Anyone for coffee?

It isn’t often that I have to join a queue to see my own wallpaper, but this morning I did just that, standing in a line of expectant people waiting to enter the newly-restored Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street, Dublin, which has been closed since February 2015.

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Bewley’s Grafton street café opened for the first time in 1927, the largest and most splendid of the family firm’s Dublin branches. (The first one, on Georges Street, opened in 1894.) The beautiful façade, embellished with gold and coloured mosaics, is one of Dublin’s most recognisable landmarks. Inside, the most striking decorative feature is the set of six large stained glass windows commissioned from the Irish artist Harry Clarke (1889-1931) in 1928, three years before his death. The jewel-like colours of Clarke’s fantastic birds and plants filter light into the back section of the café, adding greatly to the experience of enjoying coffee and traditional Irish tea brack in the high-backed, deeply-upholstered banquettes.

Wallpapers from several phases of redecoration were found during the renovation works, but the earliest of these, and the pattern which probably graced the walls when Bewley’s first opened its doors, is a large-scale, Japanese-themed design, block-printed in nine colours, with metallic bronze highlights. Enough of the paper was found to provide the full repeat of the pattern, although it had evidently been through a fire, and was darkened by smoke and soot, making it very hard to discern the details. Happily, the clients and their architects were enthusiastic enough about the find to commission a copy of the paper for the restored café. Too fragile to remove from the wall, the only option was to take photographs and work from these in recreating the design, which comprises a Japanese landscape of rocks, pines, water, a temple, birds and elegantly-dressed women. With a repeat length of over one metre, this was a large and detailed piece of artwork.

Smoke-damaged fragments of 1920s wallpaper, found during renovation.
Smoke-damaged fragments of 1920s wallpaper, found during renovation.

After months of squinting at enhanced images, we were finally able to print some samples of the pattern. Clever visualisation software also allowed a virtual view of the planned interior to be papered with the pattern, and the results looked encouraging. At the client’s suggestion different colourings and backgrounds were investigated. The original paper was printed on a cream ground, but for the new reproduction a dark green, inspired by the Harry Clarke windows, was proposed.

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Lengthy research in wallpaper history sources, collections and on-line archives had produced nothing to confirm where and by whom the paper was originally made, although the likelihood was that it had come from one of the top English companies of the day. This was confirmed when ‘our’ pattern appeared among the illustrations to an article on the historic wallpaper collection at Temple Newsam House in Yorkshire, published in the Wallpaper History Review in late 2016. Perhaps not surprisingly, the pattern had been produced by the renowned firm of Arthur Sanderson and Sons (who continue their proud tradition of wallpaper and textile manufacture to this day) and bears the name ‘Coromandel’. Further research might, it is hoped, tell us when the paper was first printed and the name of the designer. The colourway of the Temple Newsam sample is possibly the same as the fragments found in Bewley’s.

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‘Coromandel’ wallpaper by Arthur Sanderson & Co, circa 1927; from the historic wallpaper collection at Temple Newsam House, Yorkshire.

Of the available reproduction methods, the one chosen was a combination of digital and hand screen printing. A fully block-printed or screen-printed copy would have been sumptuous, but was ruled out by budgeting and scheduling constraints (not to mention the risk of the all-too-human printer running out of stamina producing the large number of rolls required). In the present state of the technology it is not possible to print metallic colours digitally, but screen printing by hand over a nine-colour digital print provided a fitting and beautiful new version of the historic pattern.

clock and paper

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This now forms part of an interior which, no one could deny, recaptures the essence of Bewley’s in former times. The essential ingredients – the tall polished wainscotting and ‘hat shelves’, the banquettes with their plush burgundy upholstery, the stained glass, the black and white livery of the friendly staff – have been enhanced to great effect by the careful choice of white marble floors, Kilkenny marble counters and many other details. The overwhelming feedback in the media and from listening to those around me on my visit, is that the good old days are back again on Grafton Street.

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