Wall panelling, wainscoting and wall coverings...

The majority of older homes in England are vernacular structures, built without the guidance of an architect, by builders using the local materials available to them, pooling a variety of designs from a specific period to create locally distinctive architecture. 

Unsurprisingly the Lake District is no exception, with the materials of choice being slate and stone, as well as other locally abundantly available building materials, including timber, clay and straw.

The main easily accessible and cheap building material in use across England was wood, which even in the Lake District was readily available with the region previously having been heavily forested. A fact that can be seen in numerous half-timbered and clay dabbin buildings found in places such as Hawkshead, Kendal, Ratten Row, and Carlisle, where internally beams and crucks can be readily observed.

Until the 17th century it is thought the vast majority of buildings, other than the most illustrious in Cumbria were nearly all crudely made with a thatch of turf room, supported by a cruck frame between low walls of clay and rubble.

This all changed with the advent of large-scale stone quarrying in the late 18th and 19th centuries, which meant an abundance of quarry waste became available for building, which saw the introduction of walls made of stone and rooves of slate and the fashionable reintroduction of brick.

But all is not as it seems, due to the fact that even in Cumbria there was a significant architectural north south divide and that came about because the north was constantly raided. Until 1092 Cumbria was part of Scotland, at this point the border moved from south of Kendal to the north of Carlisle.

As a result the area was fought over for the next six centuries often with disastrous consequences for the region’s vernacular buildings, particularly to the north with many being burnt to the ground or pulled down. The surviving buildings from this period are defensive structures, largely belonging to the wealthy with the bastle house or the tower house becoming the structure of choice. Poorer residents simply rebuilt their homes in whatever cheap or free materials were to hand.

To the south non defensive houses were the norm, with significant architectural features being incorporated into the overall design from the 14th century for the gentry and for yeoman farmers and statesman by the end of the 16th century due to the success of the cloth and woollen industries.

Oak panels

Those features included the introduction of oak panelling which was first introduced into English homes in the late 15th century. Its primary function was provide a little insulation from the cold and to radiate heat around a room from the open fire it contained. As time and building techniques progressed panelling became a fashionable solution too. Moulding designs became increasingly intricate and elaborate but as with all interior trends, the technique eventually fell out of fashion by the mid-18th century, fabric wall coverings and hand printed wallpaper taking over.

The Tudor period can be seen as a turning point in British domestic architecture, principally in the aftermath of the development of the printing press by William Caxton in 1477 and the discovery of the new world, which led to a rapid increase in access to knowledge and the distribution of wealth across new sectors of society, particularly the burgeoning merchant class. These two things combined helped spread Italian Renaissance ideas into England. 

Because of the wider distribution of wealth throughout English society the number of country estates and manor houses increased dramatically, not just built by the noble classes but also by rich merchants. Homes became statement pieces; they became more about comfort than fortification.

Renaissance influences inspired by the musings of the key architects of the time Palladio, Brunelleschi, and Alberti. Their intention was that houses were to be ordered symmetrical and mathematical in their design, following recently rediscovered classical form and symmetry.

Major decorative features of the Renaissance were found in richly carved wooden features, often in staircases, coffered ceilings and cornices. Recessed wood panels were also a feature engraved with motifs and elegant patterns making use of a variety of contrasting woods to craft variety and a point of difference using oak, ebony, walnut and cypress to execute work with an abundance of detail.

Influenced by this new fashion English homes by contrast featured panelling made up of thin oak boards fitted into grooves in solid timber uprights and cross members, with many being carved with decorative patterns. This direct influence from Italy was short lived. By the time of Elizabeth I’s accession, the change of religion and lack of employment under Edward VI or Mary saw Italian craftsmen disappear from these shores and in their stead came crafts people from Germany and Holland who espoused much more restrained and functional forms.

Eminent English oak wall panelling designers Robert Huntingdon Smithson, Thomas Holt and John Thorpe, who are frequently associated with grander Elizabethan and Jacobean houses encouraged the introduction of highly elevated and considered symmetrical oak panel designs, together with the creation of ornate gateways, balustrades and even rain-water heads.

By the 16th century ornamentation standards had been established with the introduction of further ornately crafted panelling to walls, fireplaces, ceilings and staircases. Linenfold gave way to plain panelling in a variety of rectangular shapes, surrounded by mouldings mitred at the angles.

On occasion when a touch of grandeur was desired, intricate carved panels, pilasters and friezes and strapwork ornament were added, and if a statement needed to be made inlaid woods of different colours were also used, a common feature of intricate French panelling.

By the 18th century, a new panelling style came into being, wainscoting as it became known. Oak wainscot panelling characteristically only covers the lower section of a wall, leaving a dado above it, rather than running floor to ceiling as it did in earlier times. It has another advantage too in that it particularly lends itself well to darker, smaller rooms, where full walled panelling would be too oppressive.

Wainscoting further evolved over time, with the Victorians further embellishing the designs of their predecessors, introducing geometric patterns  and stripes, alongside wall mouldings and highly decorative ceilings.

The Arts & Crafts movement saw the introduction of the high wainscot, with the most common design being a vertical board-and-batten. Intentionally straightforward and economical to create using readily available timber such as oak often finished with shellac.

Today modern materials are frequently used to recreate a variety of panelling forms but if you really want to go the extra mile and create an authentic period home, please do get in touch to talk through your requirements and we will do our best to supply authentic period panelling from our extensive list of sources to help you craft the perfect interior in keeping with your home. 

To view our latest stock visit: https://yewtreebarn.co.uk/collections/wrs

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