The Stuff that Surrounds You
Imagine you’re a very wealthy North American in the mid-1800s. You’ve just returned from the Grand Tour and you’d like a reminder of your trip. You could plump for a couple of Canalettos as a souvenir of Venice, but wouldn’t it be better to turn a whole room into a memento? What you need is a ‘scenic’: a wallpaper elaborately block-printed to depict an entire panoramic landscape in extraordinary detail.
The first scenic, or papier peint panoramique, was a 360-degree view of Edinburgh painted in 1787 by Irish artist Robert Barker. But by the early 19th century, when no armchair tourist could bear to live without one, scenics were being made to order by the finest French printers for customers throughout Europe and the Americas.
Views of Italy, for example, was a popular scenic first sold in the 1820s and is now part of the ‘Rooms with a View: Landscape and Wall-paper’ exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York (http://www.si.edu/ndm). Its whistle-stop Italian tour takes in picturesque fields, ancient ruins, ports, a waterfall and Vesuvius erupting in the Bay of Naples.
Even a lava-vomiting volcano pales beside El Dorado, an 1849 scenic depicting imaginary vistas of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. It took two years for three illustrators - Eugène Ehrmann, Georges Zipélius and Joseph Fuchs - to design it and for Zuber et Cie to print it. The result comprises 24 panels slipping seamlessly from a European lake to an Asian pagoda, Egyptian ruins and a Mexican mountain. If you too want to be an armchair tourist, El Dorado is still in print today.
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