Decorative Methods Used at Kathrineberg

 The plantation house built halfway up a mountain on the island of St. Thomas for Hans Henrik Berg in 1830 was carefully designed to maintain cool conditions. 35 window and door openings in the five main rooms on the first storey, most of them 6 feet wide by 8 feet high, provided excellent cross-draft ventilation. A breezeway passage beneath the hall continues to capture and recycle the nearly constant breezes from the bay to the South and the plateau to the East.

        During their investigations Martin Weaver and Caroline Guay found that most of the interior walls were finished with lime plaster applied directly to masonry surfaces or lath. The framing was formed with 2 1/2" x 3/4" battens or grounds at all extremities to facilitate the securing of stretched textiles that in turn supported papered and distempered finishes in each room.

        Intermediate vertical battens were placed every three or four feet, and an intermediate horizontal batten was placed throughout at about 70" above the floor, so that the stripped walls revealed a variety of rectangular shapes, each consisting of plaster framed by wooden battens. Where there were missing or severely damaged battens, it was specified that they would be replaced with only CCA pressure-treated pitch pine (Pinus rigida), with missing plaster to be replaced with Polyfilla, a methylcellulose filling material.

 The investigators were able to identify first period colours for each room by locating tiny scraps of the original distempered paper beneath subsequent decorations. The scraps of paper were backed by original fabric which was still clinging to the battens. The fabric varies, but at least one type resembles that used for mattress ticking; it is a fairly rough cotton or linen weave with a thin black stripe repeating every 10 millimeters.

        The original decorating method had the immense advantage of permitting the walls to "breathe" so that excess water vapor, whether admitted through the tropical climate or the occasional roof leak, could be carried off right through the wall decoration. It is an ingenious concept, but one that had become thwarted by successive redecorations.

        Many of the openings had become blocked and altered. The interior finishes were sealed by impervious paints, and in some cases were completely entombed in modern sheetrock; these conditions were a direct cause of the recent problems with fungal organisms and bacteria. The conclusion of the investigation was that the house should be restored to its original floor plan, and that the original batten and canvas techniques and materials should be renewed, because they and only they could insure proper ventilation for the walls.

 The batten and canvas techniques used at Kathrineberg are an adaptation of methods that were well established in France[1], England[2] and the United States[3] before 1830. After 1830 these methods were adopted for simple frame structures in Australia[4] and became common in the settlement of the southwest United States in the late 19th and early 20th century[5]. The aptness of the technique for the St. Thomas environment is obvious. Less clear is why there should be so many battens, since the standard method was to tack only at the extremities[6].

        Three theories for the excess battens are: 1) to facilitate the placement of pictures, 2) because the builders wanted to be sure of enough support for the textiles, or, in the case of the current Reception Room, 3) to allow for the installation of symmetrical "panel" decorations within the overall scheme (this formal room has an "inner" series of battens about 4 inches inside the normal ones on each side of the central doors to hall and exterior).

        While the decorating methods used at Kathrineberg were common in the period, this group of techniques is only poorly understood today. The fact that a house was built as late as 1830 with these specific methods in mind, and that that house retains so much original building fabric, is unprecedented, at least in the experience of this writer.

        The methods were extremely versatile, and the plan of work in any particular case depended on the need. Battens could be part of the construction of the room, or they might be applied later. Fabric could be hung as a lining for paper, or for another fabric. Paper could be coloured on the wall with or without an underlayment.

  Although paper could be and often was hung on plank walls, it would usually split after the first seasonal change due to expansion and contraction, and thus a fabric underlayment that would create a "false wall" became common in the better installations. The fabric provided a strong yet flexible support for the paper throughout changing climatic conditions.

        The other major technical consideration was "the damp". As A. J. Downing wrote in 1850, "In some countries - England, for example - papered walls are objectionable, on account of their retaining dampness in a moist climate."[7] The problem of how to hang costly paper hangings on damp walls was one that the nascent paperhangings industry simply had to overcome. Battens and canvas are recommended highly by Arrowsmith, second only to constructing a new lath and plaster wall in front of the damp wall[8].

        It was in England that the idea of obtaining single sheets of cartridge paper "in the white" and then colouring them on the wall gained widespread acceptance as a fine finish, not least because it was a neat way to avoid the wallpaper tax on printed goods[9]. Indeed, the canvass and batten method seems to have been characteristically English.

        There is at least one newspaper ad from an American paperhanger/paperstainer referring to the "...English method..." of putting up paper and while this alone is not proof that he was using battens and canvas, the next phrase may be significant: "...will insure never to come loose from the walls".[10]

The single sheets were called "elephant" after the elephant watermark often found on sheets intended for early paper hangings. In 1800, Lady Heathcote was billed for the following work in her drawing room at Brook Street in London: "- 7 quire of Stamped Elephant paper: £1 5 0. - time hanging compleat for painting: £1 5 0".[11] Her job sounds straightforward but the full technique is spelled out in a private notebook of Thomas Jefferson from 1769. He wrote:

        "Send for cartridge paper to color on for room. It comes in quires each sheet 18 I sq. costs 1/ a quire. 25 quire will give a dble coat to my dining room, so send for 3 reams. Verditer Blue. Prussian blue. Spanish white. Cuttins of white leather to make a size to prevent its rubbing off...rolls to hang paper on, yard wide, 10d sterlg. p. yd.[12]

        The "yard wide" he refers to was the canvas[13], and the stitching together of it was a critical step in the process. At Harewood in 1772, William Reid, an outworker from the Chippendale company, spent time on April 16 "Takeing dimensions of Drawing rooms....", then a few days later "Cutting out Canvass for the two drawing room", then in the period April 27-29 he spent 24 hr. "Prepareing Canvass for the 2 Drawing Rooms", before the actual work of "Canvass & papering the Drawing rooms (36 hr.)" in July. It is noteworthy that the "Prepareing", which must have been the stitching, took so long[14].

        As the scale of the Harewood commission would suggest, climate was not always the driving force behind the use of battens and canvas; an equally compelling reason was fashion. Panelled walls were common in early 18th century Europe and when panelling became not quite so fashionable, lining became necessary prior to applying another decorative finish. Even without the battens, a canvas could be stitched together and installed in a room to support paper or another fabric, for although every room did not have plaster, they almost invariably had wood framing.

Another major reason for the growth of the technique was the wholesale renovation within houses, for example, moving staircases or creating smaller rooms out of larger. A good and well-documented example are several rooms in Temple Newsam in York, where canvas was installed after renovations in order to hang paper on boarded, or partially boarded, walls.[15]

        Thus there was plenty of precedent for the techniques that were used so comprehensively at Kathrineberg. The reasons for the methods in St. Thomas are more technical and expedient than decorative, but that just fits in all the more with life on a remote tropical island.


restoration methods[16]

        To carry out the work a heavy-weight 100% cotton muslin in a 140" width was cut to length and spread out over each wall, top to bottom and corner to corner. Staple guns powered by an electric air compressor were used to drive stainless steel staples into the top center batten of each wall. The material was pulled down and tacked, then aligned using the four mid-points of the tops and sides of the room as references, and stapled in place while pulling tightly and working from the mid-points to the corners. Relief cuts were made at window bays and the material wrapped around the window bay corners and tacked into the center of the framing members alongside the windows, then finished by tacking to the extremities.

        Pure methyl cellulose and a premium wheat starch were mixed separately, then blended 50/50 and fortified with o-PP, a fungicide. This paste was applied to the stapled fabric with bristle brush just before the pasted sheets of paper were installed for a good wet-to-wet union.

 The paper chosen was a continuous machine-made rag paper, neutral in pH and about 150 gsm in weight, with deep texture that simulated early 19th century "cartridge" paper. The 21" wide strips were overlapped about 3/4 inch.

        After an overnight dry, the paper was sized with rabbitskin glue fortified with o-PP. The paint used was a mixture of clay, water, pigments, and chalk[17]. The Munsell colour system was used to match the colours exactly to those found in the investigations. The binder (glue size) was heated slowly in a double-boiler and mixed into the paint just prior to painting the walls with natural bristle brushes.

        Following the painting a half-round painted wood trim 1/2" wide and 3/8" deep was applied to cover all "tacked" areas, including a double course in the corners, following early 19th century European conventions. The finish trim used was the exact size and type as that found in several locations in the building, notably in the Dining Room. The restoration differs only in that while the trim found in the Dining Room was gilded in a silver tone and varnished to imitate gold, it was not possible to judge whether this was the original finish. The colours of the finish trim for each room were therefore matched to the existing traces of colour that were left on the other portions of the woodwork, which were almost invariably a light steel blue. The wooden plank ceilings extant from the original 1830 construction were also originally painted a light steel blue, and these were repainted so in the restoration.

The End