Wednesday 18 September 2019

'You can transform a room, and your whole outlook on life, by getting the wallpaper right'

Victorian taxidermy portraits and Chinese porcelain is providing inspiration for the latest in wallpaper designs

Charlotte Cory Art Gallery wallpaper
Charlotte Cory Art Gallery wallpaper
House of Hackney Dinosauria print
House of Hackney Majorelle print
David Skinner wallpaper

One time when I was on my travels, gathering stories about women who had done prison time, I had a conversation with a convicted female assassin. We talked about wallpaper.

She told me about the last moments before going out on a job. Her last job, as it turned out, the one that she went down for. That evening, with the car waiting for her on the street, she went upstairs to say goodbye to her small son, not knowing if she would ever see him again.

The child was asleep in the room that they had wallpapered earlier that day. As she turned to go, she noticed that one of the rolls, patterned with trucks and trains, had been pasted on to the wall upside down. She closed the door but, in the moment of heightened perception, the tiny detail stuck in her mind. That's wallpaper for you. It may just look like background pattern, but there's often a story attached.

For Charlotte Cory, artist, writer and wallpaper designer, the story began in childhood with her mother's obsession with changing the wallpaper in their home. "Sometimes every week," says Cory. "It occasionally felt like every night. I understand her now. I think she felt trapped by her children. By changing the wallpaper, she was trying to change her life."

House of Hackney Majorelle print
House of Hackney Majorelle print

In hindsight, Cory feels that her mother had a point or sorts. "You can completely transform a room, and your mood, and your whole outlook on life, by getting the wallpaper right." Whether you agree or not, her own wallpaper, available from Graduate Collection for £125 (€139) a roll, is wonderfully strange.

The background patterns are created from antique wallpaper blocks, printed on her own ancient printing press, then digitally reproduced. Over this subtle background print, she superimposes a series of framed portraits. "I like the idea of hanging pictures on the wallpaper," she says.

"Then you have two things going on." The portraits show animals dressed in 19th-century clothes and posed as for Victorian photographs. She calls these creatures the "Visitorians" and the artwork is her own. Many of the originals have been exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.

"I used to collect old Victorian miniature photographs," she says. "I love the costumes and everything." The small photographs, mounted on card, were known as carte-de-visites.

From 1859, when the price of photography crumbled, they became so popular that the passion for snaps was known as cartomania. "They were like the Victorian Facebook," Cory explains. "People were able to take a photograph that would be there when they were long gone. They stood there so proudly in their best clothes - and then their descendants just got rid of them!"

Then Cory discovered that the photographs looked better with animal heads. On a conceptual level, she's reflecting on the fact that Darwin's On The Origin Of The Species was published in 1859. "You lost your sense of immortality and being in the likeness of God because you were an animal, but you gained a sense of immortality by being in a photograph."

David Skinner wallpaper
David Skinner wallpaper

On another level, it's fun working out what animal best suits the person in the photograph. "When you put a leopard's head on a woman in a crinoline, the first thing is that you laugh because it's funny. The next thing is that you don't laugh because it's profoundly sad."

The animals in Cory's portraits are contemporaneous with the photographs and many of them are taxidermy. "Because they have that stuffed look, they fit the costumes perfectly. In 1859, you had to sit still for two or three minutes. They held people in position with a clamp around their neck and a clamp around their waist. That explains the poses!"

Back in Chapelizod, the Irish wallpaper designer David Skinner has just launched two new ranges of wallpaper, both with a strong element of storytelling behind them. Skinner is best known for authentic copies of period wallpaper patterns based on historic examples, but including contemporary colourways.

Most are screen-printed in their Leitrim studio; others are made in high quality digital print (either way, the wallpapers are printed to order, so allow time for delivery). Each print comes with a story of where the wallpaper was originally used.

The first collection, The Ormond Papers, is firmly historic with papers recreated from the work of Dublin's 'paper stainers' in the century before 1860. They range from Castletown Chintz, a hand-stencilled and block-printed pattern of the 1760s, to Perrin Stripe, a machine printed paper of 1854.

This, as Skinner explains, reflects the widening appeal of wallpaper "from the stately home to the terraced house, and the change in production from the artisan workshop to the steam-powered factory". That's worth thinking about: Skinner's wallpapers are associated with the grander sort of period homes, but some of them work equally well in 19th-century terraced cottages.

The second collection, The World's End Papers, is more adventurous. The patterns are based on the blue and white delftware made in the World's End pottery, Dublin, between 1735 and 1771. The transition from hand painted tableware to wallpaper was a tricky one, and Skinner was assisted by the designer Christine Westcott of Westcott and Heaney. One of the wallpapers - China Warehouse - reflects the sheer nuttiness of Irish ceramics in the 18th century.

There was a strong influence of Dutch delftware mixed in with Oriental figures, buildings and plants, copied from Chinese porcelain by Irish decorators, along with a smattering of Irish patriotic motifs. Another wallpaper, the beautiful Captain Delamain's Ramble, is named after the owner of the World's End pottery and shows landscape scenes set with a trellis "derived from some of the floral elements used on Irish delftware". Prices start at €120 per 10 metre roll, based on a minimum order of eight rolls.

Other, more mainstream, producers of wallpaper also have interesting designs. My favourite is House of Hackney's Dinosauria, an elegant Toile de Jouy-style print of extinct creatures amid prehistoric foliage. It's a grown-up version of the dinosaur wallpaper that you might have had, or wished for, as a child. The catch is the price. At €231 per roll, it's not a cheap product.

House of Hackney is best known for decadent floral prints, often using historic motifs in contemporary colours. Its Majorelle print is one of these, referencing Jacobean design, but interpreted in a viola-pink and blue palette or "with shades of petrol and burgundy and finished it with iridescent turquoise accents". They boast that the design takes the decadent floral aesthetic "to the next level". It's certainly not for the faint-hearted and possibly not for the bedroom either. It might just give you nightmares.

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