I don’t want to leave the impression that dealing with original surfaces is entirely simple. Often old surfaces are fragile and sometimes, attractive as they are, they’re in entirely the wrong place.
The Studio walls were a gift but they needed some attention. There were places where sections of wall and ceiling had to be replaced, having been long ago cut out to accommodate picture windows and the like. Matching not only the colour but also the surface character took forever – and lucky for us candlelight is as kind to old walls as it is to aging skin.
Our second surprise old surface appeared in what was once the dining room but had been carved into three in order to make a kitchen, a bathroom and the back porch for the second flat. The room had lots of potential – it has large west-facing windows into the side garden and overlooks the coming and goings on the lane. It also has its own external door. I had no fixed plan for what this room was going to look like. I only knew it was to be my study and dressing room – all I required was a suitable background – so I was open to possibilities.
When we started taking off the kitchen wall linings we exposed the porridge coloured papers that were quite inexplicably popular before the First World War. These had been generally damaged by the installation of kitchen benches, hot water cylinders and other necessities. However, above these, intact and undamaged, were the original decorative papers – used on the upper third of the wall. They were in those splendid rich colours in which no wallpapers any longer come and had just the right degree of late Victorian/Edwardian idiocy – they depict a branch on which a multitude of fruit and flowers bloom in a way they don’t appear together in nature – to make them worth keeping.
The problem was that the papers followed the perimeter of the old square dining room – which meant they now passed through three rooms – the kitchen out onto a small recessed exterior porch and back into the bathroom.
This took a while to figure out – could I use the old papers on the three walls of the study and treat the dividing walls differently? This was a possibility. Yet however I approached it all ways ended up looking like a 1950s feature wall. In the end it was decided that as the old papers were on scrim (hessian nailed to the walls) we would try and lift them from the porch (removing weatherboards first) and bathroom and re attach them so that old papers would circle the new study.
In the end we didn’t have lot to lose, if it didn’t work we could start the whole room again from scratch. I should add that, in Napier where the air is dry and humidity is rare, scrim survives well and is often still quite strong, whereas in old houses I’ve had in Auckland the scrim has generally rotted away causing the papers to sag.
Nervous as we were starting out, the process proved surprisingly easy. We cut off the scrim under the cornice line and cut off the less attractive lower papers below leaving us with the good paper which was rolled around a piece of plastic pipe as we went. This reduced the risk of tearing while handling the large expanse of paper.
Once freed from the old walls the roll of paper was stapled up to the newly gib-stopped walls of the study. As the cornice had yet to go up (it too was shifted from the other rooms) we were able to conceal the staple line at the top. We brought the bottom line of the old paper up slightly around the whole room to conceal weaker and damaged edges of the paper. By using a small wooden beading (or picture rail) the old paper was, in essence, captured under the woodwork.
I’d had the room lined with gib-board and stopped to a particular height. This means that above the line, the papers are still on scrim against the sarking but below new papers (I chose a little striped paper in red-brown tones) are pasted, as normal, to new gib-board.
The effect works well and it looks authentic – because in large part it is. These papers are now more than 100 years old. Yes, there are places were the paper is faded and water-stained – but florid patterns are great at hiding such flaws. There are some details – the pattern of old and new papers is misaligned in the corners – but you know no one ever notices.
Like the blue of the Studio, I’d never choose a vivid russet orange and purple wallpaper with green highlights given the choice but delivered back from the past it’s a gem worth keeping. Although I often find myself annoyed at the impermanence of New Zealand houses, in this case, the Kiwi way of building old houses delivered up was an old surface that turned out to be highly portable. It is nice to think that a nice original surface in the wrong place is something that can be moved and have a new life somewhere else.