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Peeling Back the Layers: Wallpaper Conservation at Sutton House

Sutton House in Hackney was built in the time of Henry VIII but has had a long and varied history since then. It now belongs to the National Trust, and the stories of its many inhabitants are told throughout the building.

Since the National Trust opened the house to the public in the 1990s, its priority has been to make the space welcoming and attractive for visitors, and to connect its activities to the local population in Hackney. It’s not surprising then, that wallpaper conservation was low on the agenda for many years. But a recent project lead by Nicola Walker and Phillippa Mapes to uncover and conserve wallpapers in one specific room has revealed new stories about the building and how it was used in different ways over time.

Remains of several wallpaper schemes in layers on the wall. Photo: Phillippa Mapes

In an event held at Sutton House on Thursday 20th October, Phillippa explained how she had undertaken the laborious task of conservation of the wallpapers that remain on the wall. This involved cleaning the uppermost layer with soft brushes and sponges and ensuring that edges were firmly adhered to the wall, before the fragments could be protected by Perspex.

There was clearly a difficult choice to be made about whether to remove all the paper from the wall or not. In the end, one small section of wallpaper was removed and conserved in the studio, allowing for the separation of multiple layers of paper.

Four layers of wallpaper pasted over each other. Photo: Phillippa Mapes

In the late eighteenth century, the inhabitants were keen to show their wealth and status through their choice of wallpapers. The earliest layer discovered was a marbled-effect paper, suggesting the room was a high-status reception room, since this kind of trompe l'oeil was generally used in rooms where real stone might have been expected. There’s also evidence of a kind of bossed ceiling paper which may have decorated walls as well as ceiling. As Phillippa pointed out, we can’t assume that people put papers where we ‘think’ they should have been hung.

The block-printed ceiling paper and a green and white wallpaper hung on the wall below it. Photo: Phillippa Mapes

Phillippa explained how developments in wallpaper technology and the tax on wallpaper in the early nineteenth century affected both the availability of wallpaper and its status for consumers. Hand block-printing gave way to roller printing, making wallpaper more affordable. This is evident from one of the machine-printed papers that dates from the 1870s, when the building was a girls' school. The design and the quality of the paper suggest a fashionable but budget-conscious choice.

The two papers that were uppermost on the wall were of the ‘sanitary’ kind dating from the 1890s, printed in oil colours using engraved rollers.

The uppermost sanitary wallpaper on show at Sutton House. Photo: Phillippa Mapes

These would have been an economical choice, and two similar designs appearing in relatively quick succession suggest that the occupants were interested in a quick refresh of the room, rather than a thorough overhaul. This makes sense since by that point the building was used by the St. John Institute and the room was perhaps subjected to intensive wear and tear as a common room.

A hole in the uppermost sanitary wallpaper reveals a similar earlier one below. Photo: Phillippa Mapes

Phillippa’s research and conservation work has given some fascinating clues as to how that one room looked and the different ways in which it was used over time, revealing the priorities and preoccupations of some of the building’s many inhabitants. The National Trust does a good job of showing Sutton House at various points in its history, not just as a Tudor building, and this project certainly adds to the richness of the story that can be told.

Zoe Hendon


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