Phyllis Murphy, Wallpapers in Victorian era
Wallpapers in Victorian era
Interview with Phyllis Murphy
Filmed by Tribal Media
Contributor: Heritage Victoria
What house is that? Interactive, created by Heritage Victoria.
Phyllis Murphy, a retired architect, talks about her interest in Victorian wallpapers, and how they fitted into the late Victorian home.
Click Here to learn more about the late Victorian period of architecture.
Phyllis Murphy practiced as an architect in Melbourne from 1949 until her retirement in the early 1980s. She and her husband John had a successful architectural practice and worked on many major projects together. The Melbourne Olympic Pool, considered one of Australia’s finest and most innovative Modernist buildings, is one of their notable achievements. Phyllis has been collecting wallpapers for the past thirty years and is one of Australia’s foremost authorities on the topic.
Well, I'm a retired architect, and my husband John and I ran our own practice for many years, and that included a lot of conservation work.
And there wasn't a lot of information available about conservation work as there is now.
And I started to read up and found out what I could, and I was very interested to find out exactly how people lived and what their houses were like.
And that led to my interest in wallpaper and decoration of interiors of houses.
Well, I think the first thing that surprised me was the incredible colour, because people often think of Victorian interiors as being brown and dark.
And I think a lot of that is due to dirt, of course, and the fact that a lot of wallpapers were varnished.
And the old varnish that they used tended to brown off, and that gave everything a sort of brown look. And you only have to look at some of the papers that I have collected to see these absolutely marvellous colours.
Victorians loved ornamentation and patterns, and everything was decorated. And I get rather amused at the very uninhibited combination of patterns, and then the upholstery on the chairs would be patterned and the curtains would be patterned and the wallpapers and the ceilings.
And then there'd be several colours used on the woodwork or light and dark stains. I've had people say to me, 'Oh, but they're so elaborate, these humble little cottages.' But I don't think they actually were.
They were humble... not in fact, because I think sometimes they were quite well-off farmers who lived there, and lived quite well, but all they had was a very modest house and they made the most of it.
And I think the home was very important, and I was at first amazed to find so many country cottages that had all this elaborate wallpapering.
There was one that I went to, and it had an 1850s newspaper behind it, 'cause they often used newspaper as the first lining, and it was some beautiful red flock, and this was just a very modest farmhouse, and this was, I suppose, their parlour.
It wouldn't have been a drawing room. But it meant that the house was so important, and I'm sure, you know, all their social activities were around the home. And very different from today, where many homes are just functional, aren't they?
Some quite well-known artists were employed, like Walter Crane.
The French employed a lot of their artists, but as the years went by and after the Industrial Revolution, they were all printed instead of being hand-blocked.
I think they just had big factories with trained artists working in them, but not people who had been painting pictures or anything. But yes, there was a great deal of artistry required.
This is a fascinating little one. It's a small book - normally they're this size - but this one's for the traveller or the salesman, and it's got very tiny samples, but lots of them. And beautiful borders. Look at the lovely colours. Gold backgrounds.
And these were not for wealthy houses. These were just normal sort of... What I'd have in my house.
Early in the century, the design was cut out on a wooden block, and originally they just did it all by hand, but then they started with the... they used pulleys, and the blocks came down and printed, so it was a simple assistance to the printing.
And if I come across a block-printed paper, I can recognise it because of the surface. It's almost like poster colour, whereas these are all mechanically printed.
And then with the Industrial Revolution, they started the roller printing and mechanical, and the prices came down, so of course more and more were sold, and I think that's also why it became so popular.
An enormous quantity was used in the late Victorian period, and I was interested. We did work on the Collingwood Town Hall, and of course that had a lot of stencils, stencil work and so on, but the engineer's room was wallpapered originally, and I thought that was interesting.
And maybe some of the other offices were too, but that was the only one we came upon. And I remember too in the bluestone mill out of Carlton, the mill manager's office had an 1860s wallpaper in it. And I knew that because I found newspaper behind it from 1860.
Well, this one, I believe, came from a painter and decorator in Fitzroy, and was, I think, in the basement. That's probably why it's rather damaged. But still, it has survived.
So these are just probably not quite as good quality as those, I think, just by the paper, because I've got very interested in the paper that they're printed on as well as the designs.
But they're just the sort of things that, yes, would be in... anybody's house, and it's very interesting, the way they were designed.
They'd often have different flowers coming from these different species coming from the same stems, you know? It was a very uninhibited sort of design.
A lot of the papers we used, although they're very elaborate and flowery, they were used in quite an architectural way. The dado was usually darker and often used in a dining room.
And it was meant to sort of have the heavy darker furniture against it. And there is something interesting about that - it's designed so that if it's in the hall, it can go up the stairs, because it has this sort of all-over pattern, the top and the bottom, and yet that can be cut.
And then the panels sort of go up the stairs and follow the line, and then the frieze went around the top of the wall under the ceiling so it accentuated the ceiling.
And what else?
Sometimes panels with small borders around them. So it was very interesting, really, to me, the way they were used.
And they were very much fashions. You know, they changed perhaps in ten years' time to suddenly be all Art Nouveau, and the old designs would be out of date.
And that's why I found layers and layers, one on top of another.
Oh, well, this is where I keep them. I've got these ones numbered so I can find what I'm looking for.
A lot of these are just smaller samples that I've collected or been given, and I keep them in Mylar bags.
Sometimes I don't get a full repeat, and I have to piece it together - see? - and mend it.
Well, I think it's just told me such a lot about how people lived and what they had around them.
And it's most fascinating, and I love the designs, and I love the colours.
And people say, 'Which is your favourite?' but, really, I love them all.