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Doctoral research reveals hidden depths of historic wallpaper

last modified Nov 28, 2017 12:27 PM

We are delighted to report that Wendy Andrews, who joined the first cohort of the MSt in Building History in 2011, was recently awarded her PhD in the Faculty of Architecture and History of Art.  During the MSt Wendy undertook a professional placement with the National Trust at their East of England office and wrote her dissertation on Gothic Revival wallpapers at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.  This led her to the Cowtan & Sons archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where orders for six Oxburgh papers were recorded, and to the recognition that this resource offered potential for more intensive research into wallpaper materials, patterns and trade in Britain and overseas in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Wendy’s doctoral research was supervised by Dr James Campbell and supported by an AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership award.  During her studies she received much advice and encouragement from the late Treve Rosoman and other members of the Wallpaper History Society.

Wendy writes: ‘Wallpaper provides immensely useful evidence for building historians.  Materials, manufacturing techniques, designs and installation methods can add to our understanding of when buildings were completed or remodelled, how rooms and spaces were used and who occupied them.  Where wallpaper has been removed or covered over, or only fragments remain in situ, archival records such as the Cowtan order books can be invaluable in supplying missing information.’

Cowtan & Sons were London-based wallpaper makers and decorators and their order books, dating from 1824 to 1938, hold more than 27,000 small samples of wallpapers of all kinds, from Chinese papers to William Morris designs, along with details of customers’ names and addresses and the rooms to be decorated. Cowtan sent wallpapers around the world, despatching orders to many European countries, the USA and India. Many of their customers were from the upper levels of British society, including royalty and the aristocracy, but as well as palaces, country houses and elite town houses the firm decorated vicarages, hospitals, embassies and business premises. They also regularly supplied flock and leather-effect wallpapers to the Houses of Parliament.

Wendy is now working with Dr Campbell to develop a research project with the V&A to digitise the Cowtan archive and use image recognition technology to create an online searchable resource to help identify dates, patterns, materials and manufacturers of wallpapers found in buildings around the world.

(Image credits: Wendy Andrews).

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