Stencilling in turn of the century Glasgow

Saturday June 11, 2016

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Victorian Glasgow was a great place to be for artists, rich industrialists were in abundance and they were keen to patron the young budding talents, fresh out of the newly opened School of Arts and Design. But, while fine art painting and the Glasgow Boys were always a big favourite, young architects and designers managed to grab their share of the fame. Those wealthy patrons needed temples of abundance to show their success and in the manner previously used by the princes of the Renaissance they made sure to secure the best architects, artisan, craftsmen and artists to complete magnificent mansions in glamorous places such as Parc Circus in the vicinity of the newly landscaped West end Park… only a step away from the Gothic tower of the University of Glasgow.

Glamorous periodical published lavish descriptions of those mansions for all to marvel. The Art Journal, The Baillie, and others compete to get exclusive rights to describes such carved marble fireplace, such stunning wall decoration designed by the young talents such Charles Rennie Mackintosh or George Walton. Business owners like Miss Cranston opened amazingly designed Tea rooms where all could enjoy a high tea in themed rooms adorned by amazing stencilled decoration.

Yes stencilling was at the high of fashion !

Stencilling is the technique of transferring  a pattern through a pre-cut template has been used through the ages by many civilisations for hundred of years to decorate interiors in ancian China, create the most intricate indigo fabric in Japan, produce shop signs in Africa and so on… it is such a flexible process that it has been used for hundred of years by many trades.

But in Art Nouveau Glasgow… stencilling was a unique opportunity for young designers to complete schemes in their own style or the style required by their patrons without having to rely on a printed wall paper designed by people like William Morris. And young designers seized the opportunities offered by this medium to make up grand rooms by their private patrons and fantastic ones for their business ventures.

Period magazines describe the colourful schemes in Miss Cranston’s willow tea rooms, I have in my research times uncovered some more discrete but also very beautiful unique schemes long covered.

Because of course, Victorian followed fashions very avidly and wall treatments however beautiful they were had only a short live. They were painted or papered over very quickly replaced by a more up to date scheme, and its only by accident that nowadays schemes come back to life. They are in great demand by “conservators to be” or new owners of Victorian properties who want to recreate original schemes in their newly bought properties. I have spent the past 16 months re-creating stencilled schemes in a George Walton house from 1903. Those were beautiful designs, unique and partly fresh under the paper and paint but not fresh enough to be revived. 

The Victorian West end of Glasgow is a mine of stencilled sources. It was built just at the right time but they are not all grand. In many occasions it will be a small classical border out of a pattern book applied to a complete building by a painter and decorator. In conversions appartments, new owners might find a more intricate scheme if they have purchased the old grand showy dining room of the house. You never know … the first owner of your property might have had a deep friendship with George Walton or Charles Rennie Mackintosh and he could have had designed for him a very unique set of motifs. Keep an eye opened when you strip off wall paper. Walton at the turn of the century was well known for getting on the steps himself putting an overall on and “having a go” specially when he worked for Miss Cranston on her unique rooms.

The Mitchell library in Glasgow has a great number of sources to be found if you care to search long enough. A number of years I found there a copy of a painters manual from the turn of the century, “Stencilling for Craftsmen” was describing in great details how to produce a stencil plate and coat it in linseed oil to avoid the paint from destroying it. As well as how to mix pigments with medium to achieve the best finishes. You see there is no need to give into the modern Chalk paint or the very expensive small pot of Stencilling paint. Basic materials are the best ! But if you are into reproducing your own stencilled scheme you should take care to get yourself the best brush as even in those days the short hard bristle brush were said to be the best to use.

I have set up The Lansdowne House of Stencils in the West end of Glasgow over 25 years ago with the aim to research and renovate some of those stencilled schemes. Freshly graduate out of a Christie’s Decorative Art course I had the chance to find my way into a few building sites crowded with workmen with hard hats. There I saw quite a few bits of stencilled decorations coming out of the woodwork when the tiles come down or the wood partition. Over the years I have been involved in recreating long gone schemes for exhibitions or historic houses including The House for an Art Lover. 

The excitement I felt the first time I discovered a little piece of stencilling behind a partition has never gone, a bit like a modern time archeologist I hunt the Glasgow West end for discoloured painted figures to record them. And then back in my studio I cut a fresh template made of yellow card, the smell of linseed oil comes out strong and fresh. The tool is ready to be used. The forgotten design has found a second life. I record my schemes and research in my blog

 Periodically I run workshops to pass on the knowledge and share the experience and I am always so excited to see the same enthusiasm in participants who may have just discovered a little bit of a pattern while taking wall paper off inside a long forgotten cupboard.

During the West end Festival i will be running a one day workshop at the Mackintosh Church on the 16 June on using historic stencils to decorate your own home, we will work with Glasgow Art Nouveau patterns. For details and bookings see the West end Festival brochure under “Stencilling Mackintosh".

 Guest blog post by Elisabeth Viguie-Culshaw, The Lansdowne House of Stencils - Glasgow


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