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The Wallpaper of Spitalfields

September 1, 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 and then later an Asian tailoring shop 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 also like to see the house these papers came from Before & After in Spitalfields

7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011

    Extraordinary. How important it is to record these little pieces of history.
    Also went back and read the Before and After post. What a labour of love and how beautiful it is.
    Thanks for posting this story.

  2. September 1, 2011

    Dear Gentle Author,

    could you explain to a German reader what a “Jack” is? Do you mean the pair of brownish puppets on the right?

    Thanks,
    Nicole

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    September 1, 2011

    Hello Nicole, Jacks refers to the two dice-like cubes on the left of the picture – one is white and one is brown. See this wikipedia entry for explanation of the game of jacks – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacks
    TGA

  4. Chris The Leatherman permalink
    September 1, 2011

    The wallpapers are truly wonderful. How fantastic are the 1820′s designs, especially compared to the slightly fascile ones of the 1960′s.

    Having worked in the Hackney area from the mid 1970′s (although I live in Northamptonshire now and only come down once a week) I am being a little cynical to think that it is more likely the expensive wallpaper from 1885 was nicked ?

    I suspect that Mr. Nicholson has a really important collection of wallpapers.

    PS I was in Winkley Street (just of Bobcan’t Street) yesterday and there are some terrific terraced houses there I hadn’t seen before.

  5. September 1, 2011

    Thank you, this is fascinating work. I often look into your blog and it often makes me dream and learn.

  6. Maryellen Johnston permalink
    September 1, 2011

    What treasures! You’ve brought back to my memory the quite hideous wallpapers and friezes in the 1920s house of my grandparents. I wish there’s been colour film when I was a child!

  7. September 2, 2011

    I foound identical scraps of wallpaper to the 1895 pattern when restoring my Grandmother’s old terrace in Kensal Green at the very bottom layer. I have the original deeds and the year the house was completed is 1895 a fairly commercial pattern I suppose.

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