattern border below a flower paper

Servants’ Mezzanine Hallway and Stairs
There are two layers of sanitary wallpaper in this area – one from around the end of the 19th century and the other from the early 20th century. Both are printed in oil-based paints and varnished to provide a hardwearing finish. Both papers are geometric tile designs, imitating more expensive ceramic tiles. They are installed in ‘below-stairs’ passageway spaces linking rooms frequented by servants.

two papers on stairs (1)_web.jpg

The sanitary wallpaper from the servants’ mezzanine hallway. The varnished early 20th-century paper with flower design is shown on the left and earlier paper from the end of 19th century is on the right

Servants’ Bedroom
The servants’ bedroom has an oak design dado wallpaper with a date of 1880. This is a machine-made paper from etched or engraved rollers, with a varnished finish. Above the oak paper is a separate dado border of an Aesthetic Movement wave pattern. And above that is an Aesthetic Movement-style wallpaper with a white ground and blue flower background overprinted with a trailing flower pattern in greens and brown. These machine-printed wallpapers, installed in the servants’ quarters, were fashionable for the period but would have been less expensive than some of the other papers installed in Belsay’s principal rooms.

More wallpaper schemes

In the gallery below you can explore more of the wallpaper schemes at Belsay Hall (expand the images for more details). 

This flock paper – a type of wallpaper that resembles velvets or brocades – was discovered beneath the late 19th-century wallpaper in Sir Arthur Middleton’s bedroom. It is thought to date from the 1850s.

In the Housekeeper’s Room floral wallpaper has been found preserved behind a shutter. The design is of a meandering rose on vertical stripes.

The edge of this wallpaper, in one of the servants’ rooms, was exposed when the adjoining section peeled back over time. It has revealed a selvedge mark indicating that the paper was made by the Wallpaper Manufacturers Association (WPM). The crown symbol is the logo of the WPM and dates back to the mid 19th century.

A detail of the flower wallpaper in one of the servants’ rooms showing a white background stripe with a blue, pink and green floral trellis.

A damask-effect wallpaper in the Principal Bedroom dating from the 1900s to 1920s. Just above the dado level some of the original white pigment has been lost revealing a discoloured yellow/brown paper underneath.

As seen in this comparison, the wallpaper in Stephen Middleton’s bedroom has suffered from light damage. The pigments have faded on the wallpaper in the bedroom (above) in contrast to the paper in the alcove which has been more protected from exposure to light (below).

In one of the bedrooms on the west side of the hall the ‘tree of life’ wallpaper has a pencilled inscription from the Second World War.

This fragment is all we have of the wallpaper that once decorated the Telephone Room. We have not been able to identify the designer or manufacturer of this paper, but it has some similarities to the wallpaper designs of Bruce Talbert (BJ Talbert) who was working for Jeffrey & Co in the 1870s and 1880s.

A wallpaper fragment that was discovered within a wall cavity on the mezzanine corridor. An identical sample was also found in floor rubble in the adjacent room to the Estate Office, previously a toilet area.

A sample of decorated wallpaper following conservation. The original location of this wallpaper at Belsay Hall is unknown

Small surface scratches have been delicately painted in to match the tone of the original paper design.

Insect pest damage around the window in Arthur Middletons’ bedroom. The silverfish have eaten the small flower design in the background areas of the wallpaper.

Explore More

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