On a roll: wallpaper from great Irish houses

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

‘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.

Other rooms, even earlier than those once occupied by the Johnston family, are extant. There remains the Chinese Room at Carton, Co Kildare created by the first Duchess of Leinster in 1759 which, like the Print Room at nearby Castletown, Co Kildare , shows how intimately some owners were involved with the decoration of their home. In the 1780s another set of Chinese papers was hung in one of Westport House’s upper rooms and it too remains in situ.

But there have been casualties, not least the papers that once covered the walls of Townley Hall, Co Louth. In 1950 these were carefully taken down and installed in Winfield House, London (now residence of the US Ambassador to the UK).

Its loss is reflective of how much has been discarded or taken down, not least owing to changes of taste. Skinner has often literally had to work with fragmentary evidence to trace the evolution of wallpaper in Ireland so that one of the more melancholy pleasures of his book are images of gorgeous scraps rescued from diverse properties throughout the country.

And even in the 18th century we were inclined to export much of our best talent. The example is cited of Dubliner Edward Duras who seems to have operated out of premises on Capel Street before selling up and moving to Bordeaux, where he settled in the fashionable Place Dauphine. Whatever Duras’ motives for emigrating, he flourished in France, creating luxurious papers that imitated the appearance of brocade and lace. Indeed so successful did he become that in 1780 he officially complained to the relevant authorities that an employee had stolen some of his drawings, thereby robbing him “of the work of his imagination, his talents and his secrets”.

If only Duras’ firm had still been in operation at the end of the following century, perhaps poor Oscar Wilde wouldn’t have had to suffer the indignity of dying in a room with walls covered in poorly designed paper.

The irony, of course, is that since then the hotel in question has been lavishly redecorated and would now satisfy even the most exigent aesthete.

So, too, does David Skinner's book, a celebration and a reclamation of the wonders of wallpaper in Ireland. Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900, by David Skinner, is published by the Churchill House Press, €45, with all proceeds benefitting the Irish Georgian Society

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