Late Victorian Decorative Techniques by Madeline Hunter
While there are many house museums one can visit, finding one that is almost intact from the time it was decorated and occupied is unusual. Clayton, the Pittsburgh family home of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is such a house. Originally an eleven room building, it was expanded during 1891-92 to what is seen today. After Frick and his family moved to NYC in 1905, the house was maintained and staffed and the family visited off and on. Eventually Helen Clay Frick, his daughter, returned in 1981 to spend the last three years of her life there. She endowed the property so it would be preserved, built an art museum on the site to house her collection, and left the entire property and its contents to the organization that runs it now.
While there is much to learn and admire while touring Clayton, I was fascinated by the various ways ceilings and walls were decorated. For example, in one room the ceiling and frieze on the upper walls was decorated using Lincrusta, a version of which is still available today.
Created by Mr. Walton, who also invented linoleum, Lincrusta is a form of heavily embossed material made out of wood pulp and linseed oil. One might say it is a type of embossed heavy paper. In Victorian times it would be painted to look like either plaster or tool and died leather. I have included a picture of a very elaborate example from one of the other surviving early uses of it. Lincrusta would be tinted various colors, with the embossed or relief design in one or more colors and the background in separate color. You can read about Lincrusta at this site: http://www.historicnewengland.org/publications/historic-new-england-magazine/winter-spring-2005/2005WinterSpringPage10.htm When it was a new product, Lincrusta was expensive. By around 1900 the cost of production had been reduced to where it became available to the working class.
Actual tool and died leather also would be used on the walls, often in elaborately colored designs. I have included a picture of tool and died leather in Clayton’s dining room. The thick border at the top of the walls is all tool and died leather, as is the chairs’ upholstery.
At Clayton you can also see a one of a kind large and elaborate aluminum decoration. Unlike the mas produced tiles that one thinks of as typical for metal ceilings, this design was executed by a designer just for Clayton. It moves freely over the entire ceiling of the parlor, and was painted gold, as can be seen in the illustration.
In some rooms the ceilings and walls had piped plaster decorations. For these the plaster was applied much like one would pipe icing on a cake. The result would be more intricate than regular plaster decoration, and be done freehand, not taken from molds. The lines could be very fine. I am showing two modern examples of piped plaster decoration, since it is having a revival among artisans. The piped plaster at Clayton was very elaborate with the entire ceiling being one big design.
Madeline Hunter is the NYTimes and USAToday bestselling author of twenty-five historical romances. She has won two RITA awards and been a finalist seven times. www.MadelineHunter.com
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