Friday, 13 July 2012

Birmingham Peels Back Time

One of the many researchers who have visited MoDA’s Study Room recently was Husnara Bibi, who works for the National Trust in Birmingham. Husnara was researching machine-made wallpapers in her quest to find out more about the decoration of Birmingham’s ‘Back to Back’ houses, recently acquired by the National Trust. 

Layers of wallpaper can provide a fascinating insight into the use of homes over a long period.  With this in mind, the National Trust carried out a twelve month project focused on conserving, cataloguing, researching and exhibiting the fragments found in these unique dwellings.

Husnara Bibi in the 'Uncovered' exhibition

The 'Birmingham Back to Backs', situated in the centre of the city, is the last surviving court of terraced houses, one room deep, sharing a spinal wall. The court housed a range of working class families who migrated to the city from across Britain and practiced a variety of crafts working from home in tiny confined spaces.  It's a slightly unusual location for the National Trust, which tends to be associated with large country mansions and rolling countryside. 

But the homes of working class people are no less rich in history, as this project has revealed.  In the course of the project, over a hundred and forty different wallpapers were discovered in just eleven houses.  The wallpapers were layered together (or ‘laminated’), representing many years of families papering over the previous wallpaper.  The largest laminate consists of twenty-eight layers of different papers, the earliest of which dates from around 1850. 

This is a really remarkable find, as this cheap, machine-made wallpaper rarely survives in museum collections.  MoDA's own collections include one of Britain's most extensive collections of mass-market wallpapers, but even that does not stretch back much beyond the 1890s.  More expensive, luxury wallpapers tend to have survived either in historic houses, or because they were acquired by museums.  But relatively little evidence remains of papers aimed at the lower end of the market, so historians tend to know less about how working class people decorated their homes.

‘I kept finding more’, says Husnara Bibi, the lead on the project. ‘As I catalogued the papers, I repeatedly came across new designs, and when we started separating the laminates there was an explosion in the number of fragments and variety of designs, many of which are in immaculate condition as the colours remain bright and vibrant.’

Husnara was able to date some of the wallpapers by matching them to similar ones held in MoDA’s collection.  In fact, she found two wallpapers very similar to some of the Birmingham examples in a 1926-27 pattern book at MoDA. But as with many museums, MoDA’s collections do not reveal much about how real people used wallpapers to create their own domestic spaces. So, the Birmingham project is unique in that it shows how wallpapers reflect the tastes of the working class artisans of the industrial city of Birmingham.

Several pieces of the wallpaper have been traced back to individual families that lived in the court.  Husnara identified a series of Victorian floral patterns belonging to a Police Constable and a set of imitation Arts & Crafts papers from a house occupied by a brass bedstead maker.  There are also tiny fragments of wallpaper belonging to a member of the Mitchell family, generations of whom lived in the court for a hundred years.

Other resources held at MoDA which were very important in Husnara's research were the magazines such as Ideal HomeHouse and Garden and Homes and Gardens.  These provided useful background  information about the wallpaper styles that were popular during the early twentieth century. 

Homes and Garden magazine, 1926 [MJ72, Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture]
We're pleased to have played a small part in this fascinating project, and it's always good to find people who are as enthusiastic about wallpaper as we are!  The results of the project can be seen in Birmingham's ‘Uncovered’ exhibition which opened this month. The exhibition will provide the foundation for more work on the collection, and will engage local communities through interpretation and further research.  

Read about the latest developments in the Back to Backs wallpaper project here:

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