A look inside a cupboard in Castletown reveals layers of wallpaper going back to the mid-eighteenth century.
The timber panelled walls of the room known as Lady Kildare’s Room on the first floor of Castletown, County Kildare, have recently been painted in ‘Aerial Tint’, a soft but fresh blue colour, providing an upbeat backdrop for a collection of portrait miniatures and other paintings on permanent loan from the Irish Georgian Society. The colour used on the same panelling in the mid-eighteenth century might have been the French grey shade still on the woodwork in Louisa Conolly’s Bedroom on the same floor – a more muted colour altogether. The reason why some of Castletown’s early-eighteenth century panelling – or wainscotting – has never been repainted lies in the change in taste towards wallpaper during the 1740s and 50s, when the only practical way to paper the uneven surfaces of a panelled room was to nail a tightly stretched linen or hessian cloth across the walls. In Castletown several rooms preserved these cloth linings until the 1960s, when most were removed and discarded as part of a return to what was then perceived as a more authentic eighteenth century look. It is likely that some of these contained layers of paper decoration going back to the time of Louisa Conolly or even before.
All was not lost, however. In Lady Kildare’s Room the earliest wallpaper and the three subsequent patterns used in the room have survived on the walls inside a built-in cupboard beside the fireplace. It seems that until the 1830s, various paper hangers at work in the room were instructed to paper inside the cupboard, but from then on a coat of paint was considered sufficient. The existence of the papers was discovered several years ago, but it is only now that the decision has been taken to remove all the material lining the cupboard, separate the layers of wallpaper and re-install them in a way that makes the sequence of decoration visible. The result presents visitors with something akin to the growth rings of the house.
The delicate task of separating the papers, lining them with linen and mounting them on stretchers was undertaken by paper conservator Ros Devitt. Two weeks ago the stretchers arrived in Castletown and – after a moment’s anxiety as to whether the largest one would fit through the door of the cupboard – were installed.
The first and earliest paper in the cupboard is printed with a floral trail pattern of a type which would have been known in the eighteenth century as a ‘chintz’ pattern. Based on the patterns used on imported Indian cottons, chintz papers were regularly advertised by Dublin paper stainers (as wallpaper printers were known) from around 1750, and the many examples or fragments which have been found in Ireland show that these papers were highly fashionable.
Like most other examples, the paper in Lady Kildare’s Room was made by printing the outlines of the stems and leaves in black with a wooden block onto plain off-white paper, and then adding colours with the aid of brushes and stencils. The colours used in this case were blue, yellow and pink, and the design has been given added sophistication by the inclusion of a background pattern formed of tiny ‘pin-dots’, made by driving brass pins into the surface of the printing block ( a process known as ‘picotage’). Produced more than half a century before the invention of paper-making machinery, the pattern is printed onto rolls of hand-made sheets, joined edge-to-edge before printing.
Floral trail and chintz-style patterns are difficult to date, as they were produced throughout the eighteenth century. The pin-dot background pattern of the Castletown chintz paper does not help to narrow the date range of this paper, as the technique is found in papers as early as the 1680s.
A number of examples similar to this pattern in English collections have been given dates from the 1740s to the 1780s.
Two floral trail patterns with pin dots in the Victoria and Albert Museum come from a room in St Edmund Hall, Oxford (above), and are given a date of circa 1740 in the museum catalogue. The outline of the leaf at the top edge of the lower fragment is similar to the leaves in the Castletown Paper.
Also in the V and A collection, a floral trail wallpaper without pin dots from Uppark, Sussex (above) has obvious similarities to the Castletown paper. This one is given a date range in the catalogue of 1750-80.
This brief survey of comparative examples shows that the Castletown chintz paper could have been in place in the 1740s. This would mean that it was hung during the the life of Speaker Conolly’s widow Katherine, or during the brief period when the house was occupied from 1752-4 by his nephew William Conolly, his wife Anne and their children. An account dated 1749 for flock wallpaper bought by William (then residing in Leixlip Castle) from the Dublin paper stainer Bernard Messink survives among the Castletown papers, so we know at least that he was not averse to buying wallpaper. On William’s death in 1754 the family moved to England, and Castletown remained unoccupied until the arrival of Louisa and Tom Conolly in 1759.
The new look of the Lady Kildare Room is the result of a happy co-operation between State and voluntary bodies, one which hopefully can be repeated in other contexts. The concept for the space, including the re-ordering of the cabinets and crucial elements such as lighting and picture hang, were in the expert hands of Jeanne Meldon and David Sheehan of the Castletown Foundation, working in conjunction with Mary Heffernan of the Office of Public Works and her team. The Castletown Foundation is the charitable trust which negotiated transfer of Castletown and its grounds into State ownership in 1994, and which continues to hold an advisory role in conserving and protecting the house’s important decorative arts collection.