PROPERTY / LIVING HISTORIES: Printing off the Morris blocks: 4 The Edwardian House - Period Crafts - Arthur Sanderson & Son, Hand-printed Wallpapers

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WILLIAM MORRIS, the Arts and Crafts movement's leading light and seminal in the development of decorative arts, issued his first wallpaper designs in the 1860s and his last 30 years later. Today, those same intricate designs, around 55 in all, inspired by natural forms - plants, birds, flowers - are being hand-printed by Sanderson at its mill near Blackburn, using Morris's original blocks and methods little changed from the 19th century.

'The blocks are works of art in themselves,' says Neville Bowers, who supervises the hand-crafting of the papers. 'They were carved from pearwood by a skilled cutter. Some have fine detailing made from strips of thin copper bent to shape and tapped into the design with a hammer. These print outlines - small pins make dots. A complex design would have taken months.' Each of the heavy, flat blocks - most 21 inches square - prints an aspect of a design in a different colour, gradually building up the pattern. 'Fruit', for example, requires 12 blocks; 'Apple' three.

The craftsman printer, his hand firmly spread under an old leather handle, bangs the block's carved underside two or three times on a colour 'blanket' - a wide absorbent wool strip, mechanically moving round and passing through a slim paint tray - to pick up the colour. Guided by marker pins fixed to the block's edge, he carefully positions it on the blank wallpaper lying draped across his padded table. Using a weighted pulley system and a foot pedal, he exerts downward pressure to make a clean print.

It is immensely skilled work. 'The printer has got to get the block down on the paper and lift it up again without it slipping and blurring the design,' says Neville Bowers. 'Different designs require different pressures: 'Daisy' wants a very slight pressure, or the colours squeeze out and make the design larger; 'Vine' needs heavy pressure, or areas of the pattern won't print.'

Each block is stored in its own rack; the atmosphere must be stable. 'Fluctuations between hot and cold or wet and dry would cause them to distort,' says Bowers - and pearwood has a tendency to crack. 'I may have to put some blocks in a tank of water, sometimes overnight. They swell slightly and the cracks join up.'

Colour mixing is another art, carried out by eye alone. The mixer dabs a spot of paint on a paper strip, holds it up to his lips, blows sharply to spread the colour and compares it with the 'matchpiece' - a sample of the design about to be printed, showing original colours and the order in which to print blocks. The colour may need tweaking a couple of times until the match is faithful. Paint consistency is also crucial. Too thick and the block may lift colour from the paper; too thin and the paint will creep.

The paper - heavy, smooth and very matt - arrives at the printer's table with its background colour ('ground') already mechanically applied. 'In the past,' Bowers says, 'one man would flick the colour on and another following behind would smooth it out with a big brush into an even coat.' Hand-blocked wallpaper has a very special quality, he adds. 'Separately building up the colours and design creates a 3D effect; machine-printed papers are flatter. It's the difference between a painting and a photograph.'

Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd, 52 Berners Street, London W1P 3AD (071-636 7800)

(Photograph omitted)