Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
In October 1996, The National Heritage Memorial Fund awarded the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough Cathedral a grant towards the cost of refurbishing the Western Range of Minster Precincts, Peterborough. The refurbishment was also aided by grants from English Heritage and The Peterborough Cathedral Trust. The Western Range consists of the fourteenth-century Becket's Chapel (now a most attractive restaurant), a row of three eighteenth-century houses dating from 1728 which formed the King's School and, between them, a nineteenth-century house built for the headmaster of the school to provide study and administrative accommodation.
When it came to the refurbishment of the houses, it was found that several layers of wallpaper were on the walls of the rooms, basements and stairwells. In one sample 13 layers were counted. The papers in most cases were a thick sandwich of many layers, the first of which was initially pasted on to a hessian support nailed to wooden battens in the various rooms. The papers have now been carefully separated, stabilised and recorded. A description of each of the 60 papers has been made with reference to its estimated age and the processes employed in its printing by wallpaper expert Allan Bruce of Bruce Fine Papers, North Hykeham near Lincoln.
Some of the wallpapers date back to the early eighteenth century and were produced by the oldest method of wallpaper production, block printing. The process is not mechanical and relies on the skill of the individual printer. The blocks are cut in deep relief from a fruit wood, usually pear. A stiff, water based pigment was spread on a piece of felt blanket by the printer's assistant. Using slings and counterbalances the printer lifted the heavy block and placed it, relief side down, on the inked blanket. Once the block had received its coating of ink, it was hoisted into position over the prepared paper and lowered into place. The whole process was repeated along the length of the paper. Progress was slow and painstaking. The blocks were heavy and cumbersome and this gave them limitations in their size. A typical block was 550mm square so about 20 impressions were required for one 10m roll of paper. When the first colour was applied, a further colour was applied using a second block. Block-printed wallpaper is characterised by constant small variations in the printed image and a heavy, almost impasto chalkiness to the print pigment.
The surface print machine is the oldest of the mechanised processes for making wallpaper. It is constructed from a large drum cylinder approximately 1.5m in diameter with 12 print stations around the circumference. The print cylinders are made of a very hard rubber and the area not to be printed is cut away from it leaving the print image proud on the cylinder. The water based ink is tranferred by a woollen blanket which is an endless belt of felt with one end immersed in the tray of ink while the other end is directly in contact with the print cylinder. The blanket rotates like a conveyor belt while excess ink is scraped away before inking the cylinder. The ink is then transferred from the face of the roller directly on to the paper. Because the inks are very thick and water based, the final product has an unmistakable quality.
The print cylinder for gravure printing, the most modern of the printing processes, has a diameter of approximately 160mm. It has a soft copper undercoat that is engraved with the design which is then covered with a hard chrome coating for protection. The cylinder has millions of fine indentations etched into its surface. The depth of each cell determines how much colour is applied to the paper. The shallower the cell, the lighter the colour: the deeper its cut, the more colour is applied. The cylinder is run directly through a full ink tray and the excess ink is scraped off with a very sharp blade. The cylinder is squeezed against a rubber roller with the paper as its sandwich. The ink is then thrown out of the cells on to the paper by the fast rotation of the gravure cylinder. The inks which are solvent based dry very rapidly, the ink being already fixed before the next colour is applied. One of the advantages of gravure printing is that it allows a smooth gradation of tone work with precise reproduction of the original artwork. The final product is very sharp and well defined.
Samples of all these types of wallpaper were found in the Western Range. It has been recorded that the interiors of the three houses had remained remarkably untouched for over 250 years. The houses have now been refurbished as flats. Each house has a ground floor and three upper floors, the topmost of which lies within the roof structure. There are basements below street level which extend below the full extent of each ground floor. The basements are now an inviting and well-stocked cathedral shop.