A rainbow in Fethard

Conservation architect Cáit ní Cheallacháin sent photos recently of two wallpapers found in an eighteenth century shop building in Fethard, County Tipperary. The papers were in the residential part of the building on the first floor, and one of them – a particularly striking example using the irisé or ‘rainbow’ technique – is extensively preserved on a thin timber partition. This discovery adds to a growing number of papers which have previously been found in similar commercial buildings through Ireland, and broadens our knowledge of the spread of wallpaper use beyond the walls of the ‘big house’, city terrace  or urban villa. The material culture of the ‘middling’ people – shopkeepers, strong farmers, etc – is largely unexplored territory, lying between the well-mapped landscape of the upper classes and the collectable vernacular furniture of the rural population.

O’Shea’s in Burke Street, Fethard, boasts a fine carved timber shopfront, with classical detailing including Corinthian columns. The capitals of these are described in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being ‘remarkably faithful to the Corinthian order of ancient Rome, complete with corner helices, abacus, astragal, fleuron and three rows of acanthus leaves.’ Clearly, there was no messing around with the classical orders in eighteenth century Fethard.

The creation of the shopfront of O’Shea’s is given a date range of 1750-90 in the NIAH, and the rainbow wallpaper dates from the 1830s or 40s, suggesting that the level of prosperity and taste which went into the construction of the building continued for one or two generations. As yet, no information has come to light about who the first occupants were. The O’Shea family, for whom the building is now named, were there since at least 1901.

The wallpaper is pasted directly onto the heavy timber boards which make the partition. The pattern of broad stripes of leafy, vaguely rococo scrollwork alternating with narrower stripes distantly reminiscent of the Greek honeysuckle motif, is block-printed in red and purple against a background of blue and white stripes which shade into each other – this is the ‘rainbow’ effect, which is how such patterns were described at the time. The technique was invented by Michel Spoerlin in 1819 in the French region of Alsace, and was widely used in France to create dazzling colour effects for high-end interiors – an example of such a French paper survives in the drawing room at Ballindoolin, County Kildare – before gradually being adopted by more workaday wallpaper printers in England and Ireland. In 1836 there were 46 licensed wallpaper manufacturers in Ireland – the majority of these were small operations with one or two printing tables, producing just such wallpapers as this one for the middle to lower end of the market, while only a small handful of Dublin firms had the resources to compete at the top end of the market with fashionable products from London or Paris. 1836 also saw the abolition of the duty on wallpaper, making it more affordable and encouraging its spread.

The lack of sophistication in both the design and print quality of this paper makes it absolutely representative of this period of the Irish wallpaper trade The simplified adoption of high-end motifs and slightly slap-dash execution of the printing are qualities which I personally find utterly endearing, and which remind me of the classically-derived country furniture produced in rural or small-town Ireland, which has been so expertly researched and published by Claudia Kinmonth. Like time capsules, wallpapers can lie hidden for generations before re-emerging into the light of day to give us a vivid glimpse of how our ancestors lived. Not too long ago this partition would have been ripped out and put in a skip without a moment’s thought – now, thanks to architects like Cáit and owners who appreciate the historical value of their properties, there is less danger of losing such treasures.