May 5th, 2011

Stenciled Walls!

All it took was one look at the cover of this book  Walls-The Best of Decorative Treatments by Florence De Dampierre to get me to rush to Amazon and click “yes please!” There has been SUCH a long, tortuous drought of new books on decorative painting, it was such a relief to see some renewed interest and the possibility of some new inspiration. I saw the word “stencil” on the cover and imagined a few pages might be focusing on stenciled images.  What I was NOT expecting was a full 48-page chapter contained the most detailed history of stenciling that I’ve ever seen documented in one place, plus eye candy photos galore!


The chapter begins with a rundown of stenciling through the ages, hitting the Paleolithic caves at Lascaux, stenciling in ancient Egypt, Rome, China, and the Middle East, and it just gets better and better from there. I am just sharing some tidbits and highlights here to give you a taste of this delicious volume. So, come with me (and dear Florence) on a brief tour of stencils and stencil art through the ages….


The photo above shows 15th century stenciling on plaster walls from the King’s Room of the Treasurer’s house in Yorkshire, England.Stenciled pattern became an integral part of wall decoration throughout Europe, beginning in the 14th century after being introduced in England in the Middle Ages. Stenciling was used extensively along with handpainted accents and to frame murals in castles and churches throughout England, France, and Italy during this time.

Alas, stenciling has always been prone to getting “a bad rap”, even in the 16th century. Stenciling on walls nearly disappeared for awhile after a trade group, the Painter-Stainers Company of London declared stencils as

“a deceitful work and destructive of creative painting, being a great hinderer of ingenuousness, a cherisher of idleness and laziness in all the said art”.

I respectfully beg to differ….I have heard sentiments along these lines over the years, but have always viewed stenciled as an amazing tool for creativity and artistic expression. And besides, even if they are used just to bang out printed pattern on a wall, the end result is a product of hand crafting and self-expression. So there!


The photo above shows restored stenciling from a former 1780′s  inn and tavern in New England. This quintessential type of stenciled pattern was common throughout colonial America. More economical than wallpaper, it was also “sold” as a more sanitary way to decorate walls; wallpaper at the time could be a breeding ground for bugs and other vermin. Eewwwww. The stenciling was typically done by travelling, itinerant painters who would work in exchange for room and board. They mixed their paint from skimmed milk, lime, oil and whiting (finely ground chalk) and tinted it with pigments taken from their environment. The color red could come from iron filings, brick dust, or berry juice. Yellow came from clay, black from soot, and green could come from the green rust of copper (verdigris). Most of these artists remain nameless. However, the discovery of Moses Eaton’s stencil kit containing 78 stencils in the 1930′s allowed for the match of his hand cut patterns to a large body of remaining stenciled walls throughout New England. It was exactly THIS type of stenciling that drew me in to this artform back in the 80′s during a trip to New England, and I must say that this is looking rather lovely to me all over again!


Rufus Porter was another well-known stencil artist of the time, whose specialty was stencil enhanced fresco murals depicting villages and landscapes. With the help of stencils, Porter could paint a whole room with a fanciful scene in about 5 hours. Not only was this more economical than mass-produced wallpaper of the time, it was also considered to be more stylish and less impersonal. The same could be said of stencils vs. wallpaper today-and I just said it!


After falling out of favor yet again, stenciling made a somewhat brief comeback in the United States during the Victorian era of the late 1800′s, with an emphasis on “elaborate”. None other than Louis Comfort Tiffany (yes, the lamps!) designed stencils for Mark Twain’s New England home and for his own mansion on Long Island, where he filled his walls with stenciled canvases filled with Islamic, Indian, and Mediterranean motifs. Another artist of the time, Frederic Edwin Church, also shared a love of “Orientalism”, and the beauty and abilities of stenciled pattern after traveling through the Middle East and Europe. A well-known fine artist of The Hudson River School of Painters, Church filled the walls and surfaces of HIS Hudson River mansion, Olana (which one can VISIT today!) with gorgeous color combinations and arabesque motifs.




There are also many rich examples of stenciling throughout Mexico, and most prominently in the town of San Miquel de Allende. Stencil patterns in Mexico represent a blend of native indian, conquering Spanish, and even 19th century french design-all of which are on gorgeous display in the three photos above.


Moving on to more contemporary applications, there are some very well-known designers who appreciate the beauty, flexibility, and artistry that stenciled patterns can add to an interior design scheme. Sometime they are used as subtle accents, and sometimes they MAKE the statement, as is the case of this Moroccan stenciled pattern as used by designer Martyn Lawrence-Bullard in a Los Angeles dining room. I shared some more of Mr. Lawrence-Bullard’s work recently in this blog post. He certainly DOES have an elegant way with stencils.


And lastly, and speaking of elegant, this has to be one of my favorite stencil applications ever: gilded wall and ceiling stenciling by Joseph Shoskovitch in the New York City apartment of fashion designer Mary McFadden. This aesthetic is a true reflection of the designer’s tastes and creations, which pull heavily from ancient civilizations and exotic locations.

If you are miraculously NOT yet convinced that you NEED this book, check out this post on Katiedid which give a great overview on all the contents of the book. You see, it wasn’t ALL about stenciling; there are sections on the history of mural, wood panels, and wallpaper as well!

4 Responses to “Stenciled Walls!”

  1. Regina Says:

    Isn’t that cover magnificent? I love, love, love this book. I thought of you when I saw the Stencil section — what a great post you’ve put together! Thoroughly enjoyed your “tour” — and what were those Painter-Stainers thinking?!?

  2. petra voegtle Says:

    Dear Melanie, what a great blog post. It must have taken you a lot of time to put this all together so thoroughly. It was a great pleasure to read this.
    Warm regards,

  3. Cat Says:

    I am so glad I could turn you on to this book. I knew you would go crazy..

  4. Melanie Says:

    It’s a must have for sure! :)