Interiors: Trompe l’oeil, the art of deception

Posted 12 October 2015 by Richenda Oldham

Richenda Oldham talks about the history behind fashionable faux-effect wallpapers...

As far back as Pompeii (c 70AD), artists have been using a fascinating art form known as trompe l'oeil to amuse their customers. Quite literally, trompe l'oeil means to 'deceive the eye' and it uses lifelike images to form optical illusions, which encourage people to think that the object being viewed is three dimensional - in other words, real.

During the Renaissance, when the use of perspective reached a highly sophisticated level, trompe l'oeil was used to great effect by artists such as Andrea Mantegna and Melozzo da Forli to paint illusionistic ceiling paintings to create the impression of three-dimensional space on otherwise flat surfaces (known as Quadratura). Some of the most outstanding examples use foreshortening techniques to produce domes and even open skies, such as Mantegna's ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua.

On a smaller scale, artists used amusing trompe l'oeil details to startle and challenge the people viewing a painting. Examples such as a fly, which appears to sit on the edge of picture frame or a fake curtain concealing part of a picture, blur the boundary between the subject of a picture and reality. For pure beauty, though, the lifelike paintings of fruits and vegetables from this era, provide us with some of the most fascinating studies of what our ancestors ate.

In the 17th century, Flemish and Dutch painters produced astonishing pieces of trompe l'oeil still-life art (known as quodlibet), which was particularly popular. These focused on everyday objects and through the use of beautifully executed and highly realistic paintings of items such as combs, ribbons, pin cushions, notebooks, jewellery, stationery, scissors and even a deck of playing cards laid out on a table.

Ever since Michelangelo used trompe l'oeil on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this fakery technique has played an important role in architectural detail. Walls, floors, and ceilings have all benefited from painted illusions, which when skilfully executed become an important part of the building itself.

Fake stonework, windows with vistas, doorways, columns, stonework, statues, fountains, ornaments, trees and plants, can all be painted on to flat surfaces. A spectacular example of how the ordinary can be elevated into something extraordinary, is the Italian Chapel, which was built inside two Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war on Orkney during World War Two. The interior of the chapel was transformed by outstanding trompe l'oeil murals featuring columns, angels, sky, arches and stone block work. 

For those of us not blessed with either artistic talent or a hefty budget to commission a trompe l'oeil specialist to transform our homes, the modern world has fortunately given us trompe l'oeil wallpapers. These are now more widely available and consequently are more affordable than they were ten or 15 years ago. In fact, the range is so good that it now offers limitless scope to metamorphose plain interiors into, well, anything you wish.

So for a library, you can create bookshelves packed with tomes…that can never be read…but will look the part. Fancy a Georgian panelled dining room? No problem, there are many fake panelling wallpapers in different colours to choose form. Or are you hankering after something more Baronial, with stone blocks? Again, there are a number of very fine wallpapers depicting stone blocks to which you can add columns and even a fresco or two.

Alternatively, why not opt for something more contemporary in the shape of concrete effect walls. Then if that's too brutal for your taste, how about driftwood planks for a beach hut look? You can even add a fake window with a sea view!

Captions:

1 Create your own reading room with this vintage bookshelf wallpaper, £70 per 250cm (l) x 50cm (w) roll, www.lukuhome.com

2 This stunning wallpaper is designed to mimic the look of vintage painted tiles found in North American warehouses, Brooklyn Tins Wallpaper by Merci, £219 per roll, www.vivalagoon.com

3 The clarity of this wallpaper, which features a photographic snapshot of reclaimed wood cladding is quite exceptional, Scrapwood, £199 per roll, www.theorchardhomeandgifts.com

4 Beautifully lifelike, classic trompe l'oeil stone effect wallpaper, £40 per roll, www.digetexhome.co.uk

5 Sometimes the simplest effects are the best…white panelling wallpaper inspired by Georgian architectural details, £70 per roll, www.housejunkie.co.uk

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