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A warm welcome at Insole Court

Roland Lamble shows papers found in the house that are not available to view in situ

Members of WHS arrived at Insole Court on September 16th in pouring rain, but a team of enthusiastic volunteers was ready to warm us up with coffee and biscuits.

The house sits in the wealthy suburb of Llandaff in South Wales, and enjoys beautifully restored gardens, now open to the public, and a view over Cardiff Bay. It’s easy to see why James Harvey Insole, a local colliery proprietor, moved his family here from Cardiff. The house, also referred to on maps as ‘The Court’, ‘Ely Court’ and ‘Llandaff Court’, was built in 1855, but James commissioned George Robinson and Edwin Seward to extend and improve it in the Gothic style in the 1870s. It was then further extended in 1907 after James’ death by his son George Frederick ‘Fred’ Insole.

Now run by the Insole Court Trust, the house and outbuildings are used for a variety of community needs, with a popular café onsite. The site is largely staffed by volunteers, who have also carried out all recent research. The new CEO, Lloyd Glanville, previously at Cardiff Castle, took time to meet the group.

After a welcome speech by volunteer Catherine O’Brien, we were given a presentation on the history of the house by Roland Lamble, who shared his findings and illustrated the various stages of the house’s development.

The Smoking Room has a wealth of decorative features by Edwin Seward

Edwin Seward had worked with renowned Gothic Revival architect William Burges (responsible for nearby Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch) and Burges’ influence is evident, particularly in the Smoking Room (Ground floor) where no expense was spared. The restored frieze of the seasons painted by Frederick Weekes strongly resembles work by the same artist commissioned by Burges at Cardiff Castle. The room also features a high-quality cellarette – a small cabinet for drinks - an ornate wooden ceiling and floor, and elaborate metal work on the doors, windows and ceiling.

Metal ceiling vent with semi-precious stones in the Smoking Room

The intricate wooden floor of the Smoking Room

Frederick Weekes’s frieze shows seasonal activities

The team discovered a reference to a 1907 order from wallpaper makers Cowtan* and a meeting with WHS Committee member Wendy Andrews led them to the V&A, where further evidence of the order was found. Scraps of wallpaper have helped identify the uses of the rooms at the time, though the attributions of papers to rooms may be modified as research continues.

Cowtan Book from 1907 © Insole Court Archive Research Group

‘Fred’ Insole died during the First World War and with the market turning away from coal, the family’s fortunes went into decline. In 1932 Cardiff council bought the entire estate to allow for an orbital road and housing. By 1938, the last members of the family had left.

Churchill keeps an eye on things from the fire surround in the Main Hall

During the Second World War the house became an important hub in the civil defence of Cardiff and was used by the Royal Observer Corps and the Auxiliary Fire Service. The stone surround of the fireplace in the main entrance hallway bears cartoons of wartime leaders, reputedly drawn by a bored volunteer member of the civil police on a quiet night on duty.

A sample of the original red and gold embossed wallpaper in the Main Hall.

The main hallway was once decorated with a rich red and gold damask wallpaper. Roland Lamble notes in his research that the entry in the Cowtan order book for this paper is marked ‘D & K’, suggesting French manufacturer Desfossé & Karth of Paris. An American portfolio of advertisements for wallpapers and printed linens from this firm, thought to date from c.1910, contains an illustration and description of the paper in a more luxurious form:


On a background of gold leaf the top colours of the relief are done by hand with brush.

Perhaps the most extravagantly elegant wall paper known. 27 inches wide. Now made by the Ancient Establishment of DEFOSSE & KARTH, PARIS, FRANCE A. L. Diament & Co. Philadelphia, Sole American Agents’

The version of the print used at Insole Court is an embossed paper with a crimson background and is still evident beneath the current painted finish.

The wallpaper order for the Best Bedroom Corridor is for 54 pieces of a scarlet and gold foliate patterned paper from ‘J & Co.,’ confirmed by Wendy Andrews as referring to Jeffrey & Co. Remnants of this paper remain in the first-floor lobby and store cupboards. As Roland points out: ‘The design is typical of the style of wallpapers designed by William Morris, and latterly Walter Crane, for which the firm of Jeffrey & Co. was renowned. As yet, no online image has been found in any collection to corroborate the designer or manufacturer.’

Jeffrey & Co wallpaper from the Best Bedroom Corridor © Insole Court Archive Research Group

After the war, the Council took back the house and converted the first and second floors into low-budget small flats. These floors hold a variety of mid-20th-century wallpapers.

Wallpapers on the first floor

The original Library (first floor) has a stunning late-Victorian Gothic painted vaulted ceiling, but the team has found a paper and border that pre-dates this. This combination would have been a typical treatment of the ceiling at the time but was replaced during remodelling in the 1870s by a painted design featuring the owner’s initials and motto.

The 1870s vaulted ceiling in the Library

Fragments showing the original combination of papers used on the vaulted ceiling. Note original blue/white colouring top left.

The ceiling paper in the Drawing Room was earlier thought to be Lincrusta or Anaglypta but has now been reliably identified through the Cowtan books annotation: ‘Sent 8/4/08 50 panels Tynecastle Vellum No. 4109’. Roland Lamble explained that the Tynecastle Company focused on high-relief wallpapers. An online catalogue from 1900 held at the Sydney Living Museums/Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, contains images of a matching Vellum design in 4ft. square panels referenced 4109 ‘Adams’.

Tynecastle Vellum paper on the Drawing Room ceiling

In addition to the wallpapers we viewed, too many to cover here, extensive stencilling work has been discovered. There is also a wealth of impressive door and window hardware throughout the house.

Volunteers by the impressive staircase in the main entrance hall.

L to R: Gaynor Howard, Susan Jenkins, Vanessa Cunningham, Tessa Jobbins, Michael Statham, Catherine O’Brien, Diane Furst, Roland Lamble, John Prior-Morris

Our great thanks go to the team at Insole Court, whose hospitality, warmth and enthusiasm more than made up for the terrible weather on the day. We hope that their research will form the basis of a future article in the Wallpaper History Review, the 2024 edition of which is currently in production. I am indebted to Roland Lamble and Michael Statham for various references herein.

Anyone wishing to visit Insole Court could easily combine it with a visit to Llandaff Cathedral and – if travelling by car - with trips to Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, both very fine examples of William Burges’ work for Lord Bute.

Pauline Birdsall

All photos courtesy of Barry Birdsall Photography unless otherwise specified.

*Further reading about the Cowtan and Sons books can be found in issues of our Wallpaper History Review. The index to these is also available to download on our website:


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