When most people think of Gothic style, they often imagine gigantic cathedrals with elaborate stained glass windows and grotesque gargoyles, not mid-19th-century wallpapers. However, Gothic style did not disappear after the Middle Ages. It was incorporated into 18th-century design motifs and experienced a resurgence in the Gothic Revival period of the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, Gothic designs were applied to furniture styles, fabric designs, tableware motifs, and wallpaper patterns in England and America.
"I think Gothic Revival wallpapers reflect an inner source of peace and comfort. They create an atmosphere in a room that is traditional and has withstood the test of time," observes John Bucemi, president of Classic Revivals in Boston. "While not much of the original survives today, it was a strong decorative statement that changed decorating styles in Europe and America."
The term Gothic originated in the 16th century, but the style actually grew out of the early medieval Romanesque style and began in France with the building of St. Denis Cathedral in 1140. The hallmarks of the medieval style include flying buttresses that stabilize walls, allowing for more windows; vaulted ceilings; pointed arches; and carved tracery designs.
During the late 18th century in England, Gothic elements were used on garden follies or mock ruins on large estates, and in country house interiors. These motifs, applied without regard to an original meaning or purpose, were sometimes referred to as "Gothick."
By the 19th century, Gothic style was further revived with more attention paid to historical accuracy, as well as moral and religious meanings. Championed by a number of design reformers, including A. W. N. Pugin, who published Gothic Furniture in 1835, Gothic Revival was seen as a Christian style with moral or ethical qualities that also referenced an English medieval past.
As technology improved wallpaper manufacturing in the 1800s, papering became the preferred method of wall decoration. In Gothic Revival interiors, wallpaper provided color and contrast with woodwork, copied forms from original medieval structures, and often incorporated more two-dimensional patterns and stylized natural forms. Pugin designed wallpaper patterns for clients that combined family crests, mottoes, and private symbols into heraldic decorating schemes. The style’s popularity grew after Pugin designed a Gothic Revival decor for the 1850s rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament that included vibrant wallpapers.
By the mid-19th century, copies of medieval patterns were replaced by more geometric medieval design elements combined with botanical forms. English designer Christopher Dresser followed this style in his early wallpaper designs, which he acknowledged were heavily influenced by Pugin’s interpretation of Gothic style. Dresser’s versions used the structural elements of plants as abstract ornament. He flattened botanical forms and abstracted Gothic lily and carnation designs with arches that reflected both architecture and animal skeletal forms.
"A lot of Dresser’s work was derived from Gothic Revival," says Bucemi. "No designer in any era operates in a vacuum, but is influenced by historical styles and social trends."
In the United States, Gothic Revival was at its height as an architectural style in the 1830s. Gothic rustic cottages and villas were featured in books by American architect A.J. Davis and landscape designer and writer A.J. Downing. English romantic novels by authors such as Sir Walter Scott also sparked America’s fascination with medievalism.
With the 1872 publication of Charles Eastlake’s A History of the Gothic Revival, and Gothic Revival’s inclusion in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the style became entrenched in American design lexicon. However, American Gothic-style wallpapers often departed from Pugin’s purist ideals and took a less serious approach. Also, they were not always placed in pure Gothic Revival-style homes, but were introduced into interiors of home styles from several eras.
"There were so many wonderful American Gothic Revival wallpapers," says Joanne Warner, curator of the wallcovering department at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. "While all the tastemakers of the time period were saying how incorrect these Gothic adaptations were, people were buying them and using them throughout the United States."
As the century waned, Gothic Revival wallpapers were replaced by American styles that did not reference England’s history but looked to the nation’s own past observes Warner.
Today there are many high-quality reproductions of Gothic Revival wallpapers in original colors or new tones. "Don’t be afraid of Gothic Revival wallpaper, and don’t be afraid to use its strong colors," advises Bucemi. "Wallpaper is an instant way to transform a room, and when Gothic Revival paper is put in a home setting, it creates a seriousness and warmth."