Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wednesday's book is full of woe

Actually not, but does contain a scene of misery, below, called The Enraged Calypso Orders the Burning of Telemachus's Ship printed by Dufour in about 1818.

The book from my library for today is French Scenic Wallpaper: 1795 - 1865, and very proud I am to tell you I own a copy. I bought it nine years ago, after much to-ing and fro-ing about the need and the cost, but in the end paid $95 for it, took it home, shelved it and regarded it for a while almost as a sacred object - it was far too expensive to actually read. I got over that and discovered treasure after treasure in this beautifully illustrated book. Some pages are three-leaved fold-outs, others full-page details of this hand blocked wallpaper.

For the story of Calypso and Telemachus refer to the first four chapters of Homer's Odyssey or go here.

We once considered using one of the Chinese hand-painted papers in our living room but what we really wanted and frankly couldn't afford was something more like these scenics from Dufour. In the end neither was used but I still hanker after some sort of mural that encompasses the hall and the dining room. Of course, nowadays any stock image can be enlarged onto polyester scrim and applied to walls but somehow that idea doesn't really work for me - reminds me too much of the 1970s photo murals of trees or scenes of the Grand Canal in Venice.

The combination of hand, eye, training in and dedication to the craft is what is necessary - that said at the risk of sounding too arts and crafts: the hand of a craftsman to make the blocks, another to place and print and the eyes of a colorist to work with both. An enlarged photo doesn't quite cut it. Is it because it is too far removed from the eye of the artist, in this case the photographer?

The time for the return of the the faux finish is not yet at hand, though it has been twenty years since the crest of that wave, and I'm pretty sure that the trompe-l'oeil mania of the 1980s and early 1990s ruined the resurrection of that art for at least another generation - at least, I hope so. There was so much bad painting on walls it was mildly worrying: insistent distressed finishes were applied to anything that was unsuitable, and no layer of paint was left unarticulated.

Techniques previously the province of the furniture restorer and faker were put into the hands of anyone who'd convinced themselves they had more than a shred of creativity, renamed faux- or distressed finishes and were let loose on any wall standing around minding its own business. Sun-faded Tuscan walls, or at least the imitation, were big especially in climes that had no resemblance to that part of Italy - a souvenir of the vacation-home in what eventually, because so many Brits lived there, became known as Chiantishire. Indigestion, I'm afraid, is common to both the stomach and the eye.

The image above is nothing to do with The Telemachy but I thought you might need cheering up after reading Homer's tale of woe.

Short rant today - tired.


  1. How I love the French! In the midst of a revolution, which shock Europe to its foundations, they managed to produce such magnificent hand blocked wallpaper - somehow you can't imagine the English or the Germans managing that! I am pleased that you decided that YOU were worth buying the book for!

  2. What a beautiful book. I am fascinated by the history of the scenics.A designer friend and I purchased the large Zuber portfolio of their papers-We share custody.My dear friend and painter SP follower of Isabel O'Neill-was a lovely painter,I plan a post with some of his work. If you have not check out the young talented Lauren at INdecorous Taste-she's keeping tradition alive in that art. GT

  3. LA beat me to the punch with info about Lauren at (In)Decorous Taste. She's Vassar educated in cognitive science, but she now does decorative painting with her mother. She has a young eye and an old soul. Your students might enjoy this blog as well. I'm also talking up All About Colour by Janet Lindsay. The book goes round the world, back and forth in time from evolution to optics and theatre tricks of light. Your purchase for $95 a few years ago, seems like a small price for quality compared to what we are getting today. Love the idea of books as sacred objects. The really good ones really are.

  4. 95 bucks really well spent. I love these scenic papers. And I love your rant about the faux finish. I was taught some techniques by an old geezer from the decorating trade but never got round to employing it you'll be glad to hear. You should see my panel of faux mahogony though, under his tuition. And tortoiseshell. Probably couldn't do it on my own now.