`Print rooms' - an interior fashion makes a comeback. Intriguing 18th-century practice is updated for today's homes

``It rained furiously, so we fell to work making frames for prints,'' wrote Mrs. Delany in 1750, referring to time she had spent with her friends the Veseys at Lucan House in Ireland. She was not turning her hand to cutting and mitering picture molding, but to cutting out printed paper frames and decorations to make a ``print room.'' Her casual comment is one of the earliest references to a fashion in interior decoration which was to last well into the next century, and which is now making a comeback.

Horace Walpole attributed the invention of the print room to Lord Cardigan, and the fashion was eagerly taken up by the women of Britain and Ireland. They bought quantities of prints, which were then cheap and plentiful, cut off the borders, and pasted them directly onto colored wallpaper in an orderly pattern. They also bought yards of printed frames which they cut and pasted to the wall around the prints, as well as many borders and decorative motifs, such as ribbons and swags, to link the whole design, which was finally varnished. The success of the arrangement depended on a blending of subject, shape, size, and type of print.

There are numerous contemporary references to the technique on both sides of the Atlantic, but the fashion was by no means confined to amateur exponents. Christopher Gilbert, in his ``Life & Work of Thomas Chippendale,'' records that even this great man executed a print room for his client, Sir Edward Knatchbull. The decoration was for Lady Knatchbull's dressing room at Mersham Le Hatch, the house which Robert Adam designed for them in Kent and which was almost completely furnished by Chippendale.

The walls of my lady's dressing room were covered in verditer paper, a plain cartridge paper hand-tinted in the fashionable blue-green shade by one of Chippendale's men. He ``did it extremely bad,'' Sir Edward complained. Sadly, Chippendale's print room at Mersham has not survived. The fashion declined and many rooms were destroyed as prints deteriorated on damp walls and old varnish turned a dingy brown. There are, however, several country houses that have managed to retain original print rooms, and some are open to the public. A few examples of this intriguing style of decoration can still be seen at Stratfield Saye, the country house donated by a grateful nation to the first Duke of Wellington, who is said to have installed no fewer than nine print rooms there.

Until recently, there seemed to be insuperable reasons that the print room should remain a thing of the past. Old prints are now valuable, and to cut, paste, and varnish them would be unthinkable. Also, this century has seen the development of much greater mobility among homeowners, and consequently we no longer decorate our houses for posterity. Efforts have been made in recent years to simulate the print room simply by using specially designed wallpaper. But Raymond O'Shea, a London dealer in antique prints, has devised a system that comes near to the original concept of the print room adapted for modern living.

No print is ever mutilated. The wide margins, which are a feature of most prints, are folded back and contained in wood frames that have been specially designed by Mr. O'Shea's wife, Anne. Unlike conventional frames, these taper back from the face of the print and are painted a mat black. Also, to avoid reflection from the glass, the frames are secured flat to the wall by a screw at top and bottom. The effect is to make the frames complement the prints and not dominate them.

Gone are the printed frames, and gone also are the printed borders and decorations. These have been replaced by a range of stencils by Carolyn Warrender, who has scoured the country for original designs taken from remaining 18th-century print rooms. The O'Shea print room is not, therefore, a reproduction but a modern version, especially as he breaks from the traditional pastel painted wallpapers in favor of a strong terra cotta colored printed paper.

Many of O'Shea's clients, much like Mrs. Delany, are eager to make their own print rooms, especially in America, where there is a strong tradition in stenciling. A kit can be supplied to suit individual needs and varying degrees of service to go with it. To design a room, all one needs is a drawing of each wall on graph paper with every permanent feature marked.

Like Lady Knatchbull, many of O'Shea's clients supply their own prints. O'Shea thinks that an essential feature of a successful print room is a theme. Collections of prints can be made around professions, hobbies, places, animals, and plants, grouped to make a very individual form of decoration which, unlike the 18th-century version, can be moved or sold.

O'Shea warns the complete do-it-yourself-print-room-maker to take the trouble to plan the arrangement thoroughly. Mistakes will show up all too easily. Make cardboard templates of all your framed prints and stick them to the wall temporarily, moving them around until you get it right. Arrange and execute the stencils around the templates. Finally, fix the prints with small screws and panels, painted as the stencil, at top and bottom.

The cost need not be exorbitant. Many decorative prints are still very affordable, and if not they can at least be bought one by one. The stencils range from $5 to $35 each.

Mrs. Delany went on to write to her brother, thanking him for some borders he had sent to her: ``They are for framing prints. I think them much prettier than any other sort of frame for that purpose, and where I have not pictures, I must have prints; otherwise I think prints best in books.''

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