The Craft of Invisible Mending
A `castle expanse of antique wallpaper demands the meticulous skills of conservators armed with delicate tools
YOU'D expect any out-and-out castle to be made of a lot of stone. This one certainly is.
Picturesque Penrhyn Castle, near Bangor, North Wales, stands on a lofty and ancient site, a conglomeration of turrets and towers, a keep, slated courtyards, and arrow slits. It is an enormous fortress massively composed of forbidding gray Penmon limestone.
But this Welsh "castle" isn't quite what it seems. You only have to go into it to suspect this. Although elaborately carved stone is on every side, you soon see that this building is made up of all kinds of comfortable and decorative domestic elements, not just purely defensive rock. It was clearly more than bleak quarters for fighting men.
For a start, there are plenty of windows, all with glass in them, and shutters for warmth. There are rich curtains on these windows. There is a considerable amount of carved woodwork - four-poster beds and settees and dressing tables, looking glasses and small circular tables. There is a host of oil paintings, including a Rembrandt. All sorts of light fixtures and fireplaces set in elaborate chimney pieces abound. There are carpets on floors and wallpaper on walls.
Wallpaper is hardly a decorative adjunct to be expected in some 11th-century border barracks raised to withstand marauding armies of invaders. The unlikeliness of the wallpaper in such a context becomes clearer still when you realize that much of it was designed by such 19th-century designers as William Morris and his ilk and is probably a fashionable indication of the taste of a wealthy Victorian, later Edwardian, family much given to weekend house parties.
Even the earlier wallpapers, like the Chinese hand-painted papers in the State Bedroom and the Lower India Room, date from no earlier than the 18th century and were hung on the walls as recently as 1830. This, in fact, was just after the castle was built.
No Norman knight worth his salt would have slept in a room papered with such a pretty array of Chinese birds and flowers, even if the European fashion for such painted Oriental papers had begun in his time, five or six hundred years before it actually did. In fact, these lovely "Chinese export wallpapers" were at the height of their vogue in Britain from 1740 to 1790. By 1830, when the excellent examples were hung at Penrhyn, they would have been out of fashion in any house less wildly exotic in its fant asies. But hung they were. And 160-odd years later, there they still are. A fantasy castle
A fantasy is exactly what Penrhyn Castle is. It is late Georgian in period but Neo-Imaginary Norman in style. It can't be said to be everyone's cup of tea. One visitor, about a dozen years after this gigantic mansion had been completed, described walking through its rooms as "like struggling along in a bewildered dream occasioned by having studied some elaborate work on the early buildings of the Saxons and Normans." Another critic said of this enormous private residence: "... the structure ... has been built for effect." Quite so.
The last Lord Penrhyn to occupy this house died in 1949. And like many other white elephants, the building passed into the caring hands of the National Trust. Which means two things:
First, that it now has to withstand the invasion of armies of people: the public to whom it is open.
And second, that it has to be defended, by the Trust, in perpetuity, against all those forms of invasion (including the public itself) that persistently threaten every detail of its fabric. This is not just a matter of the weathering of the stonework. It means protection - preservation and conservation - of every fraction of every element within those walls. It even means care for the wallpaper.
The state of historic wallpaper is a sensitive indicator of the state of the house where it hangs. Textiles are as well, of course, but wallpaper is now being increasingly recognized as an important part of the atmosphere and authenticity of old houses being preserved as museum pieces.
Wallpaper can be "degraded" in numerous ways: by sheer aging, by visitors rubbing against it, by fading, by condensation inside thick walls, by burst pipes, by oil-based sealers used to decorate skirting-boards or cornices staining through the paper from underneath, by delamination (when the front image-paper starts to part company with its liners underneath), by mistakes in its original hanging, by well-meaning repainting (to freshen it up), and by the settling or movements of the walls themselves, caus ing cracks in the plaster and tears in the paper.
All of these factors, but particularly the movements of the walls, have necessitated a recent project just completed at Penrhyn in the Lower India Room. This project has been an exhaustive, four-month-long labor by four paper conservators - to make the Chinese wallpaper survive for at least another 160 years.
Two of the conservators are Meryl Huxtable and Pauline Webber, both highly experienced paper conservators from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Under their supervision worked Mark Sandiford and Phillippa Mapes, who are soon to complete master's degrees in historic-wallpaper conservation, the first students to do so. After graduation, they plan to start a full-time business doing (if possible) nothing but conservation. In a typical catch-22 of our recessional period, though, while the National Tr ust has prompted and promoted their progress toward becoming the first wallpaper conservators ever, it may not have sufficient funds to employ them much once they are fully available.
The work on the Penrhyn wallpaper was the most significant practical experience afforded by Sandiford and Mapes's degree course. I can't help finding the details of this project mind-boggling for two reasons: One is that, personally, I can't even hang a 1990s wallpaper straight and bubble-free on our walls at home. The other is that after everything these dedicated and scrupulous experts put themselves and the wallpaper through, the measure of their success is that nobody should be able to tell by lookin g at the paper that they have done anything to it at all.
The Penrhyn paper had gotten to the point, however, where "severe intervention" by conservators was urgently called for.
Its main trouble, as Sandiford told me, was caused by the fact that "one wall - the most damaged - has fallen away from the other three walls." On that particular wall, the splitting plaster had caused the paper to split badly - as it also did in all four corners of the room, partly because of the way it was hung.
In common with most other imported Chinese papers, this one does not have a repeat pattern. Its design has no beginning or end. It does, however, have a top and a bottom in the sense that it extends from grass and earth and water at its base, to sky at its top. It has the overall effect of transforming the entire room into an oriental landscape of great charm, delightful color, and vivid natural life. Unique design
Of the "bird and flower" kind of Chinese wallpaper, this paper contains no human figures. Every bird and flower, butterfly, and fantastic rock in it is different. Webber says that the rocks are not as fantastic as they appear to Western eyes: She has seen rocks in Chinese gardens, in Taiwan, that really have such extraordinary forms.
Consonant with this, the birds and flowers are all observed, recognizable species. Webber had counted some 103 different kinds of bird and 50 different flowers on this paper. When the conservators took down the mirror above the fireplace, some hint of the original bright blue that is the overall background of this paper was revealed.
Under the mirror, they also uncovered a small depiction of a dragonfly. Later during the conservation process, evidence of several other dragonflies was found. But they had all disappeared under a layer of paint that at some point had been applied to the paper to freshen up the faded and dirty blue background.
This covering of paint has not been removed by the conservators on the grounds that it is now part of the history and context of the paper, part of its character. Nor has there been any attempt to bring the dragonflies to the surface again. This is because, under unwritten ethical and aesthetic guidelines, conservators are not in the business of trying to return things to some approximation of an original, pristine state.
Sandiford puts it this way: "We are conservators as opposed to restorers." The aim is to extend the life of an object.
When I met them, the four conservators were busy with surprisingly small brushes, all out of proportion to the size of the walls, mixing and matching Winsor and Newton watercolors and scrupulously touching up remaining areas of exposed lining paper. This was in the finishing stage of the project. Webber pointed out a colorful bird near the fireplace that had needed a considerable amount of help from her brush for it to meld once more with the rest of the wallpaper.
But, as Meryl Huxtable told me, they were not putting any paint on the wallpaper itself, only on the lining paper. Clearly this work requires an appreciation of the way that the paper had been painted in China.
Over the weeks, the conservators had come to know the paper very well indeed. Huxtable showed me a fragment of Chinese calligraphy they had discovered on one wall: a message to the painters, she guessed, about what to paint in this particular area.
But before arriving at this final process of titivation, they and the paper had been through quite a saga.
The procedure was painstaking. The paper was documented. Then the surface was cleaned, still dry, with a pure latex sponge followed by erasers. Bad enough, I thought, erasing a few misplaced pencil marks from a drawing pad. But the great stretch of these four walls? The conservators calculated that they had gone through about 10 erasers. I had imagined a hundred or so.
"We couldn't wash it extensively at all," Sandiford says, "because the light and dark green pigments [used to depict the leaves] were too delicate." There was a lack of binding medium (the Chinese used animal glues for this) left in them, and they went powdery, when wet, and tended to float off like dust. So these greens had to be consolidated before the paper was taken off, with an acrylic resin that was brushed on (to be removed later). This consolidant was also applied to some thicker, crazed areas of
Other damaged areas were faced temporarily with tissues "to hold everything together." This was done where delamination had occurred. Gradually, with scalpels, the paper was released a third of the way up the wall, and then from the top down. The aim was to take the paper off in sections as large as possible.
Once off the walls, the paper was rolled and transported south to London where, laid out on a 60-foot length of studio floor on stretched polythene, it was debacked.
This meant an 1830 European backing paper and a heavier oriental mulberry paper were removed from the back. Then using a traditional Japanese method, a fine new Japanese backing paper was stuck in place, sheet by sheet.
Back at the castle, in the temporarily denuded Lower India Room, the walls were given a new lining of archival paper (a pure chemical wood pulp paper).
Over that, a cross-lining of 100 percent polyester woven textile was hung horizontally. And over that went another layer of archival paper.
The middle layer of very strong textile means that any future movement of the walls will be contained there and will not affect the paper which, says Sandiford, is "quite isolated from the wall."
This project for the National Trust is interesting evidence, as Phillippa Mapes pointed out, that "people are now just beginning to realize how important wallpaper is as a backdrop to everything else" in a historic room. She believes far more research needs to be done to build up a greater knowledge of historic wallpapers. Not that some museums haven't been interested in them. The Victoria and Albert, where much of Sandiford and Mapes's course has been carried out, happens to have a premier collection of
But unquestionably the best place to see wallpapers, particularly ones as enchanting as the bird and flower paper now firmly back in place in Penrhyn Castle's Lower India Room, is on the walls of the old rooms where they were first hung. And it will be thanks to the new breed of wallpaper conservators (if their services are fully used) that fine old wallpapers will survive in such places in years ahead and will not be replaced by modern reproduction papers. These, the conservators say, never really fit i n.
The genuine article has got to be worth saving - and that is done by masters in the craft of invisible mending.