Sunday, 30 December 2012

'Antique Drapery'

Having started my blog with the 1845 Christmas view of Windsor castle, which showed luxurious blue silk hangings, I will share my thoughts about these 'antique draperies', as they were called in the original accounts. These took the form of a large single curtain, draped around a room, attached and looped from cloak pins (with some kind of gilded rosettes), at the top of the wall, just underneath the cornice. The curtain usually falls all the way down to the floor so that no flat wall is seen anywhere and the hooks are usually 2 or 3 feet apart.  
'Antique drapery' is not the same as a 'Tent' rooms, which are obviouly designed to suggest standing in a real tent, so here not only the walls but also the ceiling is covered in fabric, and the mood is usually less formal.

The room in the 1845 Christmas view was part of a suite decorated in 1828 for lady Conyngham, who was King George IV's mistress at the time and it was her daughter's room. There was one other room with this kind of continous drapery in the castle and this was actually the King's own bedroom, equally hung with blue and gold silk, although the drapery didn't quite go around the entire room and didn't drape over the doors. The long thin panel behind the stool was filled in with mirror glass, and perhaps the proportions of the space in this ancient building prescribed the decorative solutions.

King George IV had a similar scheme in the Throne Room of his London palace, Carlton House, again done in royal blue. Here, the drapery covers the wall behind the throne, which looks more like a sofa,  and also frames the fireplace mirrors and the doors.

So far all these draperies are Royal blue, but Carlton House also had a Crimson Drawing Room where everything was, well, crimson.

The extravagance of Carlton House knew absolutely no bounds. The Crimson Drawing Room had a kind of double valance that run round the entire ceiling cornice with deep gold fringeing, and thick bunched up columns of silk hung not only as dress curtains at the windows, but also on either side of the doors and even beside the fireplace. It is not strictly speaking either 'antique drapery' nor a tent room, but amazing it certainly is. It is one of those historic images which, if you try to imagine a room actually decked out with that amount of fabric today, it would still be both absolutely astonishing and completely over the top. The chandeliers alone were considered among the finest in Europe and the huge pieces of mirror glass between the windows must have cost a fortune at the time.
Beside the crimson satin damask and the endless gold almost everywhere else, there is an interesting black theme running through the room as well, from the black marble fireplace, the black and gold doors through to various sculptural groups on the tables, the candelabras and the rather surprising black braid on the chairs. Amongst all this opulence the carpet was wisely kept a bit plain, although being velvet, it again was the height of luxury. Here is a detail of what must be one of the most sumptious rooms ever created, showing this sea of crimson with the interesting black accents and also how incredibly detailed these interior views could be.

The fashion for draping whole rooms in loose fabric may have started with the 'Turkish' style, which in the 1770s joined the ranks of  the 'exotic' interior styles like Chinese, Indian, Etruscan etc.
Marie Antoinette had a Turkish boudoir at Fontainebleau in 1777 and Turkish tents (permanent structures made out of metal or plaster, imitating fabric) appeared in various influential gardens like Painshill in England and Haga in Sweden.
In the interior there appeared rooms with loose draped fabric and soft 'divans' (a Turkish word), a kind of banquette that had no visible wooden structure and lots of loose cushions. This design of around 1800 may have been for another of King George IV's bedrooms, this time at his Chinese/Indian palace in Brighton.

Although there are 18th century examples, the taste for 'tent' rooms as well as for 'antique drapery' really took off  in the Napoleonic period at the beginning of the 19th century. Firstly, there was the 'Egyptian campaign' led by Napoleon Bonaparte (as French General) between 1798 and 1802, which caused a huge fashion for all sorts of 'campaign' furniture, tent rooms, and lots of loose fabric hung over spears, arrows etc. Secondly, after he became Emperor in 1804, Napoleon took the artistic language of the Roman Empire as his prime decorative inspiration, both for architecture and for interior design. These two influences, the battle/campaign style and architecture of ancient Rome, changed the 'draped look' for ever, giving it a much more masculine character. From the cushioned atmoshpere of an exotic 'harem', it became a manly and rather cold military style, albeit equally theatrical and romantic. Large scale draperies began to suggest power and wealth and were thought suitable for grand public rooms instead of merely for private boudoirs and bedrooms.

Nowehere is this  elegant and extravagant but also rather cold style more obvious than in one of the most famous bedrooms ever created: Empress Josephine's, at Malmaison near Paris. It was designed by Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, who did so much to develop the Empire style for Napoleon and I can just imagine how exciting and fun it must have been. They designed a highly ornate, circular tent, seemingly on some glorious emperial battlefield, that is open to the sky. It's a wonderful conceit with, for once, a painted sky that truly makes sense. Genius, although they never saw it themselves. The room was finished later in the century by Empress Eugenie while the room today is a 20th century restoration of the original design.

But I digress. Although Empress Josephine's bedroom had draperies, it is most definitely a tent room. The origins of 'Antique Drapery', that is loose curtains hung from a series of pegs, were found on Greek and Roman sculpture reliefs like this one:

There was, of course, nothing new about copying Greek and Roman architecture, but still, when a Madame Recamier had her bedroom designed with antique drapery in 1802, she showed herself as ahead of her time with something that was totally new. This room was published amongst images of 'The most beautiful houses in Paris', and seen by a lot of people, including the English architect Robert Smirke who made this watercolour view of it. The bed also survives today, we can be fairly certain that, unlike a lot of Percier and Fontaine designs, the room really looked like this.


This is a little side line. One typical element in both 'tent' and 'draped' rooms of the Empire period, is the theatrical use of mirrors, which may have started with this room for Mme Recamier. The above images seems to indicate mirror glass behind the bed, inside the curtains, suggesting some kind of opening in the wall of fabric, and this became a favourite device in these rooms. I guess that mirror glass began to be available in ever larger single pieces, so draperies could be pulled back to reveal a seemingly larger space. Before, they would have needed window bars etc, which would not have given the same theatrical effect.

Napoleon's own bedroom at Malmaison also shows this combination of continous drapery, parting to reveal a large mirror, which didn't even need a decorative frame as it would have been invisible. This is a redecoration from the 1970s, when the palace opened to the public, based on designs from the period.
The English architect Thomas Hope, who knew Percier and Fontaine well and who pioneered the Empire style in England, also created a draped room, using mirrors to great effect. The continuous drapery, apparently of satin in 'the fiery hue that fingers the clouds just before sunrise', is parted in various places revealing large sheet of mirror glass, causing a pattern of drapery and reflections around the room, which at night must have been extraordinary.
He created this room and others in his house around 1800, opened it all to visitors and published images in 1807.

Another beautiful example of combining drapery with mirror glass, is this tent room in Paris (1811), made for Queen Hortense, who had married Napoleon's brother and had been Queen of Holland for a few years. Another blue and gold room, it shows the use of mirror glass particularly well, as wherever the curtains part, the room is reflected and hardly any solid wall is seen anywhere.

But I digress again. Back to 'Antique Drapery'; this time as it appeared in other countries, following Napoleon's military as well as dynastic successes, as here in 1811, in the Royal Palace in Naples, where he had created a Kingdom for his sister and her husband.

And in Germany it was the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel who championed the Empire style. This room was in one of the Royal palaces in Berlin that he worked on, in 1829. The drapery was of white muslin with embroidered borders, hung from what looks like rossetes made of  bunched up fabric.

So now we're back at the year when George IV had the blue and gold 'antique drapery' created at Windsor Castle; both in Lady Conyngham's daughter's room as well as in his own bedroom, as seen at the top of this post. There are two much later views of the King's bedroom, from 1868, showing the room with two single beds and arranged as something like a shrine to Prince Albert, much mourned by Queen Victoria since 1861. I suppose this room remained in use as the royal bedroom, but that the Queen stopped using it after Albert's death.
The remarkable thing is that by 1868, the blue silk hangings were still in the room, even though they were by then 40 years old. This may be a testimony to both the quality of the original fabrics and of the political stability of England, as so much of continental furnishings of the same period must have been destroyed in all the various European revolutions. And anyway, all that muslin can't have had a very long life either.

It is not surprising that most of the rooms here were created in Royal or even Imperial palaces, where matters of cost and upkeep mattered perhaps less than the splendour that gorgeous silk draperies could offer. The initial cost of the fabrics (not to mention the hand made borders and fringes) and the practical difficulty in keeping it all clean and dust free must have been enormous.


So for those with not quite a royal but still considerable budget, there was wallpaper that imitated fabric hangings. I'm not entirely sure when this started, but I found this French example of 1825, which shows how the paper offered the designer the freedom to design swags, tails and ornamentation much more elaborate than what would have been possible with real fabric.

And then to my joy I saw this very same paper, on a red ground this time, in this view of ca 1829, which shows it beautifully, although it is also clear that it rather dominates the room.

The fashion for actual continuous drapery came to an end around this time, but the taste for white muslin curtains dressed in the Empire style over gilded rosettes, spears etc would continue, particularly on the European continent, for several decades. I suppose for England they were just too summery and thin.


Tent rooms continued to be popular throughout the 19th century and are still being created today, but I'm not so sure about 'antique drapery'. Milicent Rogers' sitting room in 1935 had loose hangings of crimson silk, very similar to the Napoleonic draperies, except for the mirror which was simply placed on the fireplace in front of the fabric.

I guess that the most likely form that decorators would fabric drape a room today is shown in this image of Babe Paley's sitting room, which was decorated by Billy Baldwin in printed cotton around 1950. The fabric is not looped from pins, but it does run continuously round the room and parts for the fireplace and the windows.

Both these last rooms were created in New York, for famous and immensely rich ladies, which I guess shows that this extravagant way to furnish a room continues to attract the Queens of society, just like it did in Empress Josephine's time. 


1. Windsor Castle Interior, Joseph Nash, 1845.
In: For The King's Pleasure, Hugh Roberts, 2001, p.270 
2.  Design for the King's bedroom , Office of Morel and Seddon, c.1826. In: Roberts, p.151
3. The Throne Room at Carlton House, Charles Wilde, c.1816 (detail). in: Roberts, p.158
4 & 5. Carlton House Drawing Room, Charles Wilde , c.1817 (detail).
in: The Royal Interiors of Regency England, David Watkin, 1984.
6. Tented alcove, designed by Crace & Co, c.1800.
in:  English Decoration in the 18th Century, John  Fowler, John  Cornforth,  p.146
in: House Proud,  Gail Davidson, Floramae McCarron-Cates, Charlotte Gere, p.19
7. Bedroom Empress Josephine, Chateau de Malmaison. in: Great Palaces,  Sachaverell Sitwell
8. Greek bas relief.  In: An illustrated History of Interior Decoration,  Mario Praz
9. Mme Recamier's bedchambre, Robert Smirke, 1802. In: Authentic Decor, Peter Thornton, p.188
10. Napoleon's  bedroom, Chateau de Malmaison
In: Architecture Interieure et Decoration en France, Jean Feray, p.328
11. The Flaxman Room, from Hope's 'Household Furniture and Interior Decoration', 1807.
In: English Interiors 1790 - 1848, John Cornforth, p.109
12. Queen Hortense's tented boudoir, Auguste Garneray, 1811. In: Thornton, p.195
13 Room in the Royal Palace, Naples, Montagny, 1811. In: Praz
14.  Princess Augusta's 'Muslin Closet', Berlin 1829. In: Thornton, p.248
15.  Windsor Castle, room 202, William Corden, 1868. In: Roberts, p.161
16.  Wallpaper, France, 1825. In : The  Papered Wall, Hoskins, Wisse
17.  Drawing Room in Nice, ca.1830, unknown artist. In: Thornton, op.256
18 - Sitting Room for Milicent Rogers by McMillen, ca 1930
In: Twentieth Century Decoration, Simon Calloway, p.177
19 -Sitting Room for  Babe Paley by Billy Baldwin, ca 1950
photo from internet


  1. A captivating history of fabric-draped rooms. In 19th century American houses, there was a revival of the fashion for Turkish rooms or areas, which ended with a fad for what were often called cozy corners, which involved Turkish divans, inlaid tables, and tasseled fabric draped on spears. These were so popular that popular poems and songs were written about them.

    This is a fascinating and beautiful new blog, wonderfully researched, and I am looking forward to future installments.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. David Mees, I do believe you were born to blog! This is an amazingly thorough and interesting posting, and I look forward to your future posts. (You might have inspired me to drape a room, but since I live in humid and buggy Florida, it wouldn't be too practical!)

  3. Now that's Covered, wishing your blog much success, I will be reading along-and thoroughly enjoying it. PGT

  4. David, I too share a passion and love for drapery...I will follow your blog with great interest. Thank you for a well crafted piece. Also thank you "The Devoted Classicist" for posting David's Blog on your site--Yes, there will always be room for excellence in the world.

    Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards All...
    Happy New Year!
    Carol Terry

  5. Dear David,
    This is quite exceptional. What a gorgeous, fun post! And very educational too.
    Please continue to share with us your design
    experiences. And a Big Thank you The Devoted Classicist for
    bringing me here.
    I love what Billy Baldwin did to that room. The chandelier is

    Wishing You a Fantastic New Year!

  6. Thank you all so much for these encouraging comments.
    Feels great to start the new year off with a whols bunch of new blogger pals !

    I haven't figured out how to put a 'subcsribe' box on here, but will do so soon.


  7. who knew drapes could be so interesting??

  8. I'm mad about interiors too :)

    Very interesting topic.

    I'm fascinated especially by interiors from the 17th until the 19th century.

    There occured a minor error: The blue Carlton House room is not the throne room, but the anteroom of the throne room.

    This is the throne room:

    Almost all of Schinkel's interiors were destroyed during WW II, but a tent room designed by Schinkel still exists in his Charlottenhof Palace, a Neoclassical villa in the park of Sanssouci in Potsdam.,0c.jpg


    Charlottenhof Palace:


    Alexander Roslin (I'm German, so excuse my clumsy English please).

  9. What a superb post! Packed full of information, beautifully writtem, and gorgeously-illustrated with jaw-dropping images. What one would give to be able to time travel and see Carlton House in all of its magnificence! I look forward to returning to Malmaison when I am in Paris in March. I had been toying with the idea (so much to see and do) until I examined your photographs here and that clinched it!! Thanks, Reggie

  10. Harriet Fulford19 March 2013 at 09:51

    Just fabulous!
    Thank you!