Well-dressed walls of Dublin around 1800

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.

block print and border

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 9 Aungier Street

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.



DSC_0319 (1) border

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.




A wretched caricature…

The English architect and champion of the Gothic revival A.W.N. Pugin was so averse to certain types of wallpaper that he gave vent to his feelings in a typically polemic outburst, writing in 1841 of ‘…what are termed Gothic pattern papers..where a wretched caricature of a pointed building is repeated from the skirting to the cornice in glorious confusion – door over pinnacle and pinnacle over door…’ An example of just such a pattern came to light recently during the refurbishment of a house on Dublin’s Ormond Quay. Block-printed in shades of umber-grey, the pattern consists of elaborate pointed arches opening onto views of a cathedral interior. The only surviving piece of the paper was found attached – rather incongruously – to the mullion separating two windows which look out onto the quay from the ground floor front room.

ormond quay

At first glance, the design is reminiscent of the ‘pillar and arch’ paper found recently in Trinity College (see ‘Paper Pillars of the Establishment’), but it dates from almost a century later. The repeating gothic arches and the illusionistic representation of space behind them (resulting in an illogical multiplicity of vanishing points) are exactly the kind of elements which caused Pugin’s spleen to rise. Not content with condemning such patterns on aesthetic grounds, Pugin went on to complain that they were ‘a great favourite with hotel and tavern keepers’. He seems to have been correct here, as the occupants of the Ormond Quay house in the early nineteenth century were consistently employed in the vending of alcohol: from 1822-31 it was a Spirit-Stores; from 1832-42 the owner was listed as a Tavern Keeper, and in 1847 it was the premises of a Wine Merchant.

It may strike us as odd that depictions of ecclesiastical architecture were considered a suitable backdrop for quaffing strong liquors, but in today’s Dublin, where disused churches find new life as bars, nightclubs and even distilleries, the symbiosis of the spiritual and the spirituous seems just as unproblematic. Not far from Ormonde Quay, the former St. Mary’s Church at the corner of Mary and Jervis Streets has been converted to a pub-nightclub-restaurant, where revellers can pause to read the memorial slabs of eighteenth-century parishioners, while across the river the former church of St. James in the Liberties is soon to re-open as the Pearse-Lyons Distillery, the tower of the 1861 structure now enhanced with a dramatic steel and glass steeple.

Oud Amelisweerd and Rathfarnham House – a tale of two cities



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.

Hunting scene from one of the two Chinese wallpapers at Oud Amelisweerd


Bird and flower style Chinese paper at Oud Amelisweerd

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 exterior
Rathfarnham House

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.

cu with border
Embossed, gilt and painted leather hangings and border, circa 1725, in the saloon at Rathfarnham House, Dublin.

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.

wall view(1)
The Saloon in recent use as a caretakers’ kitchen and laundry.
Damage to the leather caused by unfavourable environmental conditions.
Damage to the leather caused by unfavourable environmental conditions.

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.

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.

Wallpaper and ‘Rebellion’

RTE’s new drama ‘Rebellion’ has rightly received glowing reviews. The sense of period is impressive, with many of the familiar city locations miraculously stripped of their twenty-first century clutter – even to the extent of Nelson’s pillar reappearing outside the G.P.O. Costumes and interiors have been carefully assembled, although in some cases the latter were definitely not filmed in the buildings where the action was supposed to be taking place. This was the case in the scene where British civil servant Charles Hammond (played by Tom Turner) and his secretary May (Sarah Greene) are having an extra-marital interlude in a bedroom of the Shelbourne Hotel, rudely interrupted as a Citizen Army soldier bursts into the room. My own surprise was if anything greater than the on-screen couple’s when I saw that the room was papered in our ‘Malahide’ pattern – a Regency gothic design dating from the 1820’s. A bit of mental backtracking through our order book identified the location as  Cabinteely House in south County Dublin, often used for film locations. In fact, another room in Cabinteely (this one papered with our reproduction of a pattern from Newbridge House), also appeared in last night’s episode,  representing the drawing room in trainee doctor Elizabeth Butler’s family home, which she leaves on the morning of her wedding to join the rebels in City Hall. The location of the fictional Charles Hammond’s house – where he rather unwisely sends May to wait out the rebellion in the company of his wife –   is Marlay House, where May’s bedroom is papered in our reproduction of a pattern from the 1790s found in the house in the course of conservation back in the 1990s.


malahide luggala
‘Malahide’ wallpaper in Luggala, County Wicklow. (photo myhome.ie)


Newbridge in Rebellion
Paul Reid, Charlie Murphy and Newbridge wallpaper in ‘Rebellion’ (photo RTE)

Two of these patterns – ‘Malahide’ and ‘Newbridge’ – were first produced in the 1820s by the Dublin wallpaper maker Patrick Boylan, the leading paper-stainer and decorator of his day. Their use in the 1916 drama is therefore a little anachronistic, although few would notice this.

number 29
‘Newbridge’ wallpaper in No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street. (photo courtesy ESB)

This is not the first time our wallpapers have been hung in the cause of Irish freedom. In 1995 we made wallpaper for the set of Neil Jordan’s ‘Michael Collins’, in which the role of Liam Tobin was played by Brendan Gleeson – whose son Brian appears in ‘Rebellion’ as Jimmy.

‘Malahide’ also made an appearance recently in ‘The Invisible Woman’, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, where it decorated the walls of Charles Dickens’ study.

Charity sale update

Thanks to those who have donated to a range of charities (including Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, Trocaire, the DSPCA and Guide Dogs for the Blind) we now have shelf space and room to breathe again in the studio. But there are still one or two lots waiting for the right wall – so go on: why not buy the purple and silver ‘Gandon’ damask and bring out your inner oligarch? Details are three posts down from here.


As part of the studio clearout we came in contact with the wonderful people at ReCreate in Ballymount, Dublin. Their tagline is ’Creativity through Reuse’, and their premises is an Aladdin’s cave of surplus industrial materials awaiting reincarnation as art objects. These are collected in the ‘Warehouse of Wonders’ for use in ‘early childhood education, schools, colleges arts & community centres, and by individuals for art, craft, theatre and creative projects of all kinds.This helps local business produce less waste and helps our schools and communities to stretch their budgets and their imagination.’ Have a look at their website http://recreate.ie/

We wouldn’t have come across ReCreate were it not for Smile Resource Exchange – another social enterprise project that links businesses on the principle that one person’s waste product is another’s raw material. See http://www.smileexchange.ie/




Flower power in the 60s

The 1760s, that is – a recently discovered wallpaper in Dublin’s Merrion Square leads to an investigation of chintz patterns in eighteenth-century furnishing and dress.



Merrion Square exterior

93 Merrion Square is a three-bay house built around 1760, situated between the National Gallery and Lincoln Place, and part of a terrace which pre-dates the rest of the square.  Its earliest occupants, whoever they were, might have looked out from the windows of the front room of the first floor to watch the surveyors and builders who were transforming the open country of the Fitzwilliam estate into Dublin’s most ambitious urban development. When they turned from the windows they might have retreated into the rear room, which was papered with this wallpaper.


This has survived, somewhat miraculously, in a building which has undergone many alterations over the course of its history. Not very long after the house was built, the chimney breast in this rear first-floor room was widened by around two feet on each side, using lath and plaster, and it is in the void created by this extension that the paper has been preserved.  Almost every other detail of the room has been substantially changed in the intervening period.


The pattern  is surprisingly – perhaps even shockingly – bold and colourful.  It  combines intricacy of design with a certain crudeness of execution, and the flowing lines possess great vitality – as we see by zooming in and rotating this detail of a flower head, which seems to have an almost human quality.


This remarkable wallpaper is formed from hand-made sheets, joined together to form lengths – the joins are visible in the photo. The black outlines of the pattern are printed with a wood block, and the colours are brushed on by hand using stencils. Apart from the boldness of the design, the noticeable feature is the lack of precision in both the printing and the installation of the paper. It is obvious where the pattern meets the edge of the printing block, and that the printer could have aligned the next print more carefully. The stencils are crudely shaped, loosely following the outlines of the pattern, and have sometimes been positioned quite carelessly before the colours were applied.  The matching of the pattern across the two adjacent lengths of paper shown in the image is almost slapdash.  One hopes the customer was happy, and that the overall effect was felt to outweigh these discrepancies, which seem to indicate a craft in the early stages of its development.


By 1760 the wallpaper trade was well established in Dublin, and consumers could choose to buy from among half a dozen paper-stainers active in the city. Their advertisements list some of the styles available at the time: Thomas Russell of Bride Street, for example, sold  ‘Flock, Chintz, Stucco, Mock Indian, Architect, Gothic and Landskip’ patterns. Of these, chintz patterns seem to have been particularly popular, judging by the number of examples which have been found in Irish houses of all sizes . The paper in Merrion Square is an early and particularly striking example of the type.

But what exactly do we mean by chintz? The word  first appeared in the early 17th century in its singular form ‘chint’, derived from a Hindi word which means spattered or stained. ‘Chint’s’ were colourful, painted cotton cloths produced in India for a variety of purposes.This example is typical, with exotic, imaginary flowers and writhing leaves blossoming from a sinuous stem. The diamond-shaped pattern which embellishes the stem is echoed in the wallpaper example from Merrion Square.

chintz comparison

From the time they appeared on European markets in the late seventeenth century chintzes became highly sought after, both as dress fabrics and for home furnishing. So great was the material’s popularity among English consumers that it was soon perceived as a threat by wool and silk merchants and manufacturers, who in 1721 persuaded the government to bring in a prohibition on the sale or wearing of chintz. Despite this ban, chintzes continued to find their way into English and Irish homes as contraband. In Ireland, the restrictions on chintz were less rigidly enforced – but the material was still targeted by supporters of native manufacture such Samuel Madden or Jonathon Swift, who in one of his pamphlets called on parliament to outlaw the wearing of Indian silks or calicos.  In the propaganda campaigns against calico and chintz, the very qualities which made cotton  so popular – its comfort and lightness principally – were seized on by the woollen and silk lobbyists and used to suggest that the morals of those who wore chintz or calico  were in some way, like the fabric itself, loose, light-weight and flimsy, and therefore  suspect.  Daniel Defoe described the woman who wore chintz as ‘an enemy to her country’. Taken together with its nature as contraband, this must have given the acquisition and use of cotton chintz a certain frisson of transgression.

Chintz fabrics were widely used for dress and furnishing in Ireland, although their use is not recorded in any contemporary portrait painting that I am aware of. The reason of course is that cotton chintz fabric was not formal wear – it was regarded as ‘undress’, and those sitting for portraits almost invariably chose to have themselves depicted in formal finery. Across Europe, wearing chintz out of doors was a risky thing to do. At the very least it might attract sniffy comments from your more conventionally-dressed peers, at worst the wearer might find herself attacked, either by supporters of the woollen or silk trades or even by revenue officials, who were authorised to remove imported cottons from the wearer’s back.

Looking at chintz as a furnishing material, it is apparent that the same distinction between formal wear and undress applied  to furnishing textiles as well as to garments.  The use of chintz in Irish domestic interiors is amply documented  – recent research by Patricia MacCarthy and others shows that in Ireland, as elsewhere, there was a code to adhere to in furnishing fabrics, as there was with dress. Chintz was acceptable in private or semi-private rooms, but not in formal rooms such as the drawing room or dining room (although in the following century printed chintzes would find their way into the drawing room). The window and bed curtains of bedrooms were usually made from the same material – the fabric varied from room to room and might be chintz, linen check, or brightly-coloured woollen fabrics such as camlet or morine.  Dublin paper-stainers advertised their ability to match fabrics with wallpaper, and it is likely that in bedrooms described as having cotton chintz hangings the walls were papered with chintz-patterned papers. As with chintz garments, contemporary pictorial depictions of chintz furnishings are entirely lacking in Ireland and extremely rare across Europe –  – this engraving shows a bed upholstered completely in a chintz fabric, but –annoyingly – without matching window curtains and wallpaper.

Lady Friz

By the 1750s European textile printers had started to master some of the techniques of printing fast colours on cotton and linen, and were producing locally made imitations of chintz. In Dublin, several printing factories competed for this trade, and the term ‘Irish chintz’ began to appear on upholsterers’ invoices. The factory of Thomas and Margaret Ashworth in Donnybrook produced both textiles and wallpapers – perhaps the Merrion Square paper is an example of their work? We don’t know.

The discovery of the Merrion Square wallpaper shows that chintzes were not just confined to bedrooms, and that these vibrantly exotic, swirling patterns also had a place on the piano nobile – the first-floor suite of rooms in a terraced townhouse which formed the principal stage for hospitality and the display of wealth and taste. What function, then, did the rear room in 94 Merrion Square serve? It is likely to have been described at the time as a dressing room – a possibility  supported by contemporary references to dressing rooms occupying  this part of a terraced house.  In an inventory of 1762, for example, the rear room of the first floor suite of Lord and Lady Doneraile’s  Kildare Street house was named as ‘My Lady’s dressing room’, and was described as being decorated  with chintz hangings . Lady Doneraile’s dressing room opened into a smaller bedchamber, and also to the drawing room, the main front room on the piano nobile (first floor). This had window curtains and seat furniture of crimson silk damask,  with the walls perhaps papered in  matching flock. When the connecting doors were opened, the contrast between the formal grandeur of the drawing room and the vibrantly exotic colouring of the dressing room must have been dramatic.

Besides the chintz hangings, the inventory  of Lady Doneraile’s dressing room lists the turkey carpet,  a japanned looking glass, an ‘India cabinet’ on a frame, a writing desk, glazed bookcases and a dressing table, covered with scarlet cloth. These objects evoke a range of activities from grooming and dressing to reading and writing. As the name suggests, the dressing room would be used to store clothes and as a place to change clothes, but it’s wider functions included those of a study, a work-room or as a less formal area for entertaining than that offered by the drawing room.

The dressing room was one of the principal sites for displaying fashionable goods – and in particular oriental goods and their western imitations. Inventories tell us that the items to be found there might include dressing boxes, screens, tea boards and tea tables, japanned goods of all kinds and ‘India’ pictures or prints.  Items of this kind were, by the mid century, increasingly being supplied by specialist dealers in East India goods, such as Robert  and Mary Bijar at the India Warehouse on Abbey Street, (might their name indicate Asian origin?). At the Bijars’  Indian Warehouse, consumers could buy a wide range of oriental silk and cotton textiles and furniture, as well as jewellery, fans, coffee and ‘India’ paper (i.e. Chinese wallpaper).

The discovery of the chintz paper in Merrion Square shows how the patterns which enriched the  private spaces of the Georgians were – although largely unrecorded by painters – a lot richer in colour and pattern than we might suppose. It opens a door to the material culture of the dressing room, and shows how local artisans responded to the influx of East India goods to add their own wares to the extraordinary variety of goods that were imported into Dublin.



Who was Smith – the mystery designer of ‘Belvedere’?

‘Belvedere’ – one of the more colourful patterns in our collection – has an intriguing, if mysterious, back-story.




As every student of wallpaper and revolution knows, one of the first acts of mob violence in Paris in 1789 was the sacking of the Royal Wallpaper Manufactory of Jean Reveillon. In the wake of the French revolution, Ireland saw its own episodes of armed rebellion in 1798 and 1803 – although during both of these outbreaks Dublin’s industrious paper-stainers seem to have kept their heads safely down. The United Irish cause attracted artisans and merchants from many of the textile trades, however , but as the movement went underground and headed towards physical force its wealthier, merchant-class adherents mostly fell away. One of the few who didn’t was James Smith (or Smyth) , a calico printer in Leixlip, and associate of the leading United Irishmen of north Kildare, including Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Smith played an active role in the 53-day military campaign in Kildare in 1798, before surrendering with the other United Irish forces at Sallins in July.

Smith may be a candidate for authorship of what is surely the most extraordinary wallpaper printed in Ireland in the eighteenth century – the richly coloured pattern of trees, birds, fruit and ruins found in Belvedere, County Westmeath. This pattern – most unusually for a wallpaper – contains the name of its maker within the design, and this is -of course – SMITH. The name is a common one, and is found among  Irish paper-stainers of the period, so why should a calico printer be considered as the maker of a wallpaper?

smith urn
One reason is that both the style of the pattern and the technique used to print the Belvedere paper have little to do with paper-staining and everything to do with calico printing. Paper-stainers used dense, opaque colours which lie heavily on top of each other like layers of coloured icing, while calico printers were skilled in the use of dyes and mordants to produce secondary shades by combining and overlaying different colours. This is similar to the method used to produce the extraordinary colour range in the Belvedere pattern – sixteen different shades can be identified, produced from a palette of eleven basic colours. The choice of pigments, too, is unusual for wallpaper – one of the yellows, for example, has been analysed and shown to be an organic pigment, (perhaps the ‘yellow berry wash’ produced from the buckthorn plant and mentioned in eighteenth-century sources), whereas paper-stainers might be expected to have used the mineral pigment ochre.

belv birds
One of the few known facts of  James Smith’s career before 1798 is his association with the Palmerstown calico printer Edward Clarke, who – it has recently emerged – produced his own version of the Belvedere pattern. Clarke is best known for having distributed (and perhaps commissioned) that most iconic of Irish textiles, the Volunteer furniture, printed in Leixlip by Thomas Harpur and put on sale in 1783.

NMIDT: 1910.501. Volunter wallpaper


James Smith seems to have lived with and worked with Clarke as an apprentice, before setting up on his own in Leixlip – possibly taking over Harpur’s lease of the Ryevale calico works on the latter’s bankruptcy in 1786. Like Harpur, Smith appears not to have advertised his products, perhaps because – like his predecessor – he worked to commission for more established merchants such as Clarke, who had a shop in the city in Werburgh Street. Following Smith’s arrest and imprisonment in Kilmainham in 1798, Clarke wrote a character reference in his favour. This was couched in somewhat ambivalent terms – understandably enough, given Clarke’s position as a leading manufacturer and magistrate, he could not be seen to endorse Smith’s actions, or even admit to a close connection. Nevertheless, Clarke played down Smith’s involvement in the rebellion, pointing out that Smith had refused to take any rank in the rebel army, and had surrendered himself as soon as it was safe to do so. The authorities remained unconvinced, however, believing Smith to have played a very active role and taken part in several battles. Smith was one of the last of the state prisoners to be released in 1802 under sentence of banishment. Shortly after his release, an item in the Ladies Magazine referred to one of the state prisoners as being ‘an artist of great eminence… formerly in the employment of Edward Clarke of Palmerstown.’ This surely refers to James Smith.

Clarke Belvedere
The connection between the ‘Belvedere’ pattern, Smith and Clarke is strengthened by the existence of fragments of calico printed with a version of the Belvedere design, with the name SMITH removed and the initials EC inserted – almost certainly identifying Clarke as the printer. These fragments, arranged among pieces cut from the Volunteer furniture and other patterns, form part of an early nineteenth-century appliqué bedcover, now in the National Museum of Ireland.  Compared with the Belvedere wallpaper, Clarke’s rendition of the design is greatly simplified in its range of colours, employing only blue and two shades of madder pink. How do the two versions relate to each other, and which might have been printed first?
If we assume that James Smith was the author of the Belvedere wallpaper (and this is still only an assumption), then it is likely that Clarke’s relatively lacklustre version of the Belvedere pattern was ‘borrowed’ after Smith’s arrest, imprisonment and banishment, and that the determinedly loyalist Clarke felt quite justified in inserting his own initials in place of his former apprentice’s name. Smith never resumed his printing career in Ireland, and would not have been in a position to object to piracy of this kind. Under the terms of his release he left Ireland and went first, briefly, to London. From there he travelled to Rouen, where a number of other United Irishmen had settled, including William Putnam McCabe, the son of a Belfast Presbyterian cotton manufacturer, who had narrowly escaped arrest at the scene of the capture of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. McCabe had bought or leased a calico mill in Rouen, bringing Irish workers from Manchester as well as employing former United Irish comrades. Smith’s skills would have been a great asset to this venture, but his stay in France was not to be long, however, as he was one of those who returned secretly to Ireland in the spring of 1803 to prepare the ground for Robert Emmett’s planned attempt to seize Dublin. Smith did not take part in the brief and confused fighting around Thomas Street on the evening of July 23rd, having left the city in the morning for Antrim in the company of Thomas Russell, intending to rally support for the rebellion in Ulster. He would therefore have been unaware of the role played in the drama by his former employer, Edward Clarke, who was intercepted by a party of rebels on Aran Quay, shot and wounded, while returning to Palmerstown after attempting to warn the Castle authorities that the rebellion was underway. Large numbers of Clarke’s workers turned out for Emmett, and three were later hanged in Palmerstown for their part in the attack on their employer.
Of the remainder of Smith’s life little is known. He evaded capture in 1803, and may possibly have continued to live quietly in Ireland without attracting the attention of the authorities. Almost nothing is known of his early career as a calico printer in Leixlip before 1798. Were the ‘eminent artist’, the United Irishman and the printer who put his name to a masterful piece of work one and the same? Perhaps so, in which case  it is remarkable that such a distinctive and inventive pattern should have been produced under the same roof as Harpur’s Volunteer furniture.

Before Harpur’s tenancy, the Leixlip mill was briefly operated by Samuel Dixon, who left some tantalising descriptions of his linen and cotton patterns but, alas, no surviving examples. Echoes of Dixon’s well-known bird and flower prints on embossed paper can be seen in the Belvedere pattern, while the trees which frame its more elaborate motifs resemble closely those in the Volunteer furniture. Is it fanciful to see a continuity of native genius in pattern design at the Leixlip print works – over the course of several bankruptcies and changes of ownership –  in a trade dominated by copies and adaptations of London goods?

Ryevale mill, Leixlip

‘Belvedere’ is available either as a hand screen print on archival paper or – more economically – as a digital print.

belvedere bedroom

Charity sale of surplus stock at bargain prices



e-mail enquiries to: skinnerdav@gmail.com


‘Gandon’  purple and metallic silver

Repeat: 190 cm

Enough for: 3.8m (h) x 10.5m (w);   or   1.9m (h) x 21.5m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 200 the lot



edwards 1

Moire stripes and swags, gold highlights

Repeat: 52.3 cm

Enough for: 3.1m (h) x 15m (w);   or   2m (h) x 20m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 200 the lot




Large-repeat English eighteenth-century damask pattern

40 rolls approx.., each 10m x 52 cm: enough for a large drawing room or several small rooms!

Euro 100 per 10 rolls or Euro 300 the lot





Gandon Major (based on Gandon, but extra-wide), white on pearlescent silver

Repeat: 106 cm

Enough for: 3.5m (h) x 4.2m (w);   or  2.1m (h) x 6.1m (w)

All checked and ok: Euro 50 the lot





Pugin Trellis : metallic gold on mustard yellow ground

Repeat: 18 cm

Enough for: 3.24m (h)  x  14m (w);    or   2.34m (h)  x  19m (w)

All ok: Euro 200 the lot




Peach/blue Stripes and dots:  late eighteenth or early nineteenth century pattern

No repeat

Enough for: 3.3m (h) x 9.7m (w);  or  2.5m (h)  x  12.9m (w);  or  2.0m (h) x 16.2m (w)

All ok: Euro 150 the lot





Birr Damask: off-white on pale beige ground

Repeat: 55.5 cm

Enough for: 3.3m (h) x 2.6m (w);  or  2.2m (h) x 3.7m (w)

Euro 40





Grey  eighteenth-century French damask

Repeat: 52.4 cm

Enough for: 2.0m (h) x 5.4m (w); or 2.6m (h) x 3.7m (w);  or  3.1m (h) x 3.2m (w)

Euro 40





Ornate 19th-century Gothic pattern

Repeat: 47.7 cm

Enough for: 1.9m (h) x 4.7m (w);  or 2.8m (h)  x x2.6m (w); or  2.38m (h)  x 3.6m (w)

Checked and ok: 50 euro


Ireland’s Archive of Historic Wallpapers

It started with a skip – the Marks collection and the Fota Wallpaper Archive.

On 6th April 2016, as part of Cork Decorative and Fine Arts Society’s annual lecture series, Jennifer McCrea of the Irish Heritage Trust will be giving a talk entitled: ‘Reading the walls: the stories that historic wallpapers can tell us’ using examples from the Fota Archive. Further information can be found here: http://corkdfas.ie/?page_id=1833


While passing along Dublin’s South Anne Street  one afternoon in 1976, Desmond Guinness noticed some men at work emptying the premises of John Marks Decorators. Peering into the skip (or dumpster for American readers) which had been placed in front of the shop, he saw dozens of rolls of wallpaper – not the machine-printed vinyls then in vogue, but block-printed patterns highlighted with gilding and flock, evidently of some antiquity. Following a brief discussion between the observant passer-by and the foreman of the crew, the rolls made their way out of the skip and into Leixlip Castle, and were thus fortuitously preserved.


The ‘Marks Collection’ now forms a major part of the Irish Heritage Trust’s archive of historic wallpapers, housed in Fota House and dedicated to the memory of Ada Longfield, who – in a lifetime of research and publication which began in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s- did more than anyone to trace the history of printing on wallpaper, cotton and linen in Ireland in the long eighteenth century. The existence of the archive is due largely to the efforts of John O’Connell, whose own collection of historic papers salvaged from Irish houses  also forms a significant part of the archive, and includes such rare and valuable examples  as the early eighteenth-century flock paper from Turvey House and the complete room of imported Chinese paper of 1800 from Killeen Castle. The latter was briefly  installed in a bedroom at Fota in 1988, but sadly was taken down at a time when the future of Fota seemed uncertain, and has remained in storage since. Several examples of the products of Ireland’s many  ‘paper-stainers’ are in the collection, identifiable by the stamps used on the reverse to show that the maker had paid the duty which was levied on wallpaper in Ireland between 1796 and 1836. These duty stamps were a favourite subject of Ada Longfield, who published several lengthy articles on them – indeed it is probably no exaggeration to say that she was more interested in the stamps on the back of a wallpaper then the pattern on the front.


The firm of Marks traded on South Anne Street for almost exactly a century, and the material salvaged from their store room represents the best of what was available at the upper end of the wallpaper market in mid- to late-Victorian and Edwardian Dublin. The bulk consists of borders, friezes and corner pieces, many of which exemplify the heavily enriched  and opulent style of the ‘beaux arts’ school of design. Victorian avant-garde or reformist styles are noticeably absent – no specimens of the work of William Morris, Walter Crane, Owen Jones are included, and only a few items reflect the flattened, two-dimensional forms advocated by the design reformers. On the contrary, illusionistic and mimetic effects appear frequently, including a number of faux-bois pilasters, capitals and friezes. These are splendid examples of the skilled block-printer’s art – one imagines them being made by proudly-moustachioed men such as this unnamed printer in a London factory, photographed around 1910.





The collection also includes some early twentieth-century patterns which reflect the influence of art nouveau, while other examples – such as the pictorial frieze shown here – suggest that  by that time the firm’s clientele had moved slightly downmarket.  From slightly later, two examples of the ‘Lancastria’ range of wallpapers made by Wallpaper Manufacturers Ltd show the cheerful and colourful styles available in the 1950s.




The Fota Archive is a small collection, yet manages to convey a good impression of the development of fashion in wallpapers across three centuries, while preserving for future study and enjoyment significant examples from Irish houses, many of them the product of local artisans. It is a resource that will – it is hoped – be appreciated and used by all those interested in the patterns of the past, be they students, design professionals, historians or architects.