Saturday, 16 January 2021

Wallpaper

Powerscourt is a great country house just outside Dublin.  It stands on a magnificent site with formal terraced Italian gardens running down a steep hillside towards a lake and a fountain framed by tall, dark trees.  The Wicklow mountains form the backdrop.  Tragically the house itself was gutted by fire in 1974; all that remains is the shell.  Peering through the windows at what were once the grand saloons, you see massive bushes and greenery pressed up against the glass, eerily filling the whole space.  In one of the wings the rooms remain bare and empty.  There you see no foliage, just ancient, faded wallpaper.

There is something particularly sad about old wallpaper exhibited in this unwonted, even unseemly, manner.  It is as if wallpaper were the undergarments of a house.  Unlike the bluff, confident facades presented to the outside world, wallpaper is meant to remain private and hidden.  In the harsh light of day it looks wan and vulnerable.

This sense of vulnerability stems from all the emotions we invest in our wallpapers.  New wallpaper is put up with such hope; it is an act of faith in a domicile.  And few things in our home makes such a strong statement about our self-image, our chosen environment, our aspirations.

For this reason wallpaper does not travel well between different domestic contexts: often the first task after moving into a new house is to strip the old owner's wall coverings.  The act is partly symbolic: the old internal skin is sloughed off, and a new one grafted on.  Mostly it is simply that you find their choice appalling and incomprehensible.

The incomprehensibility of other people's wallpaper is literal: you cannot understand the patterns and the accretion of other marks.  The latter are born of years of living, and can only be read by their authors.  That was where we spilt the soup; that was when the dog went wild; that was the height of little Freddy when he was two.  Wallpapers absorb our lives' tiny details: they are a domestic palimpsest.

More importantly, you cannot read the patterns.  Living with a wallpaper means imbibing its pattern, humming along to its visual mantra.  Each day that pattern is reinforced until your eyes become so conversant with it that it is part of the very fabric of the visible world.  Encountering a new wallpaper is like hearing a harsh and discordant eye-music.

The importance and impact of wallpaper patterns is perhaps greatest for children.  They spend much of their early lives in bed, either ill or else failing to go to sleep.  What is there to do, but look at the wallpaper?  Again and again and again, until they feel hypnotised by its insidious and relentless rhythms.  The shapes and images begin to vibrate and hover in space; they seem to be filling the entire world; for the bed-ridden child, it is the world.  Which is why we are still shocked and saddened to see a house or block of flats being pulled down.  The intimate wallpapers are exposed, their secrets revealed, the personal histories betrayed.  When we see wallpaper abused in this way we see the past torn and fading, and we are suddenly aware of the paper-like fragility of our own world.

(1989)

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