For a material which is regularly described as ‘ephemeral’, it is remarkable how much wallpaper survives from earlier centuries. Here is a round-up of some patterns found in Dublin houses during the past two years, all dating from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This was a boom time for wallpaper in Dublin – there were more manufacturers active in the city than during any other period, and observers commented that wallpaper was used by a broader spectrum of society here than in England. None of the patterns shown here were found in aristocratic town houses – instead, they give us a glimpse into how the homes of the middling majority were decorated.
Some of these buildings are not as ordinary as they seem – the Thomas Street house contains a staircase whose timber has been dated to 1639, making it some 25 years older than 9/9a Aungier Street, previously thought to be ‘Dublin’s oldest house’. Alas, no traces of seventeenth-century decoration have been found in either building.
Wallpaper and border, block-printed in red, white, blue and black on a pale blue ground. 130 Thomas Street, Dublin. Ca. 1790-1810
From the front-facing first floor room of a house in Thomas Street overlooking St. Catherine’s Church, this paper may well have been on the walls at the time of the execution of Robert Emmett, which took place in front of the church in September 1803. The main paper is hard to read, but seems to be printed with an all-over pattern of trailing stems in black, interspersed with small buds or flowers in red, white and blue. The matching border is better preserved, and was designed to resemble a gimp or passementerie textile edging. The colouring recalls French wallpapers of the 1780s and 90s.
Wallpaper, block-printed in grey, maroon and ochre on a pink ground. 130 Thomas Street, Dublin. Ca. 1800-1820.
This paper replaced the one described above, early in the nineteenth century. The pin-dot sub-pattern and the ‘shadowed’ leaf motifs were very common features of wallpapers from around 1800-1820, – many similar examples have been found in Irish buildings. This was perhaps a ‘safe’ (i.e. unassuming) choice of pattern for the years immediately following the Act of Union.
Wallpaper, block-printed in blue and red on a white ground. 9/9a Aungier Street, Dublin. Ca. 1790-1810.
Similar in its colouring to the paper from Thomas Street (above), this pattern was found in the front-facing attic storey of 9/9a Aungier Street – another building with intact seventeenth-century structural features. This curious space – tucked under the rafters yet reasonably roomy – was carefully, even elaborately, decorated. Apart from many layers of wallpaper, traces were found on the exposed rafters of polychrome stencilling, perhaps contemporary with this wallpaper, and executed in the same colour scheme. The room was re-papered frequently in the first half of the nineteenth century . The two subsequent patterns (see below) maintain the general colour scheme of red and blue on white, but with increasing economy – the red on white pattern would have been one of the cheapest available at the time.
Wallpaper, block-printed in red and blue on a white ground. 9/9a Aungier Street, Dublin.Ca. 1800-1830.
Wallpaper, block-printed in red on a white ground, 9/9a Aungier Street, Dublin.Ca. 1800-1840.
By the mid eighteenth century Aungier Street was no longer a fashionable residential address, and many of its its once-fine residences housed barristers, later, tradesmen. Number 9/9a was owned by a coach-maker, who probably lived in the building. It’s hard to say with certainty who might have chosen this pattern – a barrister seeking to enliven his down-at-heel premises, or the daughter or wife of a well-to-do coachmaker.
Attic storey room, 9/9a Aungier Street: fashionably papered around 1800.
Wallpaper, block-printed in ochre and sienna on a pink-grey ground. James Street, Dublin.Ca. 1800-1830.
This elegant paper comes from a first-floor room in a house on James Street, close to the Guinness brewery, and reputedly once occupied by the head brewer. The pattern, with its fern-like scrolls and distinctive lobed leaf shapes, closely resembles our ‘Viceroy’ – a pattern used in the Viceregal Lodge (now Aras an Uachtarain) in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Wallpaper, block-printed in grey on a white ground, and border, block-printed in orange and white on a black ground. Ballymun Road, Dublin. Ca. 1780-1810.
Ballymun Road is a street of mostly Victorian or Edwardian terraced houses in the suburb of Glasnevin. Among them is a two storey, three bay house dating from the early eighteenth century, at which time it was one of several rural villas in the area. Its low ceilings, thin timber partitions and lack of ornament must have given it an air of hopeless antiquity around 1800, when this border was used in conjunction with a grey and white all-over foliate pattern in two upstairs rooms. Amazingly, many of the buildings original simple internal features survive, along with many of the wallpapers used in the house in the course of its history. The grey paper with the small daisy motif, visible to the left in the image above, is earlier – perhaps around 1760.
Ballymun Road, first floor rooms.