The Aitken Treasure Trove

On a sunny Saturday morning in March a group of Wallpaper History Society members gathered at Cavendish Hall, Thurston in rural Suffolk. We were there at the kind invitation of Philip Aitken, architect, Historic Building Consultant – and wallpaper enthusiast. Phillip has a collection of over 700 wallpapers; the earliest made during the opening decades of the 18th century and the latest at the close of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately one third of the collection dates from the Victorian period.

Philip discovered the wallcoverings whilst conducting surveys in historic buildings. The papers were invariably hung on walls about to be radically altered, or even demolished. By electing to save samples of the papers from inevitable destruction he has created an important collection, which serves to cast light on the variety of decoration employed in a range of domestic settings across the East-Anglian region over the course of some 200 years.

We were introduced to the collection by means of a slide presentation, during which Philip sketched in a rough chronology for the papers and described some of the sites of his finds, including an attic bedroom in Wykeham House, Huntingdon, the Abbey Front, Bury St Edmunds and the breakfast room and back stairs at Morningthorpe Hall, Norfolk.

Ample time was allocated to examining the large number of wallpapers on display. The designs are a treasure trove of form and pattern: early 18th century delicate leaf motifs, mid-century smudged stencil florals, simple pin prints and fleur-de-lis from the earlier decades of the 19th century, and the strong stylised geometrical shapes of the Victorian era. Colourways were equally varied, and as many of the samples had been covered the brilliance of their original hues has been preserved. I think particularly of a paper used at St Bartholomew’s Priory, Sudbury, Suffolk – it is still mouth-watering claret and a rich bishop’s purple.

When we had inspected and exclaimed our fill Philip spoke to us – both eloquently and passionately – of the need for wider education regarding the meaning and value of wallcoverings. He asserted that historic buildings, both ‘listed’ and others not so officially designated, are under threat in a fashion not seen since the 1960s/70s. He attributes this directly to cost-cutting measures on the part of money-driven governments. Such cuts manifest themselves in the employment of fewer Conservation Officers, and arguably worse yet, a shift in culture which has resulted in frequent instances of hostility towards the C.O.’s on the part of some house owners and builders. At this point there was much nodding of heads among sections of the audience.

In relation to his own collection of papers it is Philip’s intention to publish a book, specifically a popular work rather than an academic text. He is also keen to digitise the collection to further accessibility and thereby introduce a wider demographic to both the charms and the value of historic wallpapers. There were several suggestions from the floor as how best to disseminate knowledge of the Aitken Collection: in the short-term using Instagram and snapchat, and in the slightly longer term by developing an app.

Philip acknowledges that there is much work to be done. Conservation and storage are a perennial concern for such fragile materials. Equally there is a need for systematic documentation, for only when contextual knowledge has been garnered can historic wallpapers be accorded their due value.

Dianne Lawrence