The Story of Papier Mâché

Each one of my projects starts with a visit to the Caroline Simpson Library. I lean towards the historical, and how I design & style a space is dictated by a building’s past and the story that is revealed. Oftentimes I’ll add a touch of make believe, which together becomes the basis for the look & feel of a space.

Working on RESTORATION AUSTRALIA with the ABC, an incredible archive of information has become available. The resident librarians at Caroline Simpson & research extraordinaires, Marina, Matthew and Michael picked up on the unique ceiling rose from Woodcot Park and shared this fascinating history of papier mâché with me. This is one example of the many oddities and curiosities and histories that the team have brought to my attention and helped me imbue in my spaces. If you ever have interiors or architectural questions look no further than these three!

When and where did architectural papier mâché originate?
We usually think of Papier mâché in relation to smaller decorative items like snuff boxes, trays and picture frames, which were really popular in the 19th century and people are often surprised to learn it had been used as an architectural material from the middle of the 18th century. The pre-machine method of soaking paper pulp is said to have developed in France around 1740 and was fostered in England by paperhangers expanding into ceiling decoration. The industry then flourished in England, where the majority of manufacturers were found throughout the 1800s.

Why did it replace plaster?
As an architectural material papier mâche̒ was light, strong, easily fitted and could be moulded into a myriad of designs. It offered advantages over modelled plaster for manufacturers and found a ready market in tradesmen and householders. It was also an ideal material for export abroad. With the elaborate interiors of the 18thcentury and earlier periods, highly skilled craftsmen were required on-site to do the time consuming work. Apart from needing skilled workers for mould making and gilding, the papier mâche̒ alternative could be produced at a central plant by relatively unskilled workers, bringing production times and costs down considerably. The ‘ready-made’ patterns could be easily circulated to builders and architects via manufacturers’ trade catalogues and being lightweight, the product could be shipped anywhere for installation by local craftsmen, regardless of the availability of specialists. And once it was installed, it didn’t need to dry (like plaster does) before being painted, gilded or grained.

What goes into the process of creating a papier mache mould or cornice?
By today’s standards, the process was still quite labour intensive. Designs had to be carved by skilled craftsmen before moulds could be created. These moulds could be in the form of anything, from small decorative elements to sections of repeat patterns and even large panels. The papier mâché was made by pulping or layering paper with various binders and additives, then pressing it into moulds. The process then involved waterproofing and hardening with linseed oil before drying.

What can it be used for? Papier mâché was mostly used in imitation of decorative plasterwork for ceilings and walls, but could also be used to model decorative timber borders, such as the carved and gilded work around doors and windows or chimney pieces. Our curator, Michael Lech, has done research on manufacturers such as the London based companies George Jackson & Sons and Charles F Bielefeld, who used papier mâché to manufacture complete columns, corbels, ceiling centres and frames for mirrors and pictures. By 1847 Bielefeld had begun experimenting with larger papier mâché constructions and made giant Corinthian capitals, 22 feet in circumference, for an Australian bank commission, as well as large panels for steamships and even complete prefabricated houses.

In what era was architectural papier mache at its height?
From the mid-18th century it was being used in Europe, England and the U.S. It was first imported into Australia in the 1830s and by the mid-19th century, papier mâché was used extensively in this country as an alternative to plaster for architectural mouldings like cornices and ceiling roses.

When did its popularity lessen? Why?
Papier mâché continued to be used in England right through the 19th century, but here in Australia the development of another alternative in the form of ‘hemp-reinforced’ plaster, meant that papier mâché was used less and less after about the 1860s. And of course the advent of stamped tin-ware and pressed metal ceilings also contributed to its decline.

Are there any notable houses or structures that have used papier mache in their design?
Yes, papier mâché was installed into houses like the Scott brothers’ Glendon near Singleton, TS Mort’s Greenoaks (now Bishopscourt) at Darling Point and Edward Cox’s Fernhill at Mulgoa, NSW. Most recently, a papier mâché ceiling rose was featured in an episode of Restoration Australia about the once derelict home ‘Woodcot Park’, built in Tarraville, Gippsland in the 1850s. We have found an identical illustration of the ceiling rose in one of our Bielefeld trade catalogues published in 1850. This discovery not only demonstrates how papier mâché was widely used in mid-19th century Australia but also how durable this material has proved to be.

Photo credits
1. Papier mâché ceiling rose at 'Woodcot Park', Tarraville built in the 1850s.

2. Architectural design elements, ‘The Collection of Geo. Jackson & Sons, Manufacturers of Composition & Improved Papier Mâché’, 1836. Courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.

3. Ceiling roses, ‘The Collection of Geo. Jackson & Sons, Manufacturers of Composition & Improved Papier Mâché’, 1836. Courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.

4. Plant stand, ‘The Collection of Geo. Jackson & Sons, Manufacturers of Composition & Improved Papier Mâché’, 1836. Courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. 

5. Papier mâché ceiling rose design in Charles F Bielefeld’s ‘On the use of the improved papier-mâché in furniture, in the interior decoration of buildings, and in works of art’, 1850. Courtesy of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection.

To learn more visit Sydney Living Museums.

FILED 01, Oct 2015

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  • SYDNEY SHOP & STUDIO 3.02 75 Mary Street St Peters NSW 2044
  • 02 9516 5643
  • MONDAY - FRIDAY 10AM-4pm OR BY APPOINTMENT