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The Wallpapers of Spitalfields

February 8, 2011
by the gentle author

One house in Fournier St has wallpapers dating from 1690 until 1960. This oldest piece of wallpaper was already thirty years old when it was pasted onto the walls of the new house built by joiner William Taylor in 1721, providing evidence – as if it were ever needed – that people have always prized beautiful old things.

John Nicolson, the current inhabitant of the house, keeps his treasured collection of wallpaper preserved between layers of tissue in chronological order, revealing both the history and tastes of his predecessors. First, there were the wealthy Huguenot silk weavers who lived in the house until they left for Scotland in the nineteenth century, when it was subdivided as rented dwellings for Jewish people fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. Yet, as well as illustrating the precise social history of this location in Spitalfields, the wider significance of the collection is that it tells the story of English wallpaper – through examples from a single house.

When John Nicolson bought it in 1995, the house had been uninhabited since the nineteen thirties, becoming a Jewish tailoring workshop and then an Asian sweatshop before reaching the low point of dereliction, repossessed and rotting. John undertook a ten year renovation programme, moving into the attic and then colonising the rooms as they became habitable, one by one. Behind layers of cladding applied to the walls, the original fabric of the house was uncovered and John ensured that no materials left the building, removing nothing that predated 1970. A leaky roof had destroyed the plaster which came off the walls as he uncovered them, but John painstakingly salvaged all the fragments of wallpaper and all the curios lost by the previous inhabitants between the floorboards too.

“I wanted it to look like a three hundred year old house that had been lovingly cared for and aged gracefully over three centuries,” said John, outlining his ambition for the endeavour, “- but it had been trashed, so the challenge was to avoid either the falsification of history or a slavish recreation of one particular era.” The house had undergone two earlier renovations, to update the style of the panelling in the seventeen-eighties and to add a shopfront in the eighteen-twenties. John chose to restore the facade as a domestic frontage, but elsewhere his work has been that of careful repair to create a home that retains its modest domesticity and humane proportions, honouring the qualities that make these Spitalfields houses distinctive.

The ancient wallpaper fragments are as delicate as butterfly wings now, but each one was once a backdrop to life as it was played out through the ages in this tottering old house. I can envisage the seventeenth century wallpaper with its golden lozenges framing dog roses would have gleamed by candlelight and brightened a dark drawing room through the Winter months with its images of Summer flowers, and I can also imagine the warm glow of the brown-hued Victorian designs under gaslight in the tiny rented rooms, a century later within the same house. When I think of the countless hours I have spent staring at the wallpaper in my brief existence, I can only wonder at the number of day dreams that were once projected upon these three centuries of wallpaper.

Flowers and foliage are the constant motifs throughout all these papers, confirming that the popular fashion for floral designs on the wall has extended for over three hundred years already. Sometimes the flowers are sparser, sometimes more stylised but, in general, I think we may surmise that, when it comes to choosing wallpaper, people like to surround themselves with flowers. Wallpaper offers an opportunity to inhabit an everlasting bower, a garden that never fades or requires maintenance. And maybe a pattern of flowers is more forgiving than a geometric design? When it comes to concealing the damp patches, or where the baby vomited, or where the young mistress threw the wine glass at the wall in a tantrum, floral is the perfect English compromise of the bucolic and the practical.

Two surprises in this collection of wallpaper contradict the assumed history of Spitalfields. One is a specimen from 1895 that has been traced through the Victoria & Albert Museum archive and discovered to be very expensive – sixpence a yard, equivalent to week’s salary – entirely at odds with the assumption that these rented rooms were inhabited exclusively by the poor at that time. It seems that then, as now, there were those prepared to scrimp for the sake of enjoying exhorbitant wallpaper. The other surprise is a modernist Scandanavian design by Eliel Saarinen from the nineteen twenties – we shall never know how this got there. John Nicolson likes to think that people who appreciate good design have always recognised the beauty of these exemplary old houses in Fournier St, which would account for the presence of both the expensive 1895 paper and the Saarinen pattern from 1920, and I see no reason to discount this noble theory.

I leave you to take a look at this selection of fragments from John’s archive and imagine for yourself the human dramas witnessed by these humble wallpapers of Spitalfields.

Fragments from the seventeen twenties.

Hand-painted wallpaper from the seventeen eighties.

Printed wallpaper from the seventeen eighties.

Eighteen twenties.

Eighteen forties.

Mid-nineteenth century fake wood panelling wallpaper, as papered over real wooden panelling.

Wallpaper by William Morris, 1880.

Expensive wallpaper at sixpence a yard from 1885.

1895

Late nineteenth century, in a lugubrious Arts & Crafts style.

A frieze dating from  1900.

In an Art Nouveau style c. 1900.

Modernist design by Finnish designer Eliel Saarinen from the nineteen twenties.

Nineteen sixties floral.

Vinyl wallpaper from the nineteen sixties.

Items that John Nicolson found under the floorboards of his eighteenth century house in Fournier St, including a wedding ring, pipes, buttons, coins, cotton reels, spinning tops, marbles, broken china and children’s toys. Note the child’s leather boot, the pair of jacks found under the front step, and the blue bottle of poison complete with syringe discovered in a sealed-up medicine cupboard which had been papered over. Horseshoes were found hidden throughout the fabric of the house to bring good luck, and the jacks and child’s shoe may also have been placed there for similar reasons.

You may like to see The Secret Gardens of Spitalfields

29 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for this moving reminder of the stories embedded in the material traces people leave behind.

  2. February 8, 2011

    The wallpaper’s grand, but I love even more the treasures under the floorboards. Did that lost wedding ring cause heartache and recriminations? Or was it thrown across the room in a fit of pique and thought good riddance? The stories, the stories…

  3. jeannette permalink
    February 8, 2011

    ohhhh, would he let you photograph his interiors, with before pix?
    i’m so nosy, and the parade of papers, most really beautiful, and the little things just piqued my curiousity baaaaaaaaaad.

  4. February 8, 2011

    Extraordinary. Thank you, Gentle Author.

  5. Clare Axton permalink
    February 8, 2011

    These are such beautiful wallpapers and it is amazing how much was found under the floorboards.

  6. February 8, 2011

    These are trully fascinating finds that reveal the past layers of this extraordinary house. Thank for this post. Wonderful photos, too.

  7. Anne Forster permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Loved this post GA , I think everyone who reads this will have had their imagination fired by these fragments of long ago.

  8. February 8, 2011

    Fascinating post. I love the trivia of fashion be it in dress or decor.

    On a different subject, have you seen this, an 1864 map of London now online – http://london1864.com/

  9. Margaret Lambert permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Thank you for a fascinating post of the design history of one home, through it’s layers of wallpaper!

  10. February 8, 2011

    oh joy !!
    how this post speaks to me , I have made some of my most favourite drawings on old scraps of wallpaper …..these you have shown from johns house are exquisite poetic objects and the quarry he found between the spaces ,

    gaston bachelard would be proud ( I think the mudlarks will love this too , from a walllark in fournier street.)
    here is one of my wallpaper drawings ….you just have to copy it and paper paste it:)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/queenjaneosullivan/4356475633/in/set-72157623201236598/
    thank you again for the inspiration that is spitalfields life

  11. Gary permalink
    February 8, 2011

    I have Victorian wallpaper behind the shelves in my shop.Its pretty, but deadly because it is green and they used arsenic in that pigment.
    I look at it but do not touch
    Gary

  12. thebadcat permalink
    February 8, 2011

    What a wonderful post. I recently read Amanda Vickery’s Behind Closed Doors where wallpaper was discussed at length. I, too, love the under the floorboard finds, and think the wedding ring was the best find.

  13. tina hind permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Amazing! Saved to my ‘favourites’ to muse over again. I love to view old patterns and fabrics. Enjoyed a visit to the ‘Foundling Museum’ in London last year. Samples of materials left as tokens to identify children if collected, on display!

  14. Rose permalink
    February 8, 2011

    Thank you. These are beautiful.

  15. Jean Weddle permalink
    February 11, 2011

    This posting sings to me. I love England and I am a huge anglophile (USA citizen) who loves to read about UK and it’s history. William Morris is experiencing a revival amongst quilters today. A woman out of Australia, Michele Hill, has written a quilt pattern book that builds on the William Morris designs. When I saw the William Morris scrap of wallpaper, it was wonderful for my eyes to behold. I especially like the photos of the wall papers, but the artifacts found throughout are equally as fascinating. I would love to see more posts like this from other places in the Spitalfields area. Great job, Gentle author.

    http://www.amazon.com/More-William-Morris-Appliqu-Michele/dp/0980575389/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297431702&sr=1-2

  16. February 11, 2011

    wow, what amazing finds, i love the items found under the floorboards too. And how amazing how those wallpaper pieces have survived for so long. they’re beautiful.

  17. February 11, 2011

    A great piece as per normal G.A

    Love all the under the floorboard collection…………..Shoes found in chimneys and around doors (openings) are for good luck…………..as evil spirits could enter here.

    Shoes found under floorboards are for “fertility”……….and in both cases, they are always very well worn kids shoes, so john……………..if you’ve got 42 children and could’nt work out why…………….you now know why.

  18. February 12, 2011

    What wonderful finds! So interesting how the lovely, delicate very early wallpapers changed to the heavier, darker ones of the Victorian age.

    Have only just found your blog – I will certainly be back for more!

  19. JOHN permalink
    February 12, 2011

    Thank you Steve. I knew about the evil spirit business (and I found horse shoes up some chimneys as well as nailed to the thresholds). But I didn’t know about the fertility story.

  20. Richard Parsons permalink
    February 15, 2011

    I live in a house built in Great Britain, in His Majesty’s Loyal Province of North Carolina, in 1771. Since I bought it in 1984, I, like John, have been striving to make my house look like a 2oo+ “year old house that had been lovingly cared for and aged gracefully over three centuries;” my challenge has been “to avoid either the falsification of history or a slavish recreation of one particular era” favored by my preservationist friends. Praises to John for his sensitive approach, and praises to you for bringing him to our attention.

  21. a cultural historian from Massachusetts permalink
    February 27, 2011

    Fascinating !
    Like one of the apartments in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. And artfully expressed in words as well…… I enjoyed receiving this !

  22. March 22, 2011

    This is fascinating to me – the history of old houses brings us closer to past generations. Thank you for this wonderful article. With regard to the shoe, please follow this link to some information you may be interested in.

    http://wayhistsoc.home.comcast.net/~wayhistsoc/whs/Shoes_in_the_Wall/shoes_in_the_wall.htm

  23. Georgette Hasiotis permalink
    March 30, 2011

    This and several other recent posts have captured my complete attention – and reverence – as they details worlds unknown to me. You are a most original thinker and I am deeply grateful for my good luck in discovering your blog.

  24. catherine hack permalink
    March 23, 2012

    I am fascinated by the silk-weavers workshop at the top of the building, I have silk-weavers in my distant family but am sure they worked in places a lot less salubrious. What a studio !!

  25. Nina permalink
    August 6, 2012

    …… lovely article – I’ve only recently found this website and dip in and out of the goodies to be found therein …. beautiful words, often moving and always plenty of interesting photographs – you should be famous Gentle Author (perhaps you are?) ….

  26. Trina Jensen permalink
    November 28, 2012

    Thank you for the lovely information on Spitalfield. My ancestors came from Picardy France in the 1600′s and settled in Spitalfields ( silk weavers by the name of Pierre Le Sage).
    James Le Sage then living in Sydney St. Bethnal green was the last weaver in the family with his own weavery. A will found on the national archives written in 1832.
    They formally belonged to the Threadneedle St. Huguenot Church in London.

  27. Sara O'Leary permalink
    March 16, 2013

    This is so beautiful. I stripped about 150 years of wallpaper in my dining room but nothing as amazing as this. Love the surprise of the modernist paper after all the florals. Can just imagine how pleased someone was the day that went up.

  28. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    March 16, 2013

    How fascinating,personally I dont like wallpaper,but as an historical document its real archive stuff.I wonder what people will make of our homes in centuries to come.Although I dont live in London I find your posts completely engrossing!

  29. March 17, 2013

    You have all the best stories :) .

    I love the floral one from the 1960s.

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