Re-creating the beauty of 19th-century interiors

When Bruce Bradbury discovered Victorian pattern and color, he found the direction for his own career in design. He now owns and operates his own art-wallpaper studio in Benicia, Calif., near San Francisco, which, he says, ''re-creates the splendor of the 19th-century interior.''

That discovery came when he was a 13-year-old schoolboy in Maine. ''I opened a book about pre-Raphaelite art, and it changed my life,'' he says. ''I finally saw in that book exactly what I thought things should really look like. This got me interested in studying the whole English Victorian school, but I could find little about it to study.''

The young aspirant saved his money and, while still a teen-ager, went to London for two years to observe and do research at the Victorian and Albert and other museums. ''I got my first pass to the reading room of the British Museum at 19,'' he recalls, ''and I thought I had found paradise. I don't know why I like the Victorian movement so much, except that I love the stuff and understand it. It strikes the deepest kind of response in me.''

Later he spent time traveling around the world, looking at architecture and decorative arts. After coming to San Francisco, he worked for a time as a fine art printer. Then one day he asked himself why he should spend all his time printing little pieces to hang on a wall if he could print an entire wall that was in itself artful?

He apprenticed himself to two different wallpaper manufacturers in the area, and worked redrawing, line by line, dot by dot, flower by flower, the 19 th-century patterns he had uncovered in England and Europe. William Morris has been his primary influence - the man whose work and ideals he has tried most to emulate, although he is now also reviving the work of some lesser-known and almost forgotten 19th-century designers.

He was a little ahead of his time, Mr. Bradbury admits now, because he almost starved. ''People thought I was nuts, and showroom managers scorned my efforts and pronounced that authentic Victorian wallpapers would never sell.''

When he started his little company in 1979, ''I was a one-man show,'' he says. ''I built all my own screens, mixed all the paint, and did all the secretarial work as well. I got my first employee about 18 months ago, and now five of us work together. We are really craftsmen in the 19th-century tradition.''

Their mission, Mr. Bradbury points out, is to revive the ideal of the 19 th-century movement, which produced the superb 'art wallpapers' of the time. ''Some of the finest artists of the l870's, 80's, and 90's participated in this movement, and moved away from easel painting into the decorative arts to communicate with the common man. Handscreened wallpaper became a fine art during that period, but World War I destroyed it all. Now we want to pick up where those artists left off.''

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