The decorating scene in late 19th-century Melbourne was extremely busy, especially at the height of the land boom, when many of the city's mansions and major public buildings were being constructed. Directories for 1885 list 441 entries for persons in various branches of the industry. At this time in Britain, Scotland was leading the way in design and many of the decorators who emigrated to Australia in the 1870s and 1880s had trained with the best firms in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and subsequently rose to local prominence. Many Melbourne decorators belonged to the Master Decorators' and Painters' Association. Several rose to the position of president, while some have remained shadowy figures. Of the firms operating in Melbourne, the Paterson Brothers (Charles, James, Hugh and to a degree John Ford) and the Sydney-based Lyon, Cottier & Wells were foremost, and were recognised as Australia's leading firms of artistic decorators.
In addition to signwriting and painting, there were three principal categories of decorating work. At the bottom was the straight decorator, with many starting out at this level. During the mid-1880s a new class of 'artistic decorator' emerged. The firm of Mouncey (Government House Drawing Room) & Beeler (1888 scheme for the Royal Exhibition Building) was one of the first to establish itself professionally under this category in 1885. The top of the scale, to which few rose, was that of 'artist'. Hugh Paterson (Villa Alba, Kew - Paterson Brothers) included himself in this category in 1887, along with his brother John Ford, a plein-air artist, whose name ranked alongside such other luminaries as Louis Buvelot and John Mather (Loreto Mandeville Hall, Toorak), who also undertook both fine art and interior decorating commissions.
Fashions and styles changed rapidly and ranged from the Renaissance, through the Gothic, Moorish, Chinese, Roman, Italian (Tara, Camberwell - Robert Reid) to the new Aestheticism and on to Art Nouveau. Variety and novelty were essential to stay in business and decorators had to keep abreast of a wide variety of styles and create their own new designs and details in differing idioms, in addition to organising the contract work. Marbling, woodgraining (Wardlow, Parkville; Windsor Hotel, Collins Street), gilding, trompe l'oeil (Villa Alba and 1901 scheme Royal Exhibition Building - John Ross Anderson; Fitzroy Town Hall - also Anderson), flower, bird and landscape painting (Villa Alba), allegorical figures (Royal Exhibition Building, 1880 scheme - John Mather and 1901 scheme - Anderson; Parliament House Library - Charles Paterson) and portraiture, stencilling (Windsor Hotel) and hand painting (Royal Exhibition Building Dome, 1901 scheme) were variously combined to create stunning new effects.
Domestic decoration frequently employed highly patterned, flock or embossed wallpapers, velvets and silks, many of considerable richness (Labassa, Caulfield; Mandeville Hall - Gillows & Mather) or Japanese leather and Tynecastle tapestry (Verdon Chambers, ANZ Bank, Collins Street - Lyon, Cottier & Wells). Rooms were further embellished with elaborate painted decoration of architectural details according to a hierarchy of importance of the individual rooms (Stonnington, Toorak - Lyon, Cottier & Wells; Kamesburgh, Brighton - Paterson Brothers; Rupertswood, Sunbury - Schemmel & Shilton). Every surface was in some way decorated to provide a rich and eclectic composition of colour, pattern and texture.
Public buildings tended to have painted decoration which highlighted the architectural features (Government House Ballroom - Paterson Brothers; ANZ Bank Chamber; CBC Bank Chamber, 333 Collins St) as did churches, which also included religious motifs (Sanctuary, St Mary's, East St Kilda - Anderson).
In addition to the decorators, furnishing and decorating firms such as Gillows (London), Rocke's, Cullis Hill (Herr Brettschneider, Herr Vandebrandt & Sig. Rizzi), Wallachs, the Kalizoic Co. and Whitelaw & Blair also offered decorating services. On occasion scene painters also undertook interior decorating commissions, such as Phil Goatcher, John Little and George Gordon (Princess Theatre). Associated with the artistic decorators were also a number of artists who undertook architectural muralwork, including Nerli, Louiero, George Dancey and Gordon Coutts. Other decorators who worked in Melbourne included Monkhouse (Alexandra Theatre).