Europe’s cultural heritage ‘Oscar’, the Europa Nostra award acknowledges best practice in heritage conservation, management and research: one of the recipients this year is the eighteenth-century mansion at Oud Amelisweerd on the outskirts of the Dutch city of Utrecht.
Two of the ground floor rooms at Oud Amelisweerd are decorated with Chinese wallpapers – one from the late eighteenth century with a pattern of birds and flowers, the other, installed in the early nineteenth century, with hunting scenes and depictions of a dragon boat race. Both sets were conserved in 2011 by the Leiden-based partnership XLpapier, and now form the main historic decorative element in the otherwise unfurnished house. The history and conservation of both sets were the subject of a presentation by conservator Thomas Brain at the recent London conference ‘Chinese wallpapers: trade, technique and taste’, which was held at Coutts Bank and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and which brought together much recent research from Chinese and European perspectives into the origins and use of these most beautiful and fascinating of wallpapers.
The two Chinese wallpaper schemes at Oud Amelisweerd can be viewed in their original locations, but many fragments of European printed wallpapers from different periods of occupation have also been found in the house and have been put on display in a particularly imaginative way in the spacious study area cleverly fitted into the attic storey, and reached up a steep flight of wooden steps. The visitor is confronted with what appears to be a cube-shaped stack of ancient sheets of paper about the size of a large desk. Labels set into the deckle-edged sides of the cube turn out to be the handles of drawers which, when pulled out, display a section of early wallpaper along with information about its origins, date, technique and use in the house. The glass top of the cube incorporates a number of touch-screen panels which explain (among other things) the role of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in bringing Chinese papers to Europe, enlivened by ingenious animations of contemporary paintings and prints.
Equally imaginative is the way in which the first floor rooms have been sensitively adapted as exhibition space for contemporary art. Rather than undergo any form of restoration, the walls have apparently been left in that particular state which follows careful forensic investigation but precedes the recreation of the décor of one selected period. ‘Apparently’ – because the historic wall surfaces are only dimly visible through a gauze-like layer of white textile, stretched like an eighteenth-century damask but creating the kind of minimalist white space required for the display of modern art. Admittedly this approach makes a virtue of a necessity, inasmuch as no original furniture or paintings remain in the house, yet it succeeds admirably in realising two potentially antagonistic objectives – conservation and reinvention – within one space at one time.
Conservation projects in Ireland have also won the prestigious Europa Nostra award, but in at least one case the building highlighted for merit has fared badly since the fanfares have died down. The early eighteenth-century mansion of Rathfarnham House (later known as Loreto Abbey) – not unlike Oud Amelisweerd in its scale and location on the edge of the city – underwent major conservation and refurbishment in 1982-4, when it was still a boarding school in the ownership of the Loreto Order, for which it won a Europa Nostra diploma.
Rathfarnham House was built in 1725 by Edward Lovett Pearce for William Palliser, son of the archbishop of Cashel of the same name. One wall of the saloon is hung with gilt leather made in the Spanish Netherlands and dating from the 1720s – an extremely rare example of this costly material remaining in its original location.
Sadly, the Loreto Order closed the school and sold Rathfarnham House in 1999. It was bought by developer Liam Carroll and remained empty until taken over by NAMA following Carroll’s bankruptcy in 2004. For a number of years it was occupied by live-in caretakers employed by a UK-based property minding company. Unfortunately the saloon with its leather hangings was selected for use as their combined kitchen and laundry, and the resulting fluctuating levels of temperature and humidity have inevitably had a harmful effect on the sensitive material.
In 2014 the site and complex of buildings, which includes a chapel and substantial additions designed by A.W.N.Pugin and Patrick Byrne, was bought by the Department of Education and Rathfarnham House has thankfully found a new lease of life as an Irish-language school, Gaelcholáiste an Phiarsaigh. This inspired move has saved a remarkable and beautiful building in the nick of time – though at the time of writing the fate of the leather hangings is not known.