Rare Mural by 19th Century French Master Woodblock Printer Found Adorning Iconic Green Street Building

Published : Thursday, February 23, 2017 | 6:07 AM

A special mural made by renowned 19th century French master woodblock printer Jean Zuber has been discovered adorning the two-story stairwell of one of East Green Street’s iconic New Orleans-style brick buildings and may be worth a small fortune if confirmed to have been printed during the artist’s prime.

The woodblock mural “Scenes of North America” that some speculate was printed as far back as 1843 has gone admired but unrecognized in the historic Cheesewright building for nearly a century and is identical to the Zuber mural famously seen inside the White House — making it an special piece of history and art both locally and globally.

The same Zuber & Cie woodblock print "Scenes of North America" as seen in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House

“We think there’s only two completed sets and one is here in our building,” said Amy Lu, Property Manager of the Cheesewright Building.

Zuber & Cie is a world-renowned French painted wallpaper and fabric company established in 1797 which is still in business today and is said operate the last factory in the world to produce woodblock printed wallpapers and furnishing fabrics, It still uses Zuber’s original woodblocks engraved between 1797 and 1830 to print onto paper, fabric and leather.

In total, over 150,000 woodblocks are stocked in the medieval vaulted cellars of the factory and are listed as historic monument and are part of the French heritage. It is the last factory in the world to use this 18th century technique for its production.

Between 1804 and 1860, Jean Zuber and his successors produced 25 scenes, one of which is the large mural “Scenes of North America” that was installed in the Cheesewright building when it was erected in 1927.

“It is very valuable,” said Kerry Robinson, Manager of the Zuber & Cie New York Showroom, of the Cheeswright building mural.

“They could have one from 1843. It is possible,” said Robinson.

Zuber woodblock murals are comprised of separate panels that are just over twelve feet high and eighteen inches wide. Today, Zuber & Cie will still print “Scenes of North America” from the original woodblocks by custom order for $64,500, according to Robinson.

“We made many editions over 150 years. We still make the exact ‘Scenic’,” said Robinson.

So when was the mural in the Cheesewright in Pasadena building printed? That fact remains unknown, but Robinson said the printing looks authentic based on photos Pasadena Now was able to provide her.

There are no known intact records of the purchase history and manufacture dates of “Scenes of North America,” according to Lu and Robinson, because of the destruction of WW II.

The company’s records of the purchase history and manufacture dates of “Scenes of North America” were destroyed during World War II, according to Lu and Robinson, so the details about the Cheesewright building’s installation are lost.

“People get very confused because it’s made with the original wood blocks that were carved in the 19th century in 1843. It’s being made like the very first one that was ever made in 1843, but we have no true way of knowing if one was made in 1843, 1893 or 1923. We can tell a little bit by the age. You can do age detection of some sort, but after the Second World War in France, the records are very, very slim,” Robinson explained.

Detail from the Pasadena version of Zuber's "Scenes of North America."

The panels of the woodblock wallpaper show an intricate display of classic American landmarks and institutions such as West Point, Niagara Falls, Boston Harbor and the New York Bay.

An identical and complete antique printing was installed in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in 1961, according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website.

There are some major differences in color between the two printings, for instance. The printing in Pasadena shows sepia colored skies, as opposed to bright blue skies that are seen in the White House.

According to Robinson, these differences are normal and does not affect the value, nor the authenticity of the piece.

“It can be from a lot of different factors. One, when they make the sky, it’s a Zuber trait how they make the sky and how they push the paint. It takes four people to make the sky and we can only make forty skies at a time that match,” explained Robinson. “The browning could be from the oxidation, it can be from the sun, it could also because a long time ago a lot of people smoked,” Robinson added.

If woodblock printing is a difficult technique this is due to the intricacy of the designs and richness of their colors, according to Zuber’s website.

Printing only a fragment of the design requires one woodblock per printed color and is why often more than one or two thousand different woodblocks are necessary to print an entire scene.

To be worth a fortune, however, condition is always everything. “It would have to be beyond meticulous condition,” said Robinson.

One small detail in the Zuber mural in Pasadena may be a rarity, according to Robinson.

“We no longer have the clouds in the sky so that would definitely make it more of an antique,” said Robinson about the details of clouds that exist in the Zuber printing in the Cheesewright Building.

The mural in Pasadena has normal wear and tear from being exposed and banged up for nearly a century. These imperfections can be fixed if professionally treated and cared for.

“It can be restored,” said Robinson.

Lu explained that the building owner has been actively researching the mural for over two years now to learn more about it and how to go about getting it properly restored.

“Right now we awe trying to get more awareness from the public because apparently the year old mural has damage. We want to know how to restore and preserve it so in the future the other generations can still appreciate it,” said Lu.

The owner has no plans to sell.

“It may increase the property value, but more importantly it increases the importance of the building,” said Lu. “The whole building is very special. We now think of it as a kind of museum.”