Colourway of 'The Kandos' in Morrison's sample book of wallpaper friezes, volume 3.  Photograph Jessica Mauer. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums
Morrison's built a successful wallpaper manfacturing business in early 20th century Sydney.

Until the 1950s almost all wallpaper used in Australian homes was imported, mostly from England. In fact, Australia supported only a few manufacturers of any type of furnishing or fittings for domestic dwellings. Some companies like Beard Watson (furniture) and Wunderlich (architectural metalwork and building materials) did establish substantial manufacturing plants, and their names remain well known today.  Some people will also recognise well- known names like Metters Ltd for their range of ‘Early Kooka' stoves and others will know of Lysaght's galvanised iron roofing sheets.  However, it was small manufacturers producing for a small local market who were the norm in Australia and few people today will lie aware of names like Buzacott & Co (wrought iron work). Brooks Robinson & Co (stained glass) and the Australian Tesselated Tile Co (tiles), despite their local importance up to World War II.

As for wallpaper, the high cost of establishing a major manufacturing plant for a relatively small market prevented entrepreneurial investment in Australia. In any case the English were extremely cost efficient in their production and export of the product. Only two Australian wallpaper manufacturers are known to have existed before World War II: one was Morrison's and the other Gilkes & Co, both in Sydney. Each established their operations early in the 20th century, encouraged by a growing Australian market and by a change in wallpaper fashion which allowed them to operate on a small scale: the use of wide friezes designed for the upper part of a wall became popular in the first decade of the 20th century and wallpaper borders and paneling remained in style until the 1930s. This fashion allowed 'boutique' makers to operate and survive in a competitive environment. Both Gilkes & Co and Morrison's manufactured their wall hangings by hand in small workshops, using wood blocks and stencils. This required only a small capital outlay and no large machinery or plant.

Advertisement for Morrisons wallpaper
Advertisement for Morrisons wallpaper, published in The Home, March 1922 Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photograph Jamie North.

This article first appeared Autumn 2003.

Morrison's Wallpaper Sample Books

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) acquired four large sample books of wallpaper friezes by Morrison's (c1925) in early 2002.  Sample books such as these provided retailers and their customers with an easy-to-use reference to the range of stock available from a particular maker. The Morrisons sample-books reveal their distinctive antipodean origin through the names of many of the patterns: The Cooma, The Ainlsie, The Wyalong, The Kandos, and The Hartley. The motifs depicted in the friezes do not incorporate any type of Australian flora and fauna into their designs. Instead Australian place names were used to identify products as being Australian made, a practice increasingly used after World War I by companies such as Grace Bros and other local furniture manufacturers- for example, customers could purchase a Marrickville bedroom suite or a Maitland kitchen cabinet. This was part of a rising nationalistic sentiment which led to the establishment in 1924 of the 'Australian-Made Preference League', aimed at increasing the number and range of Australian manufacturers.

According to an advertisement in the Sydney trade journal Building, Morrison's were manufacturing wallpaper as early as 1915. The company had been in existence since at least 1883, founded by Charles Morrison (c 1853-1914), a master painter, who operated a painting and decorating supplies business. On Charles's death the business was passed to his son, Harold. By June 1923 Morrison's wares had become sufficiently well regarded that Lady de Chair, wife of the Governor of New South Wales, visited its Phillip Street wallpaper studios.

Morrison's hand-made papers were labour intensive to produce and consquently more highly priced than mass-produced machine-made wallpapers. Their production presumed a customer base drawn from Sydney's wealthier classes and for a time the company advertised in such society journals as The Home and Art in Australia where the idea of hand-made carried a level of prestige as well as a higher price tag.

'The Uralla' frieze
'The Uralla' frieze sample, Morrisons, Sydney, 1920s. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Historic Houses Trust of NSW. Photographed by Jenni Carter.

Morrison's Wallpaper at Swifts

One of the patterns in the sample books. The Uralla, was recently discovered during renovations of the Gothic-Revival mansion Swifts at Darling Point, Sydney. Swifts was built in the 1880s for Sir Robert Lucas-Tooth. In 1901 the Resch family, who like the Lucas-Tooths had amassed its fortune in the brewing industry, purchased the house. Following the death of Edmund Resch in 1923his son decided to replace Robert Lucas-Tooth's now outdated decoration. It was during this redecoration, shortly after 1923, that Morrison's wallpaper was used at Swifts. In 1963 the house was bequeathed to the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney who occupied the property until it was sold in the 1980s. Morrison's decoration remained unchanged until the late 1990s, at first because the church did not have funds to do any major redecoration, and afterwards because the property had no long-term occupant. By 1997 Swifts was in a poor state, but was purchased by the Moran family who commenced major restoration work under the guidance of architects, Clive Lucas, Stapleton & Partners. During this work a sample of The Uralla frieze was retrieved for the CSL&RC.

Their production presumed a customer base drawn from Sydney's wealthier classes...where the idea of hand-made carried a level of prestige as well as a higher price tag.

  • Swifts, Darling Point, around 1910

    Swifts, Darling Point, around 1910

    Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

  • The library at Swifts, Darling Point

    The library at Swifts, prior to 1997 building words, showing the wallpaper frieze 'The Uralla.'

    Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo Louise Lister.

By the 1930s Morrison's had entered a less favourable business phase. It is possible that the Depression had a major effect on the business, but changing fashions for wall decoration were also undoubtedly an influence, In the 1930s the fashionable classes were rejecting wallpapers in favour of painted and textured walls. Although much of the population continued to use wallpaper, Morrison's main customer base had abandoned them and in 1939 the business was taken over by the Sydney firm, James Sandy Pty Ltd. It was not until the late 1950s that another Australian firm, Australian Handprinted Wallpapers operated by Florence Broadhurst, dared to enter the local wallpaper trade.

About the author

Portrait of man in dark shirt against sandstone wall.

Michael Lech

Curator

Michael Lech is curator of the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC) and online collections at Sydney Living Museums.