Issue: CC101
26th August 2020

On the Walls of Balmoral

A rare look at a very special wallpaper

The VRI Cypher wallpaper

Good weather and Scotland aren’t two things we’d usually associate with each other, but in the September of 1848 Queen Victoria was enticed to Balmoral, Aberdeenshire, by the promise of blue skies after enduring a stint of terrible weather in Loch Laggan.

“It is a pretty little Castle, in the old Scotch style… In front are a nice lawn & garden, with a high wooded hill behind, & at the back, there is a wood. The hills rise all around.”

Queen’s Victoria’s journals, 8th September 1848
Balmoral old castle. Source: Flickr Internet Archive Book Images

By 1856 Balmoral had been purchased and the construction of a larger castle, made from local granite, was completed. Following Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria spent increasing amounts of time at Balmoral, up to four months a year.

Fast forwarding two decades and 500 miles south, in 1881 the designer William Morris had a London showroom on Oxford Street, over 50 wallpaper designs in production and a new textiles factory in Merton Abbey Mills. Despite Morris’s desire to provide art for all, his work was sought after by the wealthy and that year he was asked to redecorate St. James’s Palace.

The “St. James’s” wallpaper includes typical Morris features – strong twisting branches and acanthus leaves. With the impressive design repeating across two widths of paper (and 127cm high) it required 68 printing blocks to produce it, far more than the usual 4-10 blocks Morris’s other papers used.

Before…

…and after. Image sources unknown.
Before…
…and after. Image sources unknown.
Image source unknown.

Queen Victoria must have been pleased with the results as in 1887, the Golden Jubilee year, Morris was commissioned to create a wallpaper for Balmoral Castle. Morris’s design was bright and classic. It is comprised of the royal cypher (Victoria Regina Imperatrix) and a Scottish thistle within large lozenges. It was produced in a fine merrino flock, fawn on a white ground. With its formal diaper design, and strong lines of symmetry it is quite unlike Morris’s own style and much more in keeping with the typical wallpapers of the period. Where the Morris signature style shines through is in its simplicity of form and its lack of attempt or desire to depict the pieces realistically.

The VRI wallpaper still adorns Balmoral’s walls today and as a private residence of the Royal Family is rarely photographed inside. A paper reprint of the design in shades of blue can be viewed at the V&A. The flock reprint shown here in the original colourings is from a private collection.

What the flock?

Traditionally printed flock wallpaper is a highly skilled version of potato printing and glitter gluing!

  1. A strong adhesive is used in place of one of the inks.  The wood block is pressed onto a bed of glue.
  2. Traditionally this glue had turpentine in it, which served the useful purpose of repelling moths.
  3. The print block is lowered down onto the wallpaper and pressure is applied to transfer the glue onto the paper.
  4. With the design printed in glue, the paper is laid flat on a canvas bed and the wool fibres are scattered over it.
  5. The canvas is beaten from underneath to create static electricity, resulting in the fibres standing up on end.
  6. The finished paper is hung up to dry, which can take a number of days. Voila!
Wallpaper printing (1963)