In July 2020, I was contacted by a homeowner who had discovered some old wallpaper in her house and wanted to know if I could help redesign it based on what was left. As this was a dream project I did not hesitate to respond.
Owners Karena and James at the front of the house
The property is a listed house in Milton, Cambridgeshire, with a seventeenth-century core and eighteenth-century exterior. It was owned and renovated by Rev. William Cole (1714-1782) between 1770 and 1782. A fellow-commoner of King’s College, he was also an antiquarian, with a special affinity for period architectural pieces which he often salvaged for his home.
Rev. William Cole of Milton
The house includes Tudor wood panelling in the extended gallery hall and medieval limestone with original carvings. It is wonderfully crooked and set at different levels because of its many additions. In his diaries, Cole mentions his friendship with Horace Walpole of Strawberry Hill. I wonder if he had an influence on Cole’s antiquarian interests.
Rear view of the house drawn in 1773 by James Essex
For owners Karena and her husband James, it is their lifetime project to restore the house sympathetically to its original eighteenth-century state, so it was an honour to be asked to work on this project. After a tour of the house, Karena led me to their sitting room and excitedly pulled a shutter closed to reveal the mystery wallpaper. A partial remnant of wallpaper clinging to the corner of the recess behind became the inspiration for the brief.
The wallpaper is a simple example of Chinoiserie: sweet yellow birds placed sparsely on delicate rose branches with decorative, rounded leaves. I couldn’t wait to begin researching and creating a design to reflect the original.
I started my research by contacting libraries and museums but because of the lockdown many were not open. However, to my great relief I stumbled across the Wallpaper History Society and am very grateful to Rowena for her guidance and advice. I also contacted the restoration expert Allyson McDermott, who was able to date the paper. The paper’s construction revealed laid lines showing that it is a handmade linen rag paper that was hand-joined. This dates it to around 1760-90, coinciding with the period when William Cole lived in the house. There was also evidence of stencilled colour layers finished with a black wood-block layer. Wood-blocking was a common print technique in the eighteenth century.
Later, as I was cleaning some of the fragments, I discovered a handwritten note from the wallpaper maker noting it as an order for William Cole himself! This really helped with establishing provenance.
After cleaning some of the fragments I started piecing them together and managed to match a long narrow area of the design. I realised then it was up to me to fill in the gaps and create a natural-looking repeat. As I was new to wallpaper restoration I decided to reference as much of the original as possible, researching eighteenth-century wallpaper designs to try and capture the style of the period. I created additional elements for the rose flowers, grasses, birds and leaves to complete the design.
Ideally, screen-printing would be best for creating a realistic interpretation of the original stencilled and wood-blocked wallpaper. However, budget restrictions meant choosing the digitally printed route instead. I collaborated with Surface Print to produce the wallpaper, choosing a natural-looking paper that was as close to the original laid paper as possible. For the artwork, I separated the colours and offset some of the layers in the design as if it was screen printed and tried to retain some of the distressed textures from the stencil.
The wallpaper design adapted as a textile. Photo Linda Medhurst.
After a few strike-offs, both the client and I were happy. Karena and James have not yet had time to redecorate their living room, but they have used some of the wallpaper in James’ study. We also made a textile repeat, digitally printing the design on eco-friendly Panama cotton with RA Smart. Linda Medhurst made cushions with subtle matching coloured piping.
Photo Karena Fraser
It has been such a privilege to work on this project. I feel fortunate to have found a ‘secret window’ back in time and can see why people enjoy restoration work. You feel so connected to the past.
I feel fired up to work on more restoration-style projects and also produce my own wallpaper range. I have recently released the first design called ‘Woodland Floor’, which is part of my British Biophilia collection.
Stephanie Le Cocq
Photos by the author unless stated otherwise