On a roll: wallpaper from great Irish houses

Fragments of wallpaper from great Irish houses have been used to revive a vanishing art

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

‘This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” declaimed Oscar Wilde not long before he expired in a cheap Paris hotel. Often mangled in the retelling, his quip has helped to condemn what was once an acclaimed element of domestic decoration, banishing it to back bedrooms, exiling it to drawers and cupboards, the last curling rolls growing browner and shabbier as today’s decorators rush to cover every surface in a tastefully understated flourish of Farrow & Ball paint.

It has taken another Irishman, David Skinner, to champion what risked becoming a lost art here. In the early 1990s, Skinner established his own business, initially in Co Kildare, more recently in Leitrim, which ever since has restored, preserved and produced wallpapers of outstanding quality. A Skinner paper is a lust-worthy marvel, demonstrating the insufficiently appreciated qualities of this medium and, just as importantly, displaying an informed historic awareness. Now he has brought that knowledge to book, with a sumptuous volume devoted to exploring two centuries of Irish wallpaper. The result will have people get excited about wallpaper again.

It used to be thus. “Tuesday went to Dublin on business,” wrote the indefatigable Mrs Delany in June 1750, going on to elaborate that the business in question involved travelling “first to a place called World’s End where I spent an hour and a half in choosing out a set of earthen-ware for the Duchess of Portland ... then bespoke the paper for hanging my rooms; bought the blue and white linen for my bed; and had just time to dress before dinner.”

This account tells us several things, not least that by the mid-18th century arbiters of taste such as Mary Delany were choosing decorative papers as their wall covering of choice, even if the selection of same scarcely left them time to change for dinner. Furthermore by the same period the number of manufacturers and retailers of paper in Dublin was in the ascendant, always a sign of supply rushing to meet demand.

Twenty years later Lady Arbella Denny, another leader of what Georgette Heyer used to categorise as the bon ton, was advising her niece: “A great many people of the first fashion have the paper in their rooms no lower than the surbase [dado rail]. Others paper them below it, so ’tis a matter quite of fancy. I do think that the latter is the prettiest and makes the room look finished.”

One of the very many pleasures of Skinner’s book is seeing precisely what Lady Arbella meant, since he not only features photographs of extant papers but also examines paintings, newspapers and other contemporaneous sources for illustrations of Georgian and Victorian interiors. Thus the inclusion of Martin Cregan’s 1827 portrait of architect Francis Johnston, his wife and two nephews in the family residence at 64 Eccles Street, Dublin, a property which still survives, as, astonishingly, do some of its early 19th century wallpapers.

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