‘A Journey into 19th Century Outer Space’: United States Hotel Dining Room Wallpaper

Many visitors to Sovereign Hill will comment on the magnificent wallpaper which decorates the walls of the United States Hotel Dining Room. 

This brilliantly coloured wallpaper, stretching clear from the floor to the ceiling, must have seemed like a window into another world – a bit like ‘outer space’ seems to us today.[

Wallpaper is a decorated paper applied to walls as a surface covering by means of a paste glue.  It could be found in France and England as early as the late 15th century as a cheap alternative to leather hangings, tapestry, or painted cloth.  By the end of the following century it was in fairly widespread use. 

The artwork in the US Hotel Dining Room is called ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ (The Savages of the South Pacific). It is the work of an artist called Jean-Gabriel Charvet, who worked for a French printer called Joseph Dufour, in the early 1800s.  Dufour produced a concept of wallpaper design that set a new direction for decorative interiors.


Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique panels 1-10 of woodblock printed wallpaper designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and manufactured by Joseph Dufour

The ‘decorative wallpaper’ consists of 20 separate panels, each telling its own story about the exotic new lands being discovered by Captain Cook (including Australia) in the South Pacific. When it was first manufactured in 1806, it was the largest panoramic wallpaper of its time and was considered a technical marvel. It became very popular across Europe, and especially in the United States, where Captain Cook’s discoveries in the mysterious South Pacific had captured the imagination of the general public.

This is one of the earliest known panoramic wallpapers.  Its main distinguishing feature is that, unlike other wallpaper, it doesn’t have repeated patterns. It forms a continuous scene, or narrative, enveloping the room with the spectator at the centre – each strip or scene is part of a larger whole. The room-sized printed wall hanging depicts a fantasy of coloured landscapes featuring the people, events and places encountered during the exploration of the Pacific.

In the wallpaper, some of the ideals of the Enlightenment, such as human equality, overcoming ignorance through popular education, and scientific progress were expressed.

Most panoramic wallpapers presented harmonious worlds, so that from the comfort of their sitting or dining room the middle-class families could temporarily forget about the problems outside the door, while admiring the idyllic exotic scene.  As it was on display in their home, it also commented on their taste to friends and visitors. The decoration was also considered a valuable source of information – in fact the wallpaper could be seen as an illustrated encyclopaedia or costume book on a large scale.

The ideas behind the panels

The panels illustrate several scenes from Tahiti, including one that depicts a group of musicians, dancers, and dignitaries, with scenes from the New Hebrides (the island-volcano of Tanna in full and billowing eruption), Tonga (a wrestling contest) and Hawaii (the death of Captain Cook[2]). The general public who purchased the wallpaper ended up with a … generalised and simplified version of what the South Seas looked like.[3]  It was showing a kind of history which presented a particular IDEA, rather than an ‘objective classification of knowledge’.[4]


Les Sauvages on display in the French Departmental Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions. It was originally installed in 1804 when the building was a private chateau

Les Sauvages cannot, therefore, serve as an accurate representation of the reality of the South Pacific in the 18th century, but it can serve as an example of the two binary opposites – the “civilised” identities of its white creators and patrons, and the “savage” identities of the people it represented.

The wallpaper’s style and techniques helped to reinforce the myth of the South Seas as paradise and enforce the identity of ‘noble savage’ as its inhabitants.  It also helped to reinforce the belief that the civilisation found in the various islands of the South Pacific was comfortingly inferior to that of European civilisation.  Along with claims to inferiority however, the South Pacific was also perceived to be an earthly paradise and was associated with an idealised past. 

CONCLUSION

This wallpaper represents prevalent 18th century ideas of the Enlightenment.  As well, it contributed to the idea that the inhabitants of the new lands were admirable, ‘noble’, innocent and in need of civilising.  Armed with this patriarchal world view, European and British migrants journeyed to the exotic South Pacific (including Australia), colonised it, and shaped it according to these ideas.

Displaying this wallpaper at Sovereign Hill allows us to demonstrate not only the wealth and pride of Ballarat, but also the fact that the city could be seen to be placed firmly in a wider tradition of European art and philosophy. 

It is, in fact, true that another later French panoramic wallpaper is now known to have existed in Ballarat[5] – imported in 1870 by mining entrepreneur Robert Serjeant to adorn the drawing room walls of his mansion, Yarrowee Hall, in Darling Street, Sebastopol. 

Drawing Room interior of Yarrowee Hall, Ballarat (Courtesy of Harcourts real estate agency)

The dwelling was built and decorated by Serjeant with wealth gained through gold mining, and the luscious French panoramic wallpaper he imported confirms and validates our exhibition of that earlier 19th century piece, the dramatic Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique.

Written by Dr Jan Croggon, Historian, Sovereign Hill Museums Association

Footnotes

[2] From John Webber’s reconstruction of the scene.

[3] Wall as Mythic Encyclopedie: Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique & Enlightenment Articulation Identities, Gina Badger, p. 4.cujah.org/past-volumes/volume-iv/volume-iv-essay-10

[4] Ibid.

[5] The heritage-listed house and the wallpaper still exists in Ballarat today.  The property is privately owned. For more information, please consult the Heritage Council Victoria’s report on the property


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