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Working with wallpapers: future directions in wallpaper research and interpretation

On 14th September 2016 the WHS teamed up with English Heritage to host a  joint conference showcasing the latest research in the history and conservation of wallpapers.   Held in the magnificent setting of Wrest Park in Silsoe, Bedfordshire, the sell out conference proved a rewarding event for those who are interested in and work in the field of historic wallpapers.  Both UK and European WHS members as well as non-members enjoyed a packed day of informative talks with some wonderful slides and illustrations.

The day was divided into two themed parts.  In the morning, papers were given on the subjects of the conservation and presentation of wallpapers within historic buildings by Dr Lesley Hoskins (private consultant) and Dr Wendy Monkhouse, and Andrew Bush, Sarah Green and Stephanie Jamieson (National Trust).  These talks explored issues around the survival of less prestigious, everyday wallpapers and how these little known and previously disregarded papers are now being recognised as valuable contributors to our understanding of social history and the material culture of the past.  

Conservation and Presentation

The challenge of conserving and presenting historic wall coverings within the historic environment was investigated in a case study of Yr Ysgwrn, Snowdonia by Phillippa McDonnell (Crick Smith, University of Lincoln) and the conservation of the Map Room at Eltham Palace by Sarah Lambarth (English Heritage).  The audience were treated to a fascinating clip of time-lapse photography that showed the conservation work in action at Eltham Palace, and described how the removal of later paint layers had revealed not just a wallcovering composed of 1930's maps, but also a number of charming and quirky drawings which had been hand painted onto the walls to illustrate the decorative map scheme.

After a refreshing break for lunch and a chance to stroll in the beautiful, historic gardens of Wrest Park, all reconvened for the afternoon presentations, which focussed on new research into wallpaper history.  Dr Charlotte Newman (English Heritage) described how the social and archaeological studies of buildings have helped to provide context for some of the wallpapers in the English Heritage collection.  


New Directions in Historical Research

Dr Phillippa Mapes (University of Leicester) presented new research into the English wallpaper trade during the 18th century, and explained how the structure of the trade had made possible the spread of wallpaper to a wider public.  Other new directions in wallpaper history were explored by Dr Dianne Lawrence (independent scholar).  Dianne's study of the wallpaper decorator, a previously neglected subject,  shed light on the role played by these tradesmen, not just in their practical work, but also their role as agents of taste, fashion and social values.  

Research into the Cowtan and Sons wallpaper archive at the V&A has been long overdue and wallpaper aficionados will welcome the research carried out by Wendy Andrews  (University of Cambridge) who presented her findings so far at the Symposium.  The presentations ended with Dr Clare Taylor's (Open University) fascinating insight into the role of the collector and dealer in establishing historic wallpapers and their reproductions as a fashionable decorative treatment, long before the commercial success of such firms as Laura Ashley in the late 20th century.

Following a lively discussion and Q and A session on the day's presentations, delegates were given an opportunity to visit the conserved wallpapered rooms at Wrest Park, including the magnificent French scenic El Dorado  and the late eighteenth century Chinese wallpaper,  thought to have come from the earlier, (now demolished) house in the Wrest Park grounds.

The day ended with a drinks reception and further opportunities for discussion, exchanges of information and animated chat following what proved to be a really stimulating and interesting day.

For more info on Wrest Park visit

Dr Phillippa Mapes ACR

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