Digital Tour – Vivid View: The Art and Science of Paint Analysis

Flocked Wallpaper in Drawing Room, Montpelier

Image of Flocked Wallpaper from Drawing room of Montpelier under normal and UV light

Photos by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation.

Few sites have undergone as transformative a restoration in recent years as Montpelier (1764–1812), the home of James and Dolley Madison. During the investigation of the drawing room, tiny fragments of red-flocked wallpaper were discovered on top of the window architraves, where they had been trapped under later layers of paint. As all of the room’s plaster walls were removed during a twentieth-century redecoration of the room, these fragments provide significant documentation of the history of the room’s wallcovering. Examination of the layers of paint along the edge of the wallpaper fragments dated the flocked wallpaper to the time of the Madison occupancy of the house. The wallpaper’s brilliant red coloring is in keeping with what is known of Dolley Madison’s taste.

On the left is the cross-section of the wallpaper fragment and on the right the same sample viewed with ultraviolet light. Materials and pigments respond to and reflect each light source differently, allowing researchers to better identify the materials and their composition. The red-flocking fibers also create a wonderfully abstract and lively pattern under both reflected visible and ultraviolet light.

Examining the wallpaper fragment at magnified levels and under ultraviolet light reveals the seven distinct layers of materials comprising the image. Reading from the bottom upwards: the starch paste adhesive, the fibrous rag-based paper, a thin layer of red paint, the uneven shellac adhesive, and the bright wool flocking. The red wool fibers are trapped by two later layers of wall paint.  Exposing the sample to ultraviolet light highlights the wool flocking elements, and helps in discerning paper from shellac (which autofluoresces orange) from paint and paste (which autofluoresces white).

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