History of Wall decoration

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History of Wall decoration

There is a universal urge for people to decorate their living space in addition to making it functional. This essay will concentrate on the decoration of walls.

Cave painting

Some of the earliest known wall art is found in the Lescaux caves in France. These decorations have been dated to approximately 17,000 years ago. There are over 600 drawings and 500 engravings within the caves that depict the world around the people who created the images. Some of the oldest cave paintings from the Paleolithic era are possibly35,000 years old. These are in Chauvet, France. All of these cave paintings show animals in a detailed and naturalistic way. Human figures are surprisingly absent or if shown they are very simplistically drawn. Some archaeologists surmised that there was a taboo against drawing the human form. In some instances in the caves in France the image is not actually painted on the cave wall. The outline is incised into the stone. In some cases these outlines are then filled in with paint otherwise they are left simply as an engraving or etching on the rock wall. Other examples of cave painting are found throughout France, Spain, England, Bulgaria, Finland, and Russia.

Cave paintings and engravings are found in Africa. These include some at uKhahlamba, South Africa which are about 3000 years old. These depict animals and humans. Cave paintings in Namibia have been dated at 25,000 years old. The Laas Gaa’l caves in Somalia are approximately 5000 years old and show paintings of wild animals and domesticated herds of cows as well as the herders. Another set of caves in Algeria has paintings that are approximately 8000 years old.

The Bhimbetka rock shelters in India have evidence of continuous habitation for nearly 100,000 years. The paintings there have been approximately dated at about 10,000 years old. They depict the lives and times of the people who lived there and include social scenes such as dancing and drinking, childbirth, burials, and local wildlife.

Australia also has cave and rock paintings but given the inorganic materials used to create them carbon dating is difficult and so there is wide variation among experts about the age of these works. They are dated anywhere from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. For the most part Australian cave paintings depict animals in the local area. The paintings on Hook Island made by the Ngaro, a seafaring culture, are an interesting variation in that they are abstract designs and their purpose is not known.

In North America there are many examples of cave wall decoration in the form of incised glifs and stylized depictions as well as natural depictions on cave walls. Most are no more than 2000 years old. And many occurred in caves that were actively mined for minerals by native peoples.

Many of the caves mentioned particularly those in France, do not have signs of ongoing habitation. So the purpose of the cave paintings as a decorative element in living quarters is not supported. Also many of the caves where paintings have been found are difficult to access and so it is known there was considerable effort made to go inside and create the images. Various theories suggest that the paintings purpose was to communicate or record information, or connect to a religious or ceremonial ritual, or a combination of both. It is known that paintings and sculpture found in India at the Ajanta cave complex, decorated in two phases one approximately 2200 years ago and the other about 1500 years ago, were created specifically as Buddhist religious art.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has many fine examples of wall decoration. However, wall art was exclusively for the pharaoh, nobles, religious buildings, and tombs. The walls were used as a surface to visually record important events and information related to religious practices and history. Tombs were often decorated with scenes from everyday life to ensure continuity in the afterlife. The tomb walls were used to show the sequence of events that took place on the journey to the afterlife. Wall decoration served an important purpose and prominence in the religious rituals. The technique generally was to cover the temple, palace, or tomb wall with a thin layer of plaster. This provided a flat surface for the artists to paint. It is important to note that the Egyptian style did not change much over 3000 years and so tradition and continuity were very important.

Ancient Rome

Much of what is known regarding the wall decoration Roman houses comes from the excavations at Pompeii. The wealthier citizens decorated their walls with colored plaster that featured painted scenes. More expensive wall decorations were made of mosaics or sometimes very large painted murals. Typical themes included family portraits, important individuals or events from history, pictures of the gods, and illustrations of myths .

Wall coverings

During the Middle Ages in cold climates there is evidence that fabric was used to cover walls in order to act as insulation and eliminate drafts. The wealthy often used elaborate tapestries on the walls. They served a dual purpose - the tapestries were decorative, providing colorful scenes brighten drab interiors and they were practical acting as insulation. Churches during this time had brightly painted walls and stained-glass windows illustrating figures and stories of the Bible to inform the illiterate public.


Evidence of wallpaper used as a decorative feature on walls in first seen during the Middle Ages. It was usually hand-painted designs made on fabric or paper. Paper was expensive and so this was something reserved for the wealthy. Later on with the use of wood block printing and cheaper production methods, wallpaper was affordable for less affluent segments of society. The printing process with wood blocks consisted of carving many blocks for one design with each containing the detail for a different color on the panel. As with cave paintings, wallpaper themes included scenes from the natural world, life in other lands, historic events and urban or rural landscapes. Unlike cave paintings wallpaper scenes were generally continuous repeating patterns.

By the 1600s flocked wallpaper became very popular. The paper was made to look like more expensive fabric by incorporating a texture. This effect was achieved by using ground-up rags that were spread over the wet varnish on the paper as it was printed so that the flocking stuck to certain parts. This created a soft textural element on the wallpaper. At this time and through the 18th century the wallpaper was attached to the wall with tacks or removable glue. This allowed the paper to be rolled up and taken to the next house when the occupants moved. The wallpaper was not considered a permanent fixture that remained in the house but was regarded like furniture that could be moved around and rearranged easily. Wallpaper did not come on the large rolls that we are familiar with today. Instead it was in much smaller pieces or panels. Decorative borders, a stylistic element, grew up around the desire to cover up scenes and spaces where the main wallpaper pieces did not fit perfectly.

In the 18th century with the evolution of engraving on metal plates or printing design the wallpapers produced had much finer detail than what previously had been created with crude woodblock carving. Another interesting status symbol that came out of wallpaper was that the colors blue and green were quite expensive to make compared to other colors and so these colors became a symbol of status and wealth during that time.

From the 18th to the 19th century wallpaper became a cheaper alternative to other wall surfaces that had been used in the past. People of wealth often used elaborate plaster work, stone such as marble and expensive woods to decorate the walls of their homes. Wallpaper could be printed to look like these materials and thus mimic the styles set by affluent individuals. Some of the architectural features that wallpaper mimicked and are still seen in designs today are columns, chair rails, expensive fabrics, and ceiling medallions.

By the Victorian era printing technology had improved and complex designs could be created on factory machinery. This replaced the work of individual laborers dipping and pressing woodblocks on the rolls of paper to create the design. Manufacturing was far more efficient and throughout that century the price of wallpaper became more affordable. In 1839 machines capable of four color printing and producing 400 rolls of wallpaper a day were in existence. By 1850 these machines did 8 color printing and by 1874 there were machines that would do 20 color printing. Clearly as the machinery improved the designs came more complex and intricate and colorful. In 1888 ready to use wallpaper paste was introduced. Before that time people had to mix up their own glue.

Over the next century wallpaper would go in and out of fashion. The next evolutionary change occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the introduction of vinyl wallpaper. This was an oil based product that was cheap and easy to print. It consisted of an outer layer of vinyl that was then laminated to the paper backing. The vinyl itself enabled right colorful designs that's had a shiny surface and could include some texture. One complaint by consumers was that this product was difficult to remove. This lead to adhesive backed easily removable wallpaper. It could not be reused but was easy to strip off a wall in one piece with a few tugs.

Over the last 200 years wallpaper had become so cheap that it has changed from a portable house fixture to one that is a permanent feature of the wall that remains in the house. Because of the effort involved wall decoration (both wallpaper and paint) are usually only changed sporadically to update and renovate a room.

There are many other variations of wall decoration features including overall paint colors, windows, mirrors, woodwork, paintings, etc. it is clear that looking at the current ideas and assumptions around wall decoration held today are not always the same ideas and assumptions that have occurred throughout history. Clearly the more expensive the decoration is the more the owner wants to be assured of its portability.

What is on the walls serves a variety of functions. These can be as basic as insulation or acting as sound barriers, or creating an aesthetically pleasing surrounding, or more complex in conveying some kind of information, acting to educate, and serving as a religious image or connection.

For the most part to change these decorations the old one must be removed or covered and then something new to replace it. The next evolution will be surfaces that are programmable to instantly gives the user the desired images and decorations on the wall surface.

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