Who was Smith – the mystery designer of ‘Belvedere’?

‘Belvedere’ – one of the more colourful patterns in our collection – has an intriguing, if mysterious, back-story.




As every student of wallpaper and revolution knows, one of the first acts of mob violence in Paris in 1789 was the sacking of the Royal Wallpaper Manufactory of Jean Reveillon. In the wake of the French revolution, Ireland saw its own episodes of armed rebellion in 1798 and 1803 – although during both of these outbreaks Dublin’s industrious paper-stainers seem to have kept their heads safely down. The United Irish cause attracted artisans and merchants from many of the textile trades, however , but as the movement went underground and headed towards physical force its wealthier, merchant-class adherents mostly fell away. One of the few who didn’t was James Smith (or Smyth) , a calico printer in Leixlip, and associate of the leading United Irishmen of north Kildare, including Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Smith played an active role in the 53-day military campaign in Kildare in 1798, before surrendering with the other United Irish forces at Sallins in July.

Smith may be a candidate for authorship of what is surely the most extraordinary wallpaper printed in Ireland in the eighteenth century – the richly coloured pattern of trees, birds, fruit and ruins found in Belvedere, County Westmeath. This pattern – most unusually for a wallpaper – contains the name of its maker within the design, and this is -of course – SMITH. The name is a common one, and is found among  Irish paper-stainers of the period, so why should a calico printer be considered as the maker of a wallpaper?

smith urn
One reason is that both the style of the pattern and the technique used to print the Belvedere paper have little to do with paper-staining and everything to do with calico printing. Paper-stainers used dense, opaque colours which lie heavily on top of each other like layers of coloured icing, while calico printers were skilled in the use of dyes and mordants to produce secondary shades by combining and overlaying different colours. This is similar to the method used to produce the extraordinary colour range in the Belvedere pattern – sixteen different shades can be identified, produced from a palette of eleven basic colours. The choice of pigments, too, is unusual for wallpaper – one of the yellows, for example, has been analysed and shown to be an organic pigment, (perhaps the ‘yellow berry wash’ produced from the buckthorn plant and mentioned in eighteenth-century sources), whereas paper-stainers might be expected to have used the mineral pigment ochre.

belv birds
One of the few known facts of  James Smith’s career before 1798 is his association with the Palmerstown calico printer Edward Clarke, who – it has recently emerged – produced his own version of the Belvedere pattern. Clarke is best known for having distributed (and perhaps commissioned) that most iconic of Irish textiles, the Volunteer furniture, printed in Leixlip by Thomas Harpur and put on sale in 1783.

NMIDT: 1910.501. Volunter wallpaper


James Smith seems to have lived with and worked with Clarke as an apprentice, before setting up on his own in Leixlip – possibly taking over Harpur’s lease of the Ryevale calico works on the latter’s bankruptcy in 1786. Like Harpur, Smith appears not to have advertised his products, perhaps because – like his predecessor – he worked to commission for more established merchants such as Clarke, who had a shop in the city in Werburgh Street. Following Smith’s arrest and imprisonment in Kilmainham in 1798, Clarke wrote a character reference in his favour. This was couched in somewhat ambivalent terms – understandably enough, given Clarke’s position as a leading manufacturer and magistrate, he could not be seen to endorse Smith’s actions, or even admit to a close connection. Nevertheless, Clarke played down Smith’s involvement in the rebellion, pointing out that Smith had refused to take any rank in the rebel army, and had surrendered himself as soon as it was safe to do so. The authorities remained unconvinced, however, believing Smith to have played a very active role and taken part in several battles. Smith was one of the last of the state prisoners to be released in 1802 under sentence of banishment. Shortly after his release, an item in the Ladies Magazine referred to one of the state prisoners as being ‘an artist of great eminence… formerly in the employment of Edward Clarke of Palmerstown.’ This surely refers to James Smith.

Clarke Belvedere
The connection between the ‘Belvedere’ pattern, Smith and Clarke is strengthened by the existence of fragments of calico printed with a version of the Belvedere design, with the name SMITH removed and the initials EC inserted – almost certainly identifying Clarke as the printer. These fragments, arranged among pieces cut from the Volunteer furniture and other patterns, form part of an early nineteenth-century appliqué bedcover, now in the National Museum of Ireland.  Compared with the Belvedere wallpaper, Clarke’s rendition of the design is greatly simplified in its range of colours, employing only blue and two shades of madder pink. How do the two versions relate to each other, and which might have been printed first?
If we assume that James Smith was the author of the Belvedere wallpaper (and this is still only an assumption), then it is likely that Clarke’s relatively lacklustre version of the Belvedere pattern was ‘borrowed’ after Smith’s arrest, imprisonment and banishment, and that the determinedly loyalist Clarke felt quite justified in inserting his own initials in place of his former apprentice’s name. Smith never resumed his printing career in Ireland, and would not have been in a position to object to piracy of this kind. Under the terms of his release he left Ireland and went first, briefly, to London. From there he travelled to Rouen, where a number of other United Irishmen had settled, including William Putnam McCabe, the son of a Belfast Presbyterian cotton manufacturer, who had narrowly escaped arrest at the scene of the capture of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. McCabe had bought or leased a calico mill in Rouen, bringing Irish workers from Manchester as well as employing former United Irish comrades. Smith’s skills would have been a great asset to this venture.

In 1803, when some of the United Irish exiles returned from France to Ireland to take part in Robert Emmett’s uprising, Clarke would probably have been unaware of the role played in the drama by his former employer, Edward Clarke, who was intercepted by a party of rebels on Aran Quay, shot and wounded, while returning to Palmerstown after attempting to warn the Castle authorities that the rebellion was underway. Large numbers of Clarke’s workers turned out for Emmett, and three were later hanged in Palmerstown for their part in the attack on their employer.

Of the remainder of Smith’s life little is known. (Since this was written, a great deal more about Smith’s later career has come to light: see ‘James Smith of Leixlip, calico printer, United Irishman and veteran of Napoleon’s army.) Almost nothing is known of his early career as a calico printer in Leixlip before 1798. Were the ‘eminent artist’, the United Irishman and the printer who put his name to a masterful piece of work one and the same? Perhaps so, in which case  it is remarkable that such a distinctive and inventive pattern should have been produced under the same roof as Harpur’s Volunteer furniture.

Before Harpur’s tenancy, the Leixlip mill was briefly operated by Samuel Dixon, who left some tantalising descriptions of his linen and cotton patterns but, alas, no surviving examples. Echoes of Dixon’s well-known bird and flower prints on embossed paper can be seen in the Belvedere pattern, while the trees which frame its more elaborate motifs resemble closely those in the Volunteer furniture. Is it fanciful to see a continuity of native genius in pattern design at the Leixlip print works – over the course of several bankruptcies and changes of ownership –  in a trade dominated by copies and adaptations of London goods?

Ryevale mill, Leixlip

‘Belvedere’ is available either as a hand screen print on archival paper or – more economically – as a digital print.

belvedere bedroom

Charity sale of surplus stock at bargain prices



e-mail enquiries to: skinnerdav@gmail.com


‘Gandon’  purple and metallic silver

Repeat: 190 cm

Enough for: 3.8m (h) x 10.5m (w);   or   1.9m (h) x 21.5m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 200 the lot



edwards 1

Moire stripes and swags, gold highlights

Repeat: 52.3 cm

Enough for: 3.1m (h) x 15m (w);   or   2m (h) x 20m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 200 the lot




Large-repeat English eighteenth-century damask pattern

40 rolls approx.., each 10m x 52 cm: enough for a large drawing room or several small rooms!

Euro 100 per 10 rolls or Euro 300 the lot





Gandon Major (based on Gandon, but extra-wide), white on pearlescent silver

Repeat: 106 cm

Enough for: 3.5m (h) x 4.2m (w);   or  2.1m (h) x 6.1m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 50 the lot





Pugin Trellis : metallic gold on mustard yellow ground

Repeat: 18 cm

Enough for: 3.24m (h)  x  14m (w);    or   2.34m (h)  x  19m (w)

All ok: Euro 200 the lot




Peach/blue Stripes and dots:  late eighteenth or early nineteenth century pattern

No repeat

Enough for: 3.3m (h) x 9.7m (w);  or  2.5m (h)  x  12.9m (w);  or  2.0m (h) x 16.2m (w)

All ok: Euro 150 the lot





Birr Damask: off-white on pale beige ground

Repeat: 55.5 cm

Enough for: 3.3m (h) x 2.6m (w);  or  2.2m (h) x 3.7m (w)

Euro 40





Grey  eighteenth-century French damask

Repeat: 52.4 cm

Enough for: 2.0m (h) x 5.4m (w); or 2.6m (h) x 3.7m (w);  or  3.1m (h) x 3.2m (w)

Euro 40





Ornate 19th-century Gothic pattern

Repeat: 47.7 cm

Enough for: 1.9m (h) x 4.7m (w);  or 2.8m (h)  x x2.6m (w); or  2.38m (h)  x 3.6m (w)

Checked and ok: 50 euro


Ireland’s Archive of Historic Wallpapers

It started with a skip – the Marks collection and the Fota Wallpaper Archive.

On 6th April 2016, as part of Cork Decorative and Fine Arts Society’s annual lecture series, Jennifer McCrea of the Irish Heritage Trust will be giving a talk entitled: ‘Reading the walls: the stories that historic wallpapers can tell us’ using examples from the Fota Archive. Further information can be found here: http://corkdfas.ie/?page_id=1833


While passing along Dublin’s South Anne Street  one afternoon in 1976, Desmond Guinness noticed some men at work emptying the premises of John Marks Decorators. Peering into the skip (or dumpster for American readers) which had been placed in front of the shop, he saw dozens of rolls of wallpaper – not the machine-printed vinyls then in vogue, but block-printed patterns highlighted with gilding and flock, evidently of some antiquity. Following a brief discussion between the observant passer-by and the foreman of the crew, the rolls made their way out of the skip and into Leixlip Castle, and were thus fortuitously preserved.


The ‘Marks Collection’ now forms a major part of the Irish Heritage Trust’s archive of historic wallpapers, housed in Fota House and dedicated to the memory of Ada Longfield, who – in a lifetime of research and publication which began in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s- did more than anyone to trace the history of printing on wallpaper, cotton and linen in Ireland in the long eighteenth century. The existence of the archive is due largely to the efforts of John O’Connell, whose own collection of historic papers salvaged from Irish houses  also forms a significant part of the archive, and includes such rare and valuable examples  as the early eighteenth-century flock paper from Turvey House and the complete room of imported Chinese paper of 1800 from Killeen Castle. The latter was briefly  installed in a bedroom at Fota in 1988, but sadly was taken down at a time when the future of Fota seemed uncertain, and has remained in storage since. Several examples of the products of Ireland’s many  ‘paper-stainers’ are in the collection, identifiable by the stamps used on the reverse to show that the maker had paid the duty which was levied on wallpaper in Ireland between 1796 and 1836. These duty stamps were a favourite subject of Ada Longfield, who published several lengthy articles on them – indeed it is probably no exaggeration to say that she was more interested in the stamps on the back of a wallpaper then the pattern on the front.


The firm of Marks traded on South Anne Street for almost exactly a century, and the material salvaged from their store room represents the best of what was available at the upper end of the wallpaper market in mid- to late-Victorian and Edwardian Dublin. The bulk consists of borders, friezes and corner pieces, many of which exemplify the heavily enriched  and opulent style of the ‘beaux arts’ school of design. Victorian avant-garde or reformist styles are noticeably absent – no specimens of the work of William Morris, Walter Crane, Owen Jones are included, and only a few items reflect the flattened, two-dimensional forms advocated by the design reformers. On the contrary, illusionistic and mimetic effects appear frequently, including a number of faux-bois pilasters, capitals and friezes. These are splendid examples of the skilled block-printer’s art – one imagines them being made by proudly-moustachioed men such as this unnamed printer in a London factory, photographed around 1910.





The collection also includes some early twentieth-century patterns which reflect the influence of art nouveau, while other examples – such as the pictorial frieze shown here – suggest that  by that time the firm’s clientele had moved slightly downmarket.  From slightly later, two examples of the ‘Lancastria’ range of wallpapers made by Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd show the cheerful and colourful styles available in the 1950s.




The Fota Archive is a small collection, yet manages to convey a good impression of the development of fashion in wallpapers across three centuries, while preserving for future study and enjoyment significant examples from Irish houses, many of them the product of local artisans. It is a resource that will – it is hoped – be appreciated and used by all those interested in the patterns of the past, be they students, design professionals, historians or architects.





Going Dutch

Going Dutch


IMG_3142 (2)

This neat and attractive wallpaper and border, perhaps from around the turn of the twentieth century, was uncovered during the restoration of the home of a leading Dutch building contractor specialising in conservation and restoration. Something about the pattern has a particular yet undefinable European quality – it is not simply the 18-inch width of the paper that tells you it was not made in England. The paper has a curious flecked background pattern which  we approached with some trepidation, as it required absolute consistency of print quality, and the tiny flecks seemed bound to clog up quickly on the screen. Despite our fears ( and thanks to the addition of a judicious dose of retarder to the ink) the printing went perfectly and the results happily met the client’s exacting standards.



Garnish Island – papering paradise

Garnish Island – papering paradise

garnish island

Lying only a few hundred yards offshore in the quiet waters of Glengarriff harbour, Garnish island – or Ilnacullin as it is also known – can hardly be described as a remote island. Those who make the journey soon realise that it is a place apart, however  – as did George Bernard Shaw, who came to the island several times. As he was leaving at the end of his final visit in 1923 his hostess, Violet Bryce bade him farewell with the words  ‘Goodbye, Shaw – I hope we meet in heaven’. ‘Madam, are we not here already?, he replied before stepping into the boat.

The island’s Italianate gardens, laid out by the English designer Harold Peto for the M.P.  Annan Bryce and his wife Violet  in the early years of the twentieth century, draw thousands of visitors a year, and are managed by the Office of Public Works. This year, the O.P.W. completed a major refurbishment and restoration of Bryce Cottage, the house where two generations of the family lived during their visits to the island. The cottage was originally intended as the gardener’s house, but Peto’s original designs for a huge, Lutyens-esque mansion built around the Martello tower on the island’s highest point never materialised, after the family lost most of their wealth in the Russian revolution, and guests like Shaw or Agatha Christie had to make to do with bedrooms of quite modest dimensions.




Both generations of  Bryces were evidently lovers of wallpaper, and enough remained on the walls or at the back of cupboards to enable many of the rooms to be papered with copies of the patterns which had been used in the house. These are mostly patterns of the mid-twentieth century, and cover quite a range of styles – from the intricately drawn toile-style paper in the drawing room, to perkily avant-garde geometrics, right down to bog standard cottage florals made in Ireland  by Kildare Wallpapers.  Papers from the early twentieth century were less in evidence, apart from small fragments of a pattern combining symmetrically flattened floral motifs set in strapwork, found in the entrance hall and upper corridor, and which might have been admired by G.B.S.







The problem of sourcing suitable patterns for the earlier period was solved thanks to the resources of the Irish Heritage Trust’s recently established archive of historic wallpapers, stored in Fota House. Two very attractive patterns from the Fota archive were copied and used in Violet Bryce’s bedroom and another guest bedroom. Also from the archive, a complete pattern – similar in style to the fragments found in the entrance hall – was copied and re-coloured to match the fragments.



Altogether, we made twelve ‘new’ old papers for Bryce Cottage, most of them screen-printed in our studio in Leitrim, but some – for reasons of economy and speed – digitally printed. These now form a fitting backdrop to the furniture, paintings and memorabilia of the Bryce family and their two remarkable servants, the Scottish-born head gardener Murdo Mackenzie and the housekeeper Maggie O’Sullivan (1908-99), who in her lifetime on the island  ‘cooked tea for all the Irish presidents except one’.


For more on Garnish Island and its inhabitants, see this excellent blog (from which some of the above images have been sourced):



Edwards Place- a restored mansion in Springfield, Illinois


Edwards Place- a restored mansion in Springfield, Illinois


Edwards Place is one of several historic properties in Springfield, Illinois, associated with Abraham Lincoln. Formerly the home of the Edwards family, its furnishings include a mid-nineteenth century settee on which the future president is said to have sat while courting Mary Todd,  related by marriage to the Edwards family,  who  became the future president’s wife in 1842. Since 1913, the house has belonged to the Springfield Art Association, who  began a major restoration in 2014, aimed at presenting the principal rooms as they were in the 1850s, a time when Lincoln was a regular visitor. We were brought in to the project by our U.S. partners Belfry Historic Consultants, and asked to reproduce two wallpapers which were discovered  beneath modern drywall at an early stage of the project.


Although large pieces of each paper survived, their condition gave rise to difficulties when it came to understanding how the papers had originally looked. The more elaborate of the two patterns combined trophies and floral swags contained within moiré-effect stripes, highlighted with gold details, but the block-printed colours had faded so much that the outlines of the pattern could only be seen by transmitted light – against a window or on a light-box. One tiny strip of overlapped margin, which had remained protected from discolouration, gave some indication that the pattern had been printed in shades of grey distemper against a satin-finish  ground in pale duck-egg. We produced a range of samples around this theme – both digital and screen-printed – before the clients settled on one which seemed most appropriate. Gratifyingly, the subsequent discovery of another large piece of this paper in better condition showed that our suggestions and the clients’ choice had been surprisingly accurate.




The second paper was a simpler affair – a two-colour damask, block-printed in off-white on a beige ground and with the kind of intense ultramarine accents which were hugely popular in the 1850s and which seem utterly bizarre to modern taste. This too has a satin ground – so much easier to make in these days of gloss-finish water-based acrylics than in the days of distemper, when the only way to produce a shiny surface was to buff the painted paper laboriously with talc and a smooth stone. The contrast between a pattern in matt distemper (or acrylic) and a satin ground is pleasing, and was widely exploited in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps the effect is due for a come-back in these days of ubiquitous matt-ness and ‘chalk-finish’ paints.

In the front formal parlor, an original section of wallpaper dating from the 1850's discovered during the renovation is preserved behind plexiglass for visitors. Now known as the Edwards Place pattern, new wallpaper from this remnant was replicated using a computer and manufactured for the project. Renovations are nearly complete on the first floor rooms at Edwards Place in Springfield, home of attorney Benjamin Edwards, son of Ill Governor Ninian Edwards and brother-in-law to Mary Lincoln’s sister Elizabeth. Part of the Springfield Art Association complex, public tours for the antebellum mansion are scheduled to resume April 21 after a nearly $500,000 restoration project begun over a year ago has brought the home up to its mid 19th Century appearance. Money for the project came from private donors and the Jeffris Family Foundation, with fundraising ongoing for future renovation of 2nd story rooms. Photographs taken during home tour on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. David Spencer/The State Journal-Register

A Roman bust of Diana, goddess of the hunt, is displayed atop an 1850's era square grand piano made by E. N. Scherr of Philadelphia on display in one of the home's formal parlors. Renovations are nearly complete on the first floor rooms at Edwards Place in Springfield, home of attorney Benjamin Edwards, son of Ill Governor Ninian Edwards and brother-in-law to Mary Lincoln’s sister Elizabeth. Part of the Springfield Art Association complex, public tours for the antebellum mansion are scheduled to resume April 21 after a nearly $500,000 restoration project begun over a year ago has brought the home up to its mid 19th Century appearance. Money for the project came from private donors and the Jeffris Family Foundation, with fundraising ongoing for future renovation of 2nd story rooms. Photographs taken during home tour on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. David Spencer/The State Journal-Register

Also, for the sitting room at Edwards Place, we supplied our ‘Edenderry’ pattern of oak leaves and acorns set in stripes. This is an Irish pattern of the 1830s, so slightly earlier than the restored décor of the other rooms – nevertheless it fits in very well.

In the Sitting Room, new oak-leaf patterned wallpaper covers the walls along with new carpeting, recessed lighting and other imporovements. An oil painting of Benjamin Edwards can be seen over the fireplace. Renovations are nearly complete on the first floor rooms at Edwards Place in Springfield, home of attorney Benjamin Edwards, son of Ill Governor Ninian Edwards and brother-in-law to Mary Lincoln’s sister Elizabeth. Part of the Springfield Art Association complex, public tours for the antebellum mansion are scheduled to resume April 21 after a nearly $500,000 restoration project begun over a year ago has brought the home up to its mid 19th Century appearance. Money for the project came from private donors and the Jeffris Family Foundation, with fundraising ongoing for future renovation of 2nd story rooms. Photographs taken during home tour on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. David Spencer/The State Journal-Register

For more on Edwards Place and its restoration, see