An island in Cork harbour would seem to be an unlikely destination for wallpaper enthusiasts, especially since Fota Island now houses a wildlife park. However, it’s not the wildlife park but Fota House which is the real treat. This Regency villa, once the hunting lodge of the Earls of Barrymore and until the 1970s the home of the Smith Barry family, has been painstakingly restored under the supervision of the Office for Public Works. Since 2007 it has been cared for by the Irish Heritage Trust.
Decoration has played a big part in telling the story of the site, not only, as we might expect in Ireland, through its plasterwork but in its wallpapers, too. These include an early nineteenth century stripe with blue roses in the Boudoir, hung with a screen-printed reproduction in 2009, and the paper whose pattern gives its name to ‘The Shamrock Bedroom’ decorated in the 1870s or 1880s. Details have also been uncovered of the wallpapers bought by John Smith Barry during his 1830s remodelling from Duppa, Slodden & Co. Fota’s even provided a home for hangs from other sites, such as the rare Chinese stripe wallpaper and border formerly at Killeen Castle, County Meath, rehung in a bedroom in the 1980s.
The real secret is not just the rooms hung with wallpapers, however, but the archive of over 250 examples of wallpapers collected from all over Ireland and dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. This was largely assembled by John O’Connell, together with the pioneering historian of wallpaper in Ireland, Ada K. Longfield (1899-1987). It also includes unused fragments retrieved in the time-honoured way, familiar to wallpaper enthusiasts, from ‘builder’s waste’, likely part of the stock of one of Dublin’s leading firms of decorators.
The archive is celebrated in the ground floor exhibition Fota: patterns of history due to reopen next spring. Curator Martina Madden, working with wallpaper historian David Skinner as her Co-Curator, has put together an innovative display to showcase the archive. It tells the story not only of Fota, but of the prominent role played by Cork in the supply of both locally made and imported English, French and - by the late nineteenth century - Japanese papers. The show makes excellent use of the ground floor service spaces, with items hung on the wall and in display cases, and above all its eye-catching display panels propped against the wall which mimic the size and scale of a length of wallpaper. It also includes a film where David Skinner contextualises the collection.
The exhibition also tackles issues of imitation in an innovative way, juxtaposing an early nineteenth-century design imitating Gothic architecture from Ballingarth, County Leath with a late twentieth century paper imitating rubble stone. So, make 2023 a year to visit Cork and take in Fota!
All photos by the author
A visit to Fota House forms part of the WHS trip to Ireland 19-24 May 2023. This event is sold out but it is possible to add yourself to the waiting list.