- Block-printed paper
One of the Saint Louis Art Museum’s social media followers asked whether the Museum’s sample of Walter Crane’s 1889 wallpaper The Peacock Garden contains Scheele’s green, an arsenic-based pigment often found in Victorian wallpaper. The resulting research into the Museum’s example of Crane’s work and arsenic-based pigments revealed some interesting insights.
Born in 1845 in Liverpool, England, Crane pursued a career as a designer and children’s book illustrator. He created wallpaper designs for Jeffrey & Co., one of the leading wallpaper printers in England, starting in 1875.[i] Jeffrey & Co., along with other companies, utilized arsenic-based colors for their products in the early to mid-19th century. However, by the time of The Peacock Garden’s printing in 1889, the general public knew of arsenic’s dangers and sought safer alternatives. Unfortunately, the walls were not the only place arsenic lurked in Victorian homes.
In 19th-century England people considered small doses of arsenic safe and used it for diverse products, from face powder to rat poison. The substance found its way into food, textiles, medicine, and other common goods, so its use in wallpaper was not considered unusual. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented the first arsenic green pigment in 1775.[ii] The brightness and stability of Scheele’s green—along with different variations such as emerald and Vienna green—made them instant successes. Chemists and paint makers introduced arsenic to other colors as well, such as canary yellow, to create vibrant new hues.
Despite its vivid and eye-catching nature, doctors eventually discovered that arsenical wallpaper could kill. The ink often flaked off the paper only to be inhaled by those nearby, while moisture, abrasion, or heat caused the release of toxic vapors. Increasing reports of mysterious illnesses and deaths of small children or even entire families gained the attention of the general public in the mid-19th century. It was not until the late 1860s that doctors connected those maladies with the presence of luminous green paper on the walls.[iii] Public awareness about the dangers Scheele’s green presented, especially for children, made people seek safer wallpaper options.
Literature of the period reflected the growing distrust of wallpaper. In 1892 author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the main character descends into madness because of her wallpaper’s design and sickly color.[iv] William Morris, one of the foremost designers in England, did not believe in arsenic’s toxic effects; he thought doctors invented the scare as a hoax.[v] However, in the 1870s he bowed to public pressure and started producing arsenic-free wallpapers through Jeffrey & Co. In 1879 the company built upon Morris’s work and specifically created a line of washable, hygienic wallpapers advertised as “arsenic free.”[vi] Walter Crane contributed to this group with the nursery design The Sleeping Beauty.
By the time Crane designed The Peacock Garden in 1889, the British government had begun to regulate the use of arsenic in a variety of industries. Other manufacturers followed suit during the last decades of the 19th century until the presence of arsenic pigments in wallpaper became obsolete.
Was the Peacock Garden’s green ink toxic? Documentary evidence suggests that is unlikely, however further analysis is required to make a definitive judgement. The Museum’s panel is currently encased in its own environment in Gallery 122 and is safe to see. In late 2020 it will be taken off view as part of its regular rotation and conservators will use x-ray fluorescence (XRF) to answer this question.
[i] A. V. Sugden and J. L. Edmundson, A History of English Wallpaper, 1509–1914 (London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1925), 171.
[ii] Gregory Herringshaw, “Toxic Beauty,” Cooper Hewitt (blog), February 1, 2015, https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2015/02/01/toxic-beauty/.
[iii] Jan Jennings, “Controlling Passion: The Turn-of-the-Century Wallpaper Dilemma,” Winterthur Portfolio 31, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 255, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1215237.
[iv] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” New England Magazine 11, 5 (January 1892): 647–657.
[v] William Morris, The Collected Letters of William Morris, vol. 2, part B: 1885–1888 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), 463.
[vi] “A Brief History of Wallpaper,” Victoria and Albert Museum, https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/a-brief-history-of-wallpaper.