'Tales From the Parsonage: Wallpaper and Vicarage Life 1790-1850'

Like it or not, the Covid pandemic brought most of us onto Zoom, but this allowed WHS, like many other cultural institutions, to embark on an exciting initiative – a programme of online illustrated talks. Thanks to Jeremy Garfield-Davies, who sponsored this year’s Zoom subscription, WHS members and friends were able to enjoy the first of these talks on April 28th.

WHS Review Editor and Treasurer Rowena Beighton-Dykes took up the challenge of launching the new series and was introduced by Membership Secretary Pauline Birdsall. Rowena has a family background in decorating which goes back to the early 19th century, and her research focuses on the socio-economic context of 19th-century wallpaper. In her talk 'Tales from the Parsonage : Wallpaper and Vicarage Life 1790-1850' she introduced us to the somewhat affluent world of the clergy, a lifestyle we would barely recognise today.

Early 19th-century vicars expected to live in a style which reflected their position as bastions of middle-class society, and using Order and Delivery books from wallpaper makers Duppa and Cowtan for vicarages in this period, Rowena illustrated rich and varied patterns chosen by the vicars, demonstrating some exuberant liking for colour and pattern. These wonderful and informative books are available to view in the National Art Library at the V&A. It seems that these companies not only sold wallpapers but also advised on appropriate decorative choices. However, as the century progressed, most vicars, other than the youngest sons of landed gentry, became impoverished. Unless they owned their living, they suffered when their income from tithes was greatly reduced by law in 1822. Subsequent legislation reduced their income and decoration budgets still further, and Rowena finished with a poignant slide showing the clergy’s wallpaper orders declining accordingly. By this time the Anglican Church was addressing itself to more urgent issues, and it was a Catholic – Augustus Pugin – who would take up the role of Ecclesiastical Decorator.

Matthew Meadows