‘Phantasmagorias of the Interior’: A French Panoramic Wallpaper in the Home of a New England Lawyer

Vues d’Italie wallpaper installed in the house of James Siena and Katia Santibañez in Otis, MA. All color images of the wallpaper in the house are courtesy of Armin Kunz, New York.

As New York artist James Siena tells it, the small town of Otis in Western Massachusetts (incorporated in 1810) has only ever been distinguished for two things: an early nudist colony, established in 1933, and the house of Squire Lester Filley, a noted lawyer, member of the State Legislature and founder of the local Episcopal church.1 Filley’s eight-room, red-brick residence, built in 1812, was the first grand home in Otis, and in at least one respect its interior decoration was noteworthy.2 As the 1939 WPA guidebook of the area noted, “one room is decorated with scenes from Italy—the Colosseum in Rome, views of the Mediterranean, and the Carnival in Venice—all in full color on an imported paper almost 150 years old.”3 Sixty-five years later, when Siena and his wife, the artist Katia Santibañez, acquired it, Squire Filley’s house was still the grandest in town and its dining room walls still harbored their remarkable Italian fantasy.

By 2004 the wallpaper was water-stained in some places and slightly shredded in others, but the colors retained their vividness and the original scheme appeared to be intact. Though neither artist immediately recognized the paper, Santibañez soon noticed the printed inscription: “Mongin fecit in Rixheim 1818.” It was not difficult to establish that they were now the owners of the Vues d’Italie, a panoramic wallpaper designed by Antoine Pierre Mongin (1761–1827), who, for 20 years, was the chief designer of one of the preeminent manufacturers of such papers, Zuber & Cie, based in Rixheim in the Alsace. It is fortunate that not only was Zuber one of the few firms that allowed artists to sign the wallpapers they designed but that it has also maintained remarkably complete archives.4 From their records we know that the Vues d’Italie, first issued in 1818, was reissued eight times until about 1870, attesting to its popularity.5

Detail of the Vues d’Italie in Otis.

At the end of the 18th century, French manufacturers had begun to produce ambitious panoramic wallcoverings, largely for promotional purposes: in a competitive business they fostered a reputation for exceptional quality, thus supporting sales of the standard repeat-pattern papers that typically made up the bulk of production.6 While the panoramic papers employed the same woodblock techniques already well established in the industry, they incorporated a range of bravura technical and aesthetic effects. The Vues d’Italie is entirely representative in this respect: in its complete form it comprised 20 individual lengths, each made up of joined sheets of handmade paper7 impressed with a series of colossal block prints (often based on published etchings and engravings); together they were designed to encircle a room with continuous, nonrepeating vistas. The manufacture of these papers was a laborious, largely manual operation: each element of the image was composed by superimposing distemper colors, via individually carved blocks, over an initial outline to achieve gradations of tone in the manner of chiaroscuro woodblock printing. The most ambitious panoramic papers, like this one, required several thousand blocks. Further, the ground was carefully brushed on and subtly shaded to enhance the sense of depth and the illusion that the light and air of the outside world had been brought indoors.

Detail of the Vues d’Italie in Otis.

These extravagant wallpapers typically featured classical, biblical or mythological subjects, views of elegant French gardens and towns, landscapes, foreign lands, military and political events, and scenes taken from literature.8 Exported to America, they introduced a carefully calibrated fantasy world into the drawing rooms and dining halls of grandiose plantation houses and presidential mansions as well as into the homes of up-and-coming bourgeois consumers like Squire Filley of Otis.9 For during the 19th century, as Walter Benjamin suggested, the home became increasingly understood as a refuge against the new demands of industrial and business life. “From this derive the phantasmagorias of the interior—which, for the private individual, represents the universe. In the interior, he brings together remote locales and memories of the past. His living room is a box in the theater of the world.”10 The panoramas domesticated the distant. In wallpapers such as Dufour’s Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (1804) and Zuber’s L’Hindoustan (1807) the costumes of the natives often bear more than a touch of theatrical artifice; other papers offered battles sanitized of bloodshed and mythological scenes devoid of all but the mildest erotic overtones or evidence of suffering.

Wallpaper manufacturers certainly seem to have had the measure of their customers: in the Vues d’Italie, well-dressed tourists of a kind with whom the owners might easily identify are seen picnicking around monuments and interacting with picturesque locals. These scenes were designed to transport the proprietors, whether living in a humid villa in the Deep South or a drafty pile in New England, to an Italianate arcadia, but the text that came with them also touted the panorama as a kind of giant postcard “worthy of the depiction of memories of this classic terrain.”11 And indeed, some of Zuber’s wealthier clients might well have seen such monuments at first hand on the Grand Tour.

Panel of the Vues d’Italie in Otis.

The existence of this promotional literature suggests that manufacturers were attuned to the aspirations, interests and prejudices of their clients and wished, above all, to reassure them of the wisdom of their investment in these costly and, frankly, somewhat flashy wallcoverings. Zuber’s rival, the firm of Dufour, went so far as to suggest that its first scenic paper, The Voyages of Captain Cook (1804–6), might create “a community of taste between those who live in a state of civilization and those who are at the outset of the use of their native intelligence” and could even have an educational function: “The mother of a family will give history and geography lessons to a lively little girl. The [several kinds of] vegetation can themselves serve as an introduction to the history of plants.”12

Panel of the Vues d’Italie in Otis.

The demand for French luxury wallpapers in America was boosted by the lifting of import duties on French products after 1787 and by a general Francophilia stemming from a sense of shared republican values. Although a significant wallpaper industry had been established in America by about 1800, especially in New England, and while local craftsmen were able to produce traditional repeat-pattern papers of good quality, fine papers and especially panoramic papers had to be ordered from France.13 So brisk was the export business to America documented in Zuber’s archives that, Catherine Lynn notes, “it is safe to assume that examples of every major scenic wallpaper printed at the Zuber factory were readily available almost as soon as they were introduced in France.”14 The company’s records further reveal that before 1834, when most of the firm’s trade was handled by a New York dealer, the Zuber firm dealt directly with 40 firms and individuals in New York, 13 in Philadelphia, seven in Baltimore, five in New Orleans, and 11 in Boston, in addition to a few each in many other cities in the South and Northeast.15 We do not know where the Filleys purchased their panoramic paper, but it was likely from one of the many Boston dealers who placed notices in local newspapers announcing their wares. Perhaps it was James H. Foster, who advertised in 1817 in the New England Palladium his stock of “RICH PAPER HANGINGS” “in colors and long-strip landscapes,” among them the “Views in Italy,”16 or maybe Josiah Bumstead, who offered in 1821 a selection of “French Paper Hangings” including “Views of distinguished places in Europe, Asia and America.”17 The Zuber records reveal that a set like this would have cost between $20 and $40, equivalent to $15,000–$30,000 today.18 It is astonishing to consider that this sum was spent for the decoration of a single room in the home of a devout provincial lawyer of the early 19th century.19

The hanging of this paper in the Filley house is also indicative of the design’s ingenious adaptability. For while these schemes were ideally intended to be viewed in their entirety as coherent spectacles, the manufacturers typically based the designs on a modular structure: the narrative scenes were punctuated at intervals by generic landscape passages—foliage, trees and rocky areas—that could be added or removed to suit the room’s dimensions and the taste of the owner without disturbing the central theme. However grand the vista, it was always designed to wrap around on itself so that the image could “begin” anywhere. One could even customize the weather: the sky of Zuber’s Vues d’Italie, for example, could be purchased with or without clouds. Perhaps reflective of Yankee sensibilities, the Filleys chose clouds.

Panels of the Vues d’Italie over the mantelpiece in Otis.

This kind of flexibility distinguished these customizable manufactures from the tapestries, frescoes and paintings that had traditionally decorated aristocratic homes. Papers such as the Vues d’Italie could be adapted both vertically and horizontally. Produced in lengths of about 13 vertical feet (each ca. 20 inches wide), with the main printed scenes confined to the lower half and the rest occupied by sky, the papers could be cut down from the top to accommodate lower ceilings without disturbing the narrative.20 In the Otis house, the space between the chair rail and the picture rail is 5 feet 7 inches, suggesting that the paper was cut down by about 7 1/2 feet from the top. The room itself measures 16 feet 4 inches by 15 feet 5 inches and is interrupted by two doors, four windows and a fireplace mantle and chimney. Nineteen of the twenty available lengths were installed; the scene over the mantelpiece was further trimmed, as was common, with ornamental paper borders supplied by the manufacturer.21 Thus a paper that might easily line a palatial entrance hall was made to sit comfortably in this relatively modest room.

And yet, to find an important French panoramic wallpaper in the New England home of a professional man is extraordinarily rare. Though Americans appear to have been drawn to wallpapers of Italian scenes, and the frequent reissuing of Zuber’s Vues d’Italie is testament to its popularity, the paper seems to have had a poor survival rate. Not a single panel appears among the 143 panoramic papers documented by pioneering wallpaper scholar Nancy McClelland in a two-year study conducted in 1924.22 Richard Nylander’s 1986 survey of New England wallpaper addressed panoramic wallpapers only in a brief section and did not refer to the Vues d’Italie,23 although Catherine Lynn mentions that some American examples have been discovered.24 In any case, Lester Filley’s house seems to have escaped attention and has never been noted in the scholarly literature. For a paper to have survived in a home like Filley’s, especially since the early 19th century, appears to be especially unusual25 and may be attributable to the fact that Otis—whose population remains well under 2,000 people—has never been subject to much in the way of development.

Vues d’Italie in Otis, ca. 1900. Courtesy of the Otis Library and Museum, Otis, MA.

The room itself has, of course, undergone changes. A set of photographs from the turn of the century shows it crowded with late-Victorian horror vacui—the wallpaper hung with dour portraits and homely samplers and further undermined by competition from the swirly flourishes of the ornamental rug. At some point earlier, a damaged section over the mantelpiece was covered over with a leftover panel of the Vues showing tourists in front of the Colosseum—the repair demonstrates distinctive Yankee thrift but little regard for spatial or narrative logic. Nonetheless, the provincial American lawyer who installed an imported wallcovering of the most luxurious and fashionable kind in his home at the dawn of the 19th century can hardly be accused of being a tightwad. One can almost picture Squire Filley and his wife, Corintha, in their chilly dining room during the Massachusetts winter, imagining themselves wandering among the monuments in the diaphanous sunlight of the Campagna as they prepare to welcome their drab and faintly disapproving neighbors to view their fancy new wallpaper, the very latest thing from France.

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  1. Filley donated the land for the church next door to his house and also paid more than half its construction costs. Edward and Lois Knight state that the church was completed in 1830; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Otis, Massachusetts (1984), cknight12.tripod.com/stpaulsotisma/pages/history-knight1984-text.html. James Siena, however, notes that a sign on the church dates it to 1827. []
  2. The records show that Lester Filley married Corintha Twining in 1814 and that by 1815 they had a daughter, the first of four children. It is reasonable to assume that Corintha had a role in the acquisition of the wallpaper, which was not issued by Zuber until four years after the marriage. http://ma-vitalrecords.org/MA/Berkshire/Otis/Images/Otis_B027.shtml. []
  3. Federal Writers’ Project of the Work’s Progress Administration for Massachusetts, The Berkshire Hills (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1939), 209–10. The authors also note that “the Cornwall family, occupants of the house for many years, have kept it in a good state of preservation” and that while “The house is not officially open to the public … those interested are usually permitted to go through.” https://archive.org/stream/berkshirehills00fede/berkshirehills00fede_djvu.txt. []
  4. These are now housed in the Musée du Papier Peint in Rixheim. []
  5. Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, Papiers Peints Panoramiques (Paris: Flammarion/Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 2002), 300, no. 62. The version printed in this book, of unknown date, varies in some details from the one in the Filley house, and it seems that differences crept into the design as it was reissued over the years. These alterations probably reflected wear and tear to some of the many individual printing blocks, requiring certain motifs to be replaced or eliminated altogether. According to the Zuber website, the Vues d’Italie is one of the panoramic papers for which the original blocks were destroyed at some point, in this case after the last edition in 1870. The Zuber firm currently offers a somewhat simplified version of the Vues d’Italie using silkscreen printing on a hand-brushed ground. http://www.zuber.fr. []
  6. In 1818, panoramic papers made up only 20 percent of the value of Zuber’s inventory; even in 1840, at the height of the firm’s production of these papers, they only constituted 26 percent of its overall production; Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, Papiers Peints Panoramiques, 73. []
  7. Continuous rolls of machine-made paper were widely available in England, France and America by 1830. Joanna Banham, “The English Response: Mechanization and Design Reform,” in The Papered Wall: History, Pattern, Technique, ed. Lesley Hoskins (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994), 135. []
  8. Among the best-known of these are Zuber’s La Guerre d’Indépendence Américaine of 1852, a variation on the Vues d’Amérique du Nord of 1834, and the firm’s Vues d’Écosse of 1827, loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. []
  9. Dufour’s Les Paysages de Télémaque dans L’Île de Calypso (1818), purchased by Andrew Jackson in 1836, for example, survives in the grand hallway of his home, the Hermitage in Nashville, TN; a set of Dufour’s Vues d’Italie (ca. 1822) was installed in the Gay Mont plantation house in Caroline County, VA, probably a few years after its enlargement in 1819. []
  10. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in The Arcades Project, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 19. []
  11. “dignes de représenter des souvenirs de ce sol classique”; quoted in Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, Papiers Peints Panoramiques, 300. []
  12. Catherine Lynn, Wallpaper in America: From the Seventeenth Century to World War 1 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 202. []
  13. See Richard C. Nylander, “An Ocean Apart: Imports and the Beginning of American Manufacture,” in The Papered Wall: History, Pattern, Technique, ed. Lesley Hoskins (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 114–131. []
  14. Lynn, Wallpaper in America, 214. []
  15. Ibid., 215. []
  16. Joanne Kosuda-Warner, Landscape Wallcoverings, (London/New York: Scala in association with Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2001), 35. []
  17. Nancy McClelland, “Some Famous Scenic Papers and their Owners,” in Historic Wall-Papers: From Their Inception to the Introduction of Machinery (Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott, 1924), 274. []
  18. Lynn, Wallpaper in America, 225. []
  19. https://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/. []
  20. Nouvel-Kammerer, Papiers Peints Panoramiques, 24. []
  21. Surviving photographs of the room dating to ca. 1900 show that an unrelated standard patterned wallpaper had been installed around the dado and just below the ceiling. It was removed by a later owner before Siena and Santibañez purchased the property. []
  22. McClelland, “Some Famous Scenic Papers and their Owners,” chapter 5. []
  23. Richard C. Nylander et al. Wallpaper in New England (Boston: Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1986), 123–5. []
  24. Ibid., 223. []
  25. Lynn, Wallpaper in America, 224. []