Introduction | Essay | Paintings | Paper | Preventive | Textiles | AICCM conference papers 2008

Paper conservation


Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique
Made in Mâcon: Investigations into the production of wallpaper

detail: 'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]' 1805, Collection of the National Gallery detail: Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]   1805 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

In revolutionary year XIII (September 1804 – September 1805) the French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour produced a concept in wallpaper design that secured the new direction of decorative interiors.1 It was the largest panoramic wallpaper of its time, depicting a fantasy of coloured landscapes featuring the people, events and places encountered during the exploration of the Pacific. The introduction of this papier peint marked the burgeoning of an industry in panoramic wallpapers in France.

Joseph Dufour commissioned the publishing house of Moiroux in Franche Street, Mâcon to issue a prospectus advertising Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique, tableau pour decoration en papier peint. In this were expressed some of the ideals of the Enlightenment such as human equality, overcoming ignorance through popular education, and scientific progress. These sentiments reflected the belief that progress could be achieved through knowledge of the natural world, which could be manipulated by technology to enhance the human sciences and ultimately produce tolerant and secular societies.

Only five complete examples are known to remain in situ, most privately owned, and there are approximately 30 other fragments. The National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales have secured examples of this intriguing and rare wallpaper. National Gallery of Australia conservators have conducted a technical analysis of the materials and skills used to produce Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique; the relationship between the wallpaper industry and textile manufacturing; the significance of Mâcon as the place of origin of this wallpaper and the value of collecting historical data.

Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique was designed for Joseph Dufour et Cie by Jean-Gabriel Charvet, a painter and designer who studied at the École de Dessin in Lyon. In 1773 he travelled to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean on business for his uncle, and during the four years of his stay is known to have produced many studies of exotic native flora and fauna as well as landscapes.2 Charvet’s inspiration for the wallpaper design came from the exciting new discoveries in the Pacific, particularly those made by Captain Cook, and also from his own fascinating encounter with the people and culture of the Caribbean. By 1785, he had established a drawing school of his own in Annonay, a town in the Ardèche, south of Lyon.3 Annonay was a centre for silk processing and had been a papermaking region since the 16th century.

Joseph Dufour, friend and collaborator of Charvet, trained in the wallpaper industry and worked in Lyon which was a centre for both textile and wallpaper industries.44 In 1797 Dufour branched out and established his own business in Mâcon with his brother Pierre, and by 1801 operated under the name Joseph Dufour et Cie.5 It was here, and in this climate of invention and innovation, that he produced Charvet’s design.

detail: 'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]' 1805, Collection of the National Gallery detail: Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]   1805 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
more detail

By 1800 Mâcon had a population of 10,000 and a flourishing Burgundy wine industry.6 The town had a direct link with Lyon, approximately 70 kilometres to the south, via the Saône River. Mâcon had largely survived the disturbances of the French Revolution, possibly due to the fact that it had become the headquarters for supporters of the Revolution. Lyon, however, where the counter-revolutionary movement for a time had a stronghold, was severely hit by the pro-revolutionary forces stationed in and around Mâcon.7

The town of Mâcon was a felicitous place for an enterprising businessman to establish his factory. Dufour was 46 years old and already an experienced member of the wallpaper trade when he produced his great panorama. His exposure to both the wallpaper and the parallel textile industries in Lyon would have given him the technical and business acumen necessary to attempt a project of the magnitude of Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique. In producing wallpaper that required the patronage of a discerning and moneyed market, Dufour would have had to rely on his knowledge of the established trade routes for textiles from Lyon to Paris and America. He then would have been able to capitalise on this to reach the buyers of this extravagant household indulgence. Like a true entrepreneur, he advertised his product by publishing his prospectus before the work had been completed.

The panorama was shown at the Exposition des produits de I’industrie francaise in 1806, in Paris. The Napoleonic regime had encouraged exhibitions of French products, spurred on by the success of English industries. Whether Dufour exhibited the wallpaper as a technical triumph or took the opportunity to promote its sale by anticipating public interest, or both, is not recorded. He did, however, win prizes for later papers he entered in industrial expositions during the early part of the nineteenth century and no doubt attracted new markets because of his success.

Scenic or panoramic wallpapers were referred to as papiers peints-paysages – landscape wallpaper-paintings and tableaux-tentures – paintings as wall-hangings or tapestries. This indecisive terminology led to an ongoing debate as to whether the wallpapers related to the ‘major art’ of painting or to the ‘minor art’ of tapestry. But as the complexity of the painterly quality of the surface attests, there was a legitimate reason to push the debate to a positive conclusion. ‘As the century progressed scenic wallpaper came to be ranked with the major arts. A classification confirmed by the application to it of the word oeuvre in 1851.'8

Examination of the materials and techniques of Les Sauvages de Ia Mer Pacifique held at the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales has confirmed Dufour produced his wallpaper using conventional practices. The complete panorama consists of 20 individually numbered drops or le’s (the number X is still clearly visible in the example held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales). Extending approximately 2.5 metres high and 10.5 metres long, it was the largest work of its type at this time. Either just before or during the time that Dufour was working on Les Sauvages, his arch competitor Jean Zuber produced Vues de Suisse, the first known panoramic wallpaper, at Rixheim, Alsace. It comprised just sixteen drops.

detail: 'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]' 1805, Collection of the National Gallery detail:'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]   1805 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
more detail

Dufour created his wallpaper by woodblock printing, stencilling and hand brushing, techniques common to both the textile and wallpaper trades. Indeed there was a tradition of block-cutters and designers working in both trades. The wallpaper producer Jean-Michel Papillon, for instance, employed the block-cutters who worked for Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf on cotton and tapestry designs.9 Another wallpaper master, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, commissioned designers who worked for Gobelin tapestry factory.10 Charvet was also known to work in the textile and wallpaper trades, producing designs for both.

Our analysis of cross-sections taken at damage sites throughout the wallpaper revealed that a base layer of pale-blue ground covers the paper. This would have been applied by hand, and then evenly brushed to produce a smooth opaque surface for the covering design layers. This finish would also have served to bond the pigment to the paper base. In examining the surface of the work we have concluded that large areas such as cloud masses, grassy banks and the base colours of trees were added with stencils. Broad sweeps of the brush and ridges of pigment at the edge of the design elements may be seen in raking light; both are typical of this method of application.

Engraved woodblocks were used to build up the bulk of the details. This can be detected by the distinctive eggshell texture left by the pressure and release of the block squashing the pigment onto the surface. Each colour required a separate woodblock. In this case, as many as seven blocks were used for the flesh tones of each figure alone and hundreds were used for the complete panorama.11 This modelling technique was already established in the chiaroscuro woodcut and an analogous approach can be seen also in tapestry design. There are many areas of hand brush application, which appear to have been employed to correct printing faults and to join areas that should have been covered by overprinting. These are visible in the foreground and in some figures in the example held at the National Gallery of Australia.

Visual analysis of cross-sections confirmed the complexity of the enterprise. Polarising light microscopy with micro-chemical testing has enabled us to identify the following pigments: a pale blue ground layer of natural chalk and Prussian blue, a pigment often used in house paints, wallpapers and as a direct dye for silk; orange and red colours made from various mixtures including red lead, wet-process vermilion and haematite; the green used is green verditer, a stable copper pigment which replaced verdigris; the blue is made up of Prussian blue, variously mixed with chalk and green verditer; yellow ochre; and the brown tones which include mixtures of ochres, haematite and black.12 Whites are used both alone and in mixtures to give body and covering power. Lead white has been used for highlights on the flesh and costumes.13 The binding medium was also analysed and the results confirmed a traditional animal glue distemper.14

The wallpaper was printed on drops 2.5 metres in length (high) and approximately 540 mm wide – 90 pouces by 20 pouces (1 pouce = 27.07 mm). Each drop is constructed from sheets of handmade paper, which were probably the original standard Grand Raisin size 22 .81 p x 17 p (610 x 459 mm).15

detail: 'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]' 1805, Collection of the National Gallery detail: Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]   1805 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
more detail

There are five and a half sheets per drop, which were pasted together along the top edge before printing. After printing the panels were installed with the left edge overlapping the right, the left edge cleanly trimmed. The ridges of the joins can be observed in raking light. As well, anomalies in registration can be seen frequently along the vertical edges of the drops.

The paper support was also investigated, with fibre samples analysed and confirmed to be linen rag. It was somewhat fortuitous that a small damaged section taken from the under edge of an overlapping panel at the National Gallery of Australia was available for more detailed structural examination. This strip of paper had very little of the original pigment layers remaining, making examination with transmitted light possible. Miraculously in three separate areas watermark fragments were detected. These were recorded using s-radiography and revealed a small bunch of grapes and letters ANNO and NNONA. Analysis of these watermarks suggests the paper moulds were all supplied from the same source. While the bunch of grapes is one of the earliest French marks, also used in Germany and Italy, it seems entirely appropriate on a work coming from a major winemaking district. The marks ANNO and NNONA were both identified as countermarks from a mill in the Annonay region, in a lettering style typical of the Montgolfier mills and probably from the very mill that contributed to the discoveries of flight.16 It was here, in 1783, that the Montgolfier brothers first tested their invention of a hot air balloon. Made from the paper produced at one of the Montgolfier mills, Vidalon le Haut, the invention was an astonishing success, no doubt due in part to the strength of the paper itself.

It is through these incomplete but significant scraps of information that we can build up a story of social and technical history; and yet another facet of exploration and discovery evolves. These two histories reflect an ethos that since the Industrial Revolution has shaped historical perception, one which values works of art for cultural, nostalgic, aesthetic, technical as well as for commercial reasons. It is this connection with the past, through these decorative wallpapers, that we can enter the imaginary living room of a bourgeois family in 19th century France and at the same time marvel at the technical capabilities of designers, papermakers, pigment chemists, woodblock cutters, printers and the vision of industrialists.

These wallpapers have managed to survive removal from the ‘permanence’ of walls to be resold as mobile commodities, resulting in their preservation. With the move from the private space into the public sphere the wallpapers become documents relating to a part of our history. Not only are they a macrocosmic view of the New World from an early 19th century European perspective, but, with scientific analysis, a microcosm of the technologies used to create them. This current investigation, interpretation, reinterpretation and associated documentation reflects the heritage of scientific collection, analysis and classification that educated the new bourgeois audience in the early 19th century.

Our quest to understand the physicality of the wallpapers mirrors the thirst for knowledge that marked the age in which it was produced. As revolutionary France entered the industrial age, the creative skills, intellectual exploration and skilled labour force in the well-positioned town of Mâcon combined to inspire the complete production of this panorama. The collaboration continues.

Susie Bioletti, Ranson Davey and Rose Peel


detail: 'Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]' 1805, Collection of the National Gallery

detail: Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique [The Voyages of Captain Cook]   1805   Collection of the National Gallery of Australia


1 I'an I (year 1) of the Revolutionary calender started on 22 September 1792. The calender was abolished in 1806 (David Bindman, The Shadow of the Guillotine. Britain and the French Revolution, London: British Museum, 1989, p.227).
2 Joseph Dufour (1757–1827) créateur de papiers peints, Mâcon: Musée Municipal des Ursulines, 1982.
3 KG Saur, Allgemeines Kunstler-Lexikon. Die Bildenden Kunstler allerZeiten und Volker, Leipzig: KGSaur, 1998, vol.18, p.288.
4 Ėlisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, ‘L' Atelier de la Charité à Lyon (1780–1815)’, in Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, Papier Peints Panoramiques, Paris: Musée des Arts Décoratifs/Flammarion, 1990, p.322. In the Electoral Roll of 1790 Joseph Dufour is placed in the wallpaper business of Jean-Antoine-Roman Ferrouillat, at LAtelier de la Charité a Lyon.
5Joseph Dufour (1757–1827) créateur de papiers peints, Mâcon: Musee Municipal des ijrsulines, 1982. The 1806 Mâcon census lists Joseph Dufour, wallpaper manufacturer, at rue de la Paroisse, Mâcon. In 1808 he is located in Paris, 10 rue Beauvau, and that same year produces his second panorama, Les portiques d Athènes, in 16 lés.
6 Encyclopaedia Universalis, Paris: Encyclopaedia Universalis, France, S.A.,1985, Thesaurus Index vol.2, p.1814.
7 Ėlisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, 'L'Atelier de la Charité à Lyon (1780–1815)’, in Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, (1990), p.322. The effects of the Revolution were directly felt by Dufour in 1794, when his employer Jean-Antoine-Roman Ferrouillat was imprisoned by the pro-Royalist forces in Lyon. Ferrouillat reappeared in 1796, however his business was liquidated in 1797.
8 Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, ‘Wide Horizons: French Scenic Papers’, in Lesley Hoskins (ed) The Papered Wall: history, pattern, technique, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994, p.98.
9 Odile Nouvel, Wall-papers of France 1800–1850, New York: Rizzoli, 1981, p.10–11
10 EA Entwisle, French Scenic Wallpapers 1800–1860, Leigh-on- sea, UK: E Lewis, 1972, p.13.
11Joseph Dufour (1757–1827) créateur de papiers peints, Mâcon: Musée Municipal des Ursulines, 1982. It is likely that well over a thousand blocks were used. In 1823 Dufour produced Les payasages de Télemaque clans l’tles de Calypso, a wallpaper of 25 le’s, using 2,027 blocks.
12 Prussian blue was discovered in approximately 1704. Barbara H Berrie, ‘Prussian Blue’ in Elizabeth West Fitzhugh (ed), Artists’ Pigments A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics, Volume 3, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1997, p.195.
13 Pigment identification was undertaken by Ranson Davey and Andrea Wise at the National Gallery of Australia.
14 Distemper, aqueous paints made with glue size, casein or albumen binder. Analysis by HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) was undertaken at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, UK.
15The sheets that could be examined were all made on a single face mould.
16Analysis of the ß-radiographs and confirmation of the origins of the paper was undertaken by Peter Bower, Paper History and Analysis, London.