The 1760s, that is – a recently discovered wallpaper in Dublin’s Merrion Square leads to an investigation of chintz patterns in eighteenth-century furnishing and dress.
93 Merrion Square is a three-bay house built around 1760, situated between the National Gallery and Lincoln Place, and part of a terrace which pre-dates the rest of the square. Its earliest occupants, whoever they were, might have looked out from the windows of the front room of the first floor to watch the surveyors and builders who were transforming the open country of the Fitzwilliam estate into Dublin’s most ambitious urban development. When they turned from the windows they might have retreated into the rear room, which was papered with this wallpaper.
This has survived, somewhat miraculously, in a building which has undergone many alterations over the course of its history. Not very long after the house was built, the chimney breast in this rear first-floor room was widened by around two feet on each side, using lath and plaster, and it is in the void created by this extension that the paper has been preserved. Almost every other detail of the room has been substantially changed in the intervening period.
The pattern is surprisingly – perhaps even shockingly – bold and colourful. It combines intricacy of design with a certain crudeness of execution, and the flowing lines possess great vitality – as we see by zooming in and rotating this detail of a flower head, which seems to have an almost human quality.
This remarkable wallpaper is formed from hand-made sheets, joined together to form lengths – the joins are visible in the photo. The black outlines of the pattern are printed with a wood block, and the colours are brushed on by hand using stencils. Apart from the boldness of the design, the noticeable feature is the lack of precision in both the printing and the installation of the paper. It is obvious where the pattern meets the edge of the printing block, and that the printer could have aligned the next print more carefully. The stencils are crudely shaped, loosely following the outlines of the pattern, and have sometimes been positioned quite carelessly before the colours were applied. The matching of the pattern across the two adjacent lengths of paper shown in the image is almost slapdash. One hopes the customer was happy, and that the overall effect was felt to outweigh these discrepancies, which seem to indicate a craft in the early stages of its development.
By 1760 the wallpaper trade was well established in Dublin, and consumers could choose to buy from among half a dozen paper-stainers active in the city. Their advertisements list some of the styles available at the time: Thomas Russell of Bride Street, for example, sold ‘Flock, Chintz, Stucco, Mock Indian, Architect, Gothic and Landskip’ patterns. Of these, chintz patterns seem to have been particularly popular, judging by the number of examples which have been found in Irish houses of all sizes . The paper in Merrion Square is an early and particularly striking example of the type.
But what exactly do we mean by chintz? The word first appeared in the early 17th century in its singular form ‘chint’, derived from a Hindi word which means spattered or stained. ‘Chint’s’ were colourful, painted cotton cloths produced in India for a variety of purposes.This example is typical, with exotic, imaginary flowers and writhing leaves blossoming from a sinuous stem. The diamond-shaped pattern which embellishes the stem is echoed in the wallpaper example from Merrion Square.
From the time they appeared on European markets in the late seventeenth century chintzes became highly sought after, both as dress fabrics and for home furnishing. So great was the material’s popularity among English consumers that it was soon perceived as a threat by wool and silk merchants and manufacturers, who in 1721 persuaded the government to bring in a prohibition on the sale or wearing of chintz. Despite this ban, chintzes continued to find their way into English and Irish homes as contraband. In Ireland, the restrictions on chintz were less rigidly enforced – but the material was still targeted by supporters of native manufacture such Samuel Madden or Jonathon Swift, who in one of his pamphlets called on parliament to outlaw the wearing of Indian silks or calicos. In the propaganda campaigns against calico and chintz, the very qualities which made cotton so popular – its comfort and lightness principally – were seized on by the woollen and silk lobbyists and used to suggest that the morals of those who wore chintz or calico were in some way, like the fabric itself, loose, light-weight and flimsy, and therefore suspect. Daniel Defoe described the woman who wore chintz as ‘an enemy to her country’. Taken together with its nature as contraband, this must have given the acquisition and use of cotton chintz a certain frisson of transgression.
Chintz fabrics were widely used for dress and furnishing in Ireland, although their use is not recorded in any contemporary portrait painting that I am aware of. The reason of course is that cotton chintz fabric was not formal wear – it was regarded as ‘undress’, and those sitting for portraits almost invariably chose to have themselves depicted in formal finery. Across Europe, wearing chintz out of doors was a risky thing to do. At the very least it might attract sniffy comments from your more conventionally-dressed peers, at worst the wearer might find herself attacked, either by supporters of the woollen or silk trades or even by revenue officials, who were authorised to remove imported cottons from the wearer’s back.
Looking at chintz as a furnishing material, it is apparent that the same distinction between formal wear and undress applied to furnishing textiles as well as to garments. The use of chintz in Irish domestic interiors is amply documented – recent research by Patricia MacCarthy and others shows that in Ireland, as elsewhere, there was a code to adhere to in furnishing fabrics, as there was with dress. Chintz was acceptable in private or semi-private rooms, but not in formal rooms such as the drawing room or dining room (although in the following century printed chintzes would find their way into the drawing room). The window and bed curtains of bedrooms were usually made from the same material – the fabric varied from room to room and might be chintz, linen check, or brightly-coloured woollen fabrics such as camlet or morine. Dublin paper-stainers advertised their ability to match fabrics with wallpaper, and it is likely that in bedrooms described as having cotton chintz hangings the walls were papered with chintz-patterned papers. As with chintz garments, contemporary pictorial depictions of chintz furnishings are entirely lacking in Ireland and extremely rare across Europe – – this engraving shows a bed upholstered completely in a chintz fabric, but –annoyingly – without matching window curtains and wallpaper.
By the 1750s European textile printers had started to master some of the techniques of printing fast colours on cotton and linen, and were producing locally made imitations of chintz. In Dublin, several printing factories competed for this trade, and the term ‘Irish chintz’ began to appear on upholsterers’ invoices. The factory of Thomas and Margaret Ashworth in Donnybrook produced both textiles and wallpapers – perhaps the Merrion Square paper is an example of their work? We don’t know.
The discovery of the Merrion Square wallpaper shows that chintzes were not just confined to bedrooms, and that these vibrantly exotic, swirling patterns also had a place on the piano nobile – the first-floor suite of rooms in a terraced townhouse which formed the principal stage for hospitality and the display of wealth and taste. What function, then, did the rear room in 94 Merrion Square serve? It is likely to have been described at the time as a dressing room – a possibility supported by contemporary references to dressing rooms occupying this part of a terraced house. In an inventory of 1762, for example, the rear room of the first floor suite of Lord and Lady Doneraile’s Kildare Street house was named as ‘My Lady’s dressing room’, and was described as being decorated with chintz hangings . Lady Doneraile’s dressing room opened into a smaller bedchamber, and also to the drawing room, the main front room on the piano nobile (first floor). This had window curtains and seat furniture of crimson silk damask, with the walls perhaps papered in matching flock. When the connecting doors were opened, the contrast between the formal grandeur of the drawing room and the vibrantly exotic colouring of the dressing room must have been dramatic.
Besides the chintz hangings, the inventory of Lady Doneraile’s dressing room lists the turkey carpet, a japanned looking glass, an ‘India cabinet’ on a frame, a writing desk, glazed bookcases and a dressing table, covered with scarlet cloth. These objects evoke a range of activities from grooming and dressing to reading and writing. As the name suggests, the dressing room would be used to store clothes and as a place to change clothes, but it’s wider functions included those of a study, a work-room or as a less formal area for entertaining than that offered by the drawing room.
The dressing room was one of the principal sites for displaying fashionable goods – and in particular oriental goods and their western imitations. Inventories tell us that the items to be found there might include dressing boxes, screens, tea boards and tea tables, japanned goods of all kinds and ‘India’ pictures or prints. Items of this kind were, by the mid century, increasingly being supplied by specialist dealers in East India goods, such as Robert and Mary Bijar at the India Warehouse on Abbey Street, (might their name indicate Asian origin?). At the Bijars’ Indian Warehouse, consumers could buy a wide range of oriental silk and cotton textiles and furniture, as well as jewellery, fans, coffee and ‘India’ paper (i.e. Chinese wallpaper).
The discovery of the chintz paper in Merrion Square shows how the patterns which enriched the private spaces of the Georgians were – although largely unrecorded by painters – a lot richer in colour and pattern than we might suppose. It opens a door to the material culture of the dressing room, and shows how local artisans responded to the influx of East India goods to add their own wares to the extraordinary variety of goods that were imported into Dublin.