Paper Pillars of the Establishment




These fragments of wallpaper were recently uncovered when the chimneypiece was taken down in a first-floor room on the south side of Trinity College’s Parliament square, between the Examination Hall and the West Front. The  building dates from the late 1750s, but the chimneypiece was a later, larger and more ornate addition, placed over the original simple fireplace opening, thus preserving what must have been part of the earliest decorative scheme. These  ‘architect’ papers (as they were described at the time) were fashionable for a short period from around 1760, when paper-stainers such as John Gordon of Dame Street  began to advertise patterns ‘consisting principally of Gothic or Grecian Architecture, in due perspective and proportioned agreeable to their respective orders’. They were something quite new in a market dominated by wallpaper patterns based on textiles*, and reflected the mid-century taste for classical architecture and ruins, born of the Grand Tour and disseminated through engraved versions of the paintings of Paolo Pannini and other specialists in views (or ‘veduti’) of ancient Rome. The ‘Grecian’ versions of these wallpapers  include colonnades supporting round arches, sometimes opening onto views of buildings, or sometimes – like the Trinity paper – including floral elements, swags, baskets, etc. Using  the technique of printing shadows and highlights (chiara-oscuro) to create an impression of forms standing out in relief, many of the surviving examples in Britain and North America are printed in sombre shades of umber-grey, black and white. More colourful examples occur, as for example the well-preserved Gothic ‘architect’ paper on a blue ground in Springhill, County Derry, or small fragments found some years ago in number 9 Henrietta Street, Dublin. A most impressive depiction of an interior decorated with such a paper is the family group painted by Strickland Lowry, now in the National Gallery of Ireland, which gives some idea of how the room in Trinity might have looked when newly decorated – including the simple fireplace with its fiddle grate.

Springhill, County Derry: the Gun Room, with blue-ground ‘architect’ paper
Attributed to Strickland Lowry (1737-c.1785), An Interior with Members of a Family, National Gallery of Ireland

Tax stamps on the back of the Trinity wallpaper show that it was printed in England, not locally (the wallpaper tax was not introduced in Ireland until 1797), even though the Dublin wallpaper-making trade was well developed by 1760, and Dublin paper-stainers such as Gordon advertised their own versions of ‘architect’ papers.  Which College professor, we may wonder, wished  to impress his colleagues by decorating his rooms with this stylish paper, and would any of his present-day counterparts go to the same lengths?

* See the earlier post ‘Flower Power in the Sixties’ for another recent discovery in Dublin of wallpaper dating from the 1760s, and a type of pattern which could not present a more extreme contrast to the paper found in Trinity College.