Decorated initial T

he well-known Victorian wallpaper and ceramics firm of W. B. Simpson & Sons had its beginnings in 1833 as W. B. and F. Simpson, "house painters," at 456 West Strand. In 1834, W. B. Simpson (1798-1882) moved part of the operation to 84, Newman Street, but kept the premises in the Strand under his own name. In the earlier years, the firm was best known for wallpaper. Not long after the move to Newman Street, according to a 1920s' history of wallpaper by Alan Sugden and John Edmonson, Simpson

commenced paper-staining, and in the “Journal of Design and Manufacture" for 1849, a sample is shown of “Cheap English paper-hangings, cylinder printed by steam” said to have emanated from the firm. The design [shown on the right below] is a five-colour, and the pin background roller is beautifully fine. In the same volume are two imported papers sold by the firm (probably by Zuber & Co.), printed partly with engraved rollers, and a wallpaper expressly designed by R. Redgrave, A.R.A., as a picture background, a three-colour treatment of the red-berried briony, printed by blocks, and manufactured by Simpson’s. [Sugden and Edmonson 229]

Sample of Simpson's wallpaper, Plate 88
in Sugden and Edmonson (np)

After showing this sample, Sugden and Edmonson explain how it was produced. The five colours of the paper were "apparently crudely blocked in on a machine-printed ombré background in dark sepia on white" (following p. 158). In other words, the paper had undergone two processes, first passing through an engraved roller for the "'pin' ground," then having the floral pattern "blocked in." This latter process could also be carried out in a less crude, more sophisticated way by employing the kind of surface roller used in calico printing (see Sugden and Edmonson 144).

This account continues by outlining the company's success in the early Victorian period:

At the Exhibition of the Society of Arts in 1849, W. B. Simpson displayed some examples of "Kalsomine" wallpaper-hangings. These attracted the notice of Prince Albert and led to a commission to decorate four of the rooms in the new part of Buckingham Palace. He received the "Gold Iris" Medal of the Society on this occasion. At the 1851 Exhibition the firm displayed some patent ‘washable’ papers in pilaster style, but the precise process of manufacture has not been traced, though it was said to be based on a hardening treatment of distemper colours after printing, and it was claimed that permanence to light was also achieved. [Sugden and Edmonson 229]

This was a wonderful time for wallpaper manufacturers: "In 1834, British wallpaper manufacturers recorded an output of 1.2 million pieces; by 1851 they were producing 5.5 million; in 1860, 19 million; and in 1874, 32 million" (Cohen 36). In those first two decades, the firm expanded rapidly, and began to diversify. The details are given in an account by the present-day company, which is still flourishing. First, Simpson's sons William Frederick and Edward Henry Simpson were apprenticed to it in 1852. Then in 1859 Simpson reached an agreement with another company, Maw and Co., manufacturers of floor and wall ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent, to supply their customers in the London area. The two younger Simpsons became partners in the following year (1860), and in 1868, new premises were acquired between the Strand and the Thames, again in addition to the Strand address. At this point it became Wm. Butler Simpson & Sons of 456, West Strand and 100, St Martin's-lane.

The new premises allowed much more space for their workforce. The upper part of the St Martin's Lane works were given over to tile-painting, and opus sectile work for mosaic panels which were becoming hugely popular in churches and in a variety of other settings as well, from hotels and restaurants to theatres and Turkish Baths.

Left: Advert in the unnumbered back pages of Vol. 21 of the Academy Architecture and Architectural Review (1902). Right: Simpson's painted tiles for the roof garden of William Burges's Cardiff Castle.

Wall-paper still provided an important income stream. After all, the nineteenth century was "one of the most exciting periods in wallpaper production, peopled with brilliantly creative designers, architects and interior decorators" (Hawksley 66). Indeed, in 1879,

for the first time, the house is designated "paper-hangings manufacturers" in the Directory. Early in the Eighties’ they brought out a special book from designs by Lewis F. Day, which obtained much favour with many leading architects and decorators, not merely from the originality of the designs, but from the success which attended their use as decorations. [Sugden and Edmonton 229]

Nevertheless, the firm was highly reputed for its other work as well. For example, under the next generation of Simpsons, who took over in the early 1890s, it found a special place in railway history by being commissioned to supply the London Underground, work with which it is involved to this day. As its own account of its history proudly proclaims, it has continued to operate despite ups and downs in the economy and is now based at St Martin's House, Redhill in Surrey. One of its very latest projects has been the glazed ceramic mural along the Olympic Way, Wembley Park Wembley.

Architectural Ceramics


Academy Architecture and Architectural Review. Vol. 21 (1902). Internet Archive. From a copy in the collection of Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 4 March 2023.

Cohen, Deborah. Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. [Review]

Hawksely, Lucinda. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper and Arsenic in the Victorian Home. London: Thames and Hudson, 2016. [Review]

"History of WB Simpson & Sons Ltd." W. B. Simpson & Sons. Web. 4 March 2023.

Sugden, Alan Victor, and John Ludlam Edmonson. A History of English Wallpaper, 1509-1914. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd, 1926. Internet Archive. From a copy in the collection of the Clark Art Institute Library. Web. 4 March 2023.

Created 4 March 2023