WHS visits Allyson McDermott's Bath showroom
February 27th 2019
When a group of WHS members and friends arrived at Allyson McDermott’s’s Bath showroom on a glorious sunny day we were delighted to find ourselves transported back in time to a beautiful period shop with a long mahogany counter and fitted shelves displaying the black and gold lettering of the grocery and provisions store it had once been. The double-fronted shop had been transformed by Allyson and her team into a luxurious wallpaper showroom with beautiful examples of her work spilling over a vintage stepladder in the window and cascading down from the mezzanine balcony. Even as we entered we knew were in for a fabulous day. Allyson’s daughter had persuaded her mother to take a three-month lease on the empty shop and a year later, she was still there. Now, as she prepares to leave it to concentrate on her core work of consultancy, restoration and conservation of historic wallpapers, she kindly offered WHS the chance to hear all about her work.
After a warm welcome with coffee and sweetmeats Allyson made a presentation to us outlining all the many projects with which she has been involved, from Keble College, the St Pancras Hotel and the controversial House of Lords scheme, to the more modest dwellings of 78 Derngate with its Mackintosh interior, and the Brontë Parsonage. Her talk centred on the three key themes of Investigation, Conservation and Recreation which she saw as central to any examination of a historic interior’s wallpapers. A combination of one or several of these may be required, depending on the circumstances. Allyson outlined the many factors that need consideration in identifying historic wallpapers – it is not simply a question of the design but the method of manufacture, fibres and even the way it was hung that are relevant.
Cross sections of papers are examined under the microscope and fibres analysed to establish their age and possible provenance. Block prints can be identified by the texture of the inks at the side of the paper where the ‘sucking’ of the block as it is pulled away is discernible. Pre-1830s papers were made up of small joined sheets and bore duty stamps which allow for more accurate dating. Although traditional block-printing techniques may be required in recreating a historic paper, it was interesting to learn that digital printing can now be used to great effect to emulate machine-printed papers. Unlike in commercial digital printing the paints used are water-based and UV light is used to create the colours needed.
One case study that Allyson outlined was Brighton Pavilion where the early 19th century paper had been covered over in the 1920s with another paper. Through cleaning the paper in situ with dry conservation sponges gently stroked over the surface of the paper as many five times, Allyson and her team were able to bring the colour back to life and identify it as a wallpaper also used in a Buckingham Palace bedroom. Whilst the Brighton Pavilion paper was restored to its former glory the Palace paper underwent conservation supplemented by facsimile paper. As Allyson explained, in any given project she always leaves a square of paper unrestored so that observers can see the original state in which it was found.
Surprising revelations come about in the course of wallpaper restoration. At Linley Sambourne House, where it had been decided in one room to restore the leather paper, once the furniture had been pulled away from the walls it was discovered that the papering had been done around the furniture rather than all over, possibly for budgetary reasons or convenience. Revealed behind the furniture was a completely different paper by William Morris. At Brontë Parsonage, which was widely expected to have a cheap paper on the walls, evidence was found of flocked papers, suggesting that the Brontës were not as impoverished as is generally assumed.
The afternoon was devoted to practical workshops with half the group trying their hand at ‘grounding’, the process by which distemper is laid down on paper. Using a large circular brush we attempted to apply the mixture of pigment, gelatine and water to the paper in round swirling strokes. The process has to be carried out up to five times, allowing for the paper to dry overnight after each application, before any print or flock can be applied. Allyson explained how it was even possible to identify a particular artist’s hand in the sweep and style of the strokes.
The other half of the group stood in rapt attention as Adrian McDermott explained the meticulous process of flocking and the challenges of finding suitable flock. Traditionally flock was made of wool but nowadays is more likely to have a high synthetic content. In order to find the right flock to recreate an 18th-century paper they have been known to sit snipping up old bits of felt or sheep’s wool!
In order to apply the flock you take a block carved with the design – these blocks largely being created from fruit woods whose fine grain proves the most suitable – and dip it in paint or glue before applying it to the painted paper. This then goes into the flocking box where it is sprinkled with a sieveful of flock until all the glue is thickly covered. Then comes the fun bit. The box is locked and its soft upper and lower sides (originally leather but plastic sheeting today) are then robustly thumped and banged by hand for several minutes in order to distribute the flock as evenly as possible. When the box is opened you hope to see a fully flocked paper. Although touching-up of flock is possible it is a very delicate procedure and touching-up of the glue before flocking is very much preferable. And as we all agreed, it is the little imperfections that make for the beauty of the paper. Those of us lucky enough to have a go at flocking were inordinately proud of our efforts and delighted to go home with our very own piece of handmade wallpaper, 18th-century style.
Our very sincere thanks go to Allyson and Adrian for a fascinating and educational day.