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Chris Yeo: wallpaper to die for

Chris Yeo, valuer at Clevedon Salerooms, curator of the Ken Stradling Collection in Bristol and an expert on BBC Antiques Roadshow

Despite their rather dour image, the Victorians loved bright colours. They also had the know-how to create new ones, thanks to the invention of chemical dyes, one of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. Wallpaper manufacturers were quick to catch on to the public’s new-found appetite for colour and soon homes all over the Empire were emblazoned with bold patterns in eye-popping shades. As interior décor goes, this would strike any modern-day minimalist stone dead. But in the Victorian era wallpaper could – and did – kill.

The root of the problem was the colour green – a particularly bilious shade popular at the time, known as ‘Scheele’s Green’. It was named after the Swedish chemist who achieved the distinctive colour by way of a particular ingredient – arsenic. We might recoil in horror, but the average Victorian was perfectly used to having arsenic around the house and would have considered small doses of it perfectly safe. Tiny amounts were used in everything from food colouring to the paint on children’s toys. The problem was Scheele’s Green contained more than a tiny amount.

Following a number of unexplained deaths, an unsettling idea began to spread in certain medical circles: arsenic wallpaper could kill. These concerns were initially swept under the carpet but by the 1870s the secret was out. The country was gripped by a public health panic that reached every level of society. Queen Victoria reportedly had all the green wallpaper torn down in Buckingham Palace after a visiting dignitary became ill. While many joined her in consigning their wallpaper to the dustbin – a few sensed a whiff of hysteria and pronounced the whole thing a hoax. One of them was the most famous wallpaper designer of the time, who also happened to be the son of the owner of the largest arsenic mine in the country. His name was William Morris, and his era-defining designs, with their scrolling foliage and biscuit-cutter birds, were also laced with arsenic.

By the end of the following decade the British government had begun to regulate the use of arsenic in a variety of industries. Morris and other manufacturers followed suit and the presence of arsenic pigments in wallpaper eventually became obsolete.

clevedonsalerooms.com; @chrisyeo_antiques (Instagram)

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