Conservation of Lincrusta-Walton wall coverings at the Nickerson House

Lincrusta-Walton was a popular 19th-century wall covering created by Englishman Frederick Walton, the inventor of linoleum. This heavily textured wall covering was first patented in 1877 in Britain where it was manufactured to simulate materials such as pressed plaster relief, tooled leather, and carved wood. Lincrusta was first introduced to the U.S. market in 1879, the year construction began on the Nickerson House. The wall covering was used in the decorative schemes of the Dining Room and the Smoking Room of the Nickerson residence. Despite having survived in remarkable condition, the Lincrusta-Walton wall covering in the Nickerson House required extensive conservation work. In 2006, Parma Conservation, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in the conservation of paintings, frescoes, and murals, was engaged to work on the Lincrusta of the Nickerson House.

Advertisement for Lincrusta-Walton, Fr. Beck and Co., New York, c. 1882. Lincrusta-Walton was made from a mixture of oxidized linseed oil and wood pulp that was machine-pressed and embossed with a relief pattern, and then backed with canvas. The process was in many ways similar to Frederick Walton’s linoleum. In accordance with Walton’s patent, Frederick Beck and Company of New York began manufacturing Lincrusta-Walton for the American wallpaper trade in 1882.

Lincrusta-Walton was used in the decorative schemes of the Dining Room and the Smoking Room of the Nickerson residence. In both cases the material was originally applied to the walls in a colorless state before being oil-painted by master artisans to simulate Spanish embossed leather. In the Dining Room, above the lavishly carved wainscoting, the Lincrusta wall fill features a Renaissance-inspired design of embossed flowers and scrolling leaves highlighted in gold against a burgundy ground.

The Japanesque design of the Lincrusta used in the upper frieze of the Smoking Room features a dense pattern of embossed chrysanthemums in red, embellished with black and gold.

Despite having survived in remarkable condition, the Lincrusta-Walton of the Nickerson House required extensive conservation work. Over the decades the Nickerson Lincrusta had become increasingly brittle, and a century’s worth of grime, silt, and nicotine staining had accumulated over its surface. Conservators from Parma Conservation approached the Lincrusta as they would treat an oil painting that has darkened and discolored with age. This photograph shows an area of the Lincrusta wall fill on the south wall of the Dining Room prior to treatment.

The Lincrusta frieze of the Smoking Room prior to treatment.

While Lincrusta was originally fabricated to mimic a variety of decorative materials it is a far more delicate material than any of those it was meant to replicate. In many ways Lincrusta is more like papier-mâché or handmade paper than wood or leather. The material’s brittle state had led to numerous losses throughout. This photograph shows an area of damage on the west wall of the Dining Room.

Additional damage had been caused by previous owners of the house. During the Nickerson period, a series of framed paintings were hung over the Lincrusta of the Dining Room (seen in this photograph c. 1883 to the left and right of the mantel).

During the Fisher period a range of game animals and trophies also damaged the delicate wall covering. This photograph c. 1901 shows a substantial fish mounted to the right of the doorway.

Analysis of the Lincrusta revealed that a microscopic particulate had accumulated on its surface. The particulate was composed of particles measuring less than one micron in diameter. At this molecular level, the dirt actually forms hydrogen bonds with the metal salts present upon the painted surface of the Lincrusta. In effect, no amount of mechanical action or soap can clean away dirt that has bonded in this way. This photograph shows an area of the Smoking Room Lincrusta during cleaning. The bright square seen to the right in this photograph shows an area of Lincrusta after the grime has been removed.