This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
Such were the eccentric forms with which our sires surrounded themselves, and which are, I need scarcely add, all widely removed from true principles of taste. Indeed, common sense points to the fact, that as a wall represents the flat surface of a solid material, which forms part of the construction of a house, it should be decorated after a manner which will belie neither its flatness nor solidity. For this reason all shaded ornament and patterns, which by their arrangement of colour give an appearance of relief, should be strictly avoided. Where natural forms are introduced, they should be treated in a conventional manner - i.e. drawn in pure outline, and filled in with flat colour, never rounded. No doubt many excellent examples of arabesque and other surface-decoration, as at Pompeii and in the Loggie of the Vatican, may be cited, where a certain degree of roundness has been aimed at in the case of animal form; but such examples excel not because of their style, but in spite of it. Moreover, it must be remembered that these paintings were the actual handiwork of consummate artists; and as we cannot hope to imitate, by machine-printed paper, the refinement of manual skill, it is better that we should limit our designs to those forms which need no such delicacy of treatment.
In the Middle Ages it was customary to decorate the walls of the most important rooms of a public building or private mansion with tapestry; and there is no doubt that a rich and picturesque effect was thus obtained which no other means could produce. But it is obvious that the mere expense of such a practice, to say nothing of the consideration of cleanliness (especially in town-houses, where dust collects with great rapidity) would render it out of the question for modern appliance. In later times stencil-painting was the first step towards a simpler style of mural ornament, and indeed it is still in vogue throughout Italy and other parts of the Continent. It consists, as some of my readers may be aware, of applying flatted colour to a wall with a brush over perforated plates of zinc or other metal. These perforations may be cut into an endless variety of patterns; and certainly a plaster surface thus decorated has many advantages over one which has been lined with paper, particularly in a warm climate. The plates too, when once prepared for a satisfactory design, may be used again at pleasure elsewhere, and the space between the diapered patterns thus formed may be varied to suit the size of the room. Still, it must be confessed that the more recent invention of paperhangings supplies a cheaper, readier, and, to our English notions of comfort, a more satisfactory means of internal decoration.
There has been a very great improvement of late in this branch of manufacture. Pugin led the way, by designing some excellent examples for the Houses of Parliament and elsewhere; and since his time, many architects of acknowledged taste have thought it worth their while to supply appropriate designs for the houses which they have built. By degrees manufacturers took the matter up, and adopted the patterns suggested by qualified artists, and the result is that good and well-designed papers may now be had at a very reasonable price. Of course, many wretched specimens continue to be displayed at the 'fashionable' shops, for the selection of customers whose taste is of too lofty and independent a character to be influenced by any guiding principle; but, nevertheless, good papers are to be found by those who choose to look for them. Mr. H. Woollams, of High Street, Marylebone, and Messrs. Crace, of Wigmore Street, have produced some excellent paperhangings of both Greek and mediaeval design. In this, as in every branch of art-manufacture, it is for the shops to lead the way towards reform. The British public are, as a body, utterly incapable of distinguishing good from bad design, and have not time to enquire into principles. As long as gaudy and extravagant trash is displayed in the windows of our West-end thoroughfares, so long will it attract ninety-nine people out of every hundred to buy. But let customers once become familiar with the sight of good forms and judicious combinations of colour, and we may one day aspire to the formation of a national taste. To attain this end, however, the manufacturers (if any are to be found so disinterested) must first inform themselves of the best sources from which good designs may be originally obtained, because at present they seem to be deried from the very worst.
But to return to my subject: the choice of a wall-paper should be guided in every respect by the destination of the room in which it will be used. The most important question will always be whether it is to form a decoration in itself, or whether it is to become a mere background for pictures. In the latter case the paper can hardly be too subdued in tone. Very light drab or green (not emerald), and silver-grey will be found ruitable for this purpose, and two shades of the same colour are all sufficient for one paper. In drawing-rooms, embossed white or cream-colour, with a very small diaper or spot of gold, will not be amiss, where watercolour drawings are hung. As a rule, the simplest patterns are the best for every situation; but where the eye has to rest upon the surface of the wall alone, a greater play of line in the patterns may become advisable. It is obvious that delicate tints admit of more linear complexity than those which are rich or dark. Intricate forms should be acompanied by quiet colour, and variety of hue should be chastened by the plainest possible outlines. In colour, wall-papers should oppose instead of repeating that of the furniture and hangings by which they are surrounded. Some people conceive that the most important condition of good taste has been fulfilled if every bit of darnask in one room is cut from the same piece, and every article of furniture is made of the same wood. At this rate the art of house-fitting would be reduced to a very simple process. The real secret of success in decorative colour is, however, quite as much dependent on contrast as on similarity of tint; nor can real artistic effect be expected without the employment of both.