Review: The Backstory of Wallpaper, by Robert M. Kelly

download Y’know the old saying about watching paint dry? I suspect that most people think of wallpaper with the same oh-yawn attitude; I know I did. But then I read Robert Kelly’s “The Backstory of Wallpaper” and was stunned to find that this was a fascinating look at something which was essentially a folk art to begin with, but which became so popular that eventually the British crown was able to levy taxes on wallpaper.

Kelly covers the physical creation of wallpaper which was originally lined with materials such as bamboo or canvas rather than applied directly to the wall. He covers the printing of wallpaper (which cost one printer his head!) the styles, the countries in which it became popular, influences and a good many other wallpaper-related topics, and he does so with fascinating asides that make the story much more than a dry recounting of a decorative process. There is a substantial bibliography and a lot of end notes for anyone who wants to take their reading further.

This is a remarkable piece of work and is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s writing. It might, in fact, be an excellent companion to Bryson’s “At Home.” Kelly’s prose is crisp and clever, always engaging, scholarly, but never dry.. It’s an attractive book, too, filled with black and white illustrations. I’m genuinely pleased to have been offered this book for review, and I hope that Mr. Kelly chooses to do another volume that follows the evolution of wallpaper into the modern world.

Highly recommended.

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