Oxburgh Hall’s richly-layered history has been put under the microscope in a new exhibition of the wallpaper that has graced the property - or almost did. STACIA BRIGGS discovers what the best dressed walls in Norfolk have been over the past few centuries.

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Raspberry-red and bunting-blue flowers with satinwood shells, sprays of white leaves and flowers on a sliver-grey background, cherry red with stamped gilt backgrounds, ivy leaves enclosed in quatrefoils of cardinal red and bronze-green flock encased in gold trellis, baroque florals – it sounds like a jaunt through Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s shirt collection rather than a glimpse of Oxburgh Hall’s past.

A new exhibition is set to open at the south-west Norfolk National Trust property which aims to peel back layers of history – literally – and shed a whole new light on the history of Oxburgh Hall through the study of the wallpaper that has been used to decorate the Bedingfeld family seat.

The Oxburgh Hall boasts an incredible collection of wallpapers: some in situ on the walls, others in archive boxes which have been hidden in attics for decades.

There are 126 different samples and 79 different designs that date from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century and include designs by Pugin for the Crace Company in the 1840s and 1850s and others likely to have been supplied by Watts and Co, Cole & Son, Sanderson and Thomas Bromwich.

Just as clothes reflect the fashion of the time, so does wallpaper.

By the late 18th century, wallpaper was the most fashionable form of interior decoration in wealthy houses and by the early 19th century, manufacturers were working hard to make affordable papers that would see households with lesser incomes adopt wallpaper in their own homes.

Since then, wallpaper has enjoyed mixed fortunes, although it is currently enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.

Wendy Andrews has conducted exhaustive research into Oxburgh Hall’s wallpaper and has helped put together the exhibition which offers a glimpse into the property’s highly-decorated past.

She explained that in Oxburgh’s illustrious history, interior design has been key – and that in particular, one period in the hall’s life was particularly important in terms of wallpaper history.

In 1826, Henry Bedingfeld, the sixth Baronet, married Margaret Paston, the daughter of a wealthy Norfolk Catholic family who had inherited £50,000 and sold an estate for £37,000 which provided the necessary funds to carry out various restoration works at Oxburgh Hall.

Keen to ‘re-gothicise’ the building following what he believed to be “acts of vandalism” by his grandfather, Henry set out to bring back the hall’s antiquarian character and wipe away mistakes from the past. He employed architect John Chessell Buckler who was tasked with facilitating “an exuberant recreation of the late-medieval ‘fortified’ manor which had been sadly patched and Georgianised in the preceding century”.

Antiques were brought into the house including Flemish woodcarvings, Spanish leather panels and stained glass and rooms were painted in rich, dark colours and hung with curtains and wallpapers designed by Pugin, a celebrated Gothic revival architect.

Additionally, Wendy has meticulously researched the wallpaper companies that supplied to Oxburgh Hall in the 19th century, including the Crace Company – an order for £203-4-10 has been unearthed, showing that the Bedingfelds spent the modern-day equivalent of £16,740 on wallpaper in 1883 – and the Cowtan company.

The Bedingfelds bought six different Cowtan wallpapers for the Hall in five different orders between 1831 and 1905, These included a trompe l’oeil plasterwork design on a red background that is still in place in the corridor between the north bedroom and the boudoir, a flock foliate design, a flock fleur-de-lys and lozenge pattern in earth brown which was destined for the library and a design with a crown against an embossed buff background for the staircase and hall.

A Cowtan order in 1905 was for a square-paned design of pale grey leaves and petals against a red background which was discovered in early 2013 in the west cloister corridor, adjacent to the west stair, the drawing room and the library, underneath a 20th century Damask and above at least one woodgrain paper.

The design can be seen in a photograph believed to have been taken at Oxburgh in 1934, according to Frances Greathead, the 10th Baronet’s aunt, who still spends part of her year in the private accommodation at the hall and who was born a year after the end of the First World War.

Oxburgh Hall’s house manager, 
Liz Cooper, asked Mrs Greathead if she recalled the photograph being taken and she replied that she believed it to be her brother Eddie’s picture (Edmund, 9th Baronet) which had been taken when he held a dance at the hall.

She said: “I was allowed to go although I was only 15. A girl called Catherine Hougham fell in the moat – she ran round the corner of the grass plot near the saloon thinking that the grass went on. I met her in a train during the war and saw her name on her suitcase. She was a captain in the army.

“I said: ‘I believe you once fell into a moat belonging to us’ and she said: ‘I have only fallen into one moat – you must be a Bedingfeld’. The people in the carriage were rather intrigued.”

The orders help to build a picture of life at Oxburgh and the opulence that can still be seen today. To put it into context, the Crace Company was used by George III when decorating the Brighton Royal Pavilion and the Houses of Parliament still have examples of Crace wallpaper on its walls while Pugin designed the tower that houses Big Ben.

“By finding all the different layers of paper throughout the house we can date rooms, discover what they were used for, all 
from by what’s on the walls. 
We can build up a picture of changing fortunes and fashions. It’s been a revelation for us,” she said.

The research at Oxburgh has also been carried out by Allyson McDermott, wallpaper conservator and expert, who has 30 years of experience in the field. As part of her work, Allyson has been working on a sample removed from Oxburgh which has 14 layers of wallpaper stuck together (“now that defines ‘painstaking’”, said Wendy).

Anna Forrest is the National Trust’s regional curator: “Wallpaper is the unsung hero of history for us. People have been looking at objects and textiles for years but no one has really given a second thought to wallpaper and it is so important.

“Another thing I find fascinating is that when you look back at history, you imagine it in muted, sepia tones, but when you see the wallpaper exhibition you’ll be astonished by the vibrancy, the primary, screaming shades. These would have been incredibly ‘busy’ rooms!”

“Wallpaper is like virtual archaeology. You can literally peel back the layers of history. For us, it’s raised some questions about the people we thought we knew fairly well – looking at their choices, we’re wondering if we ever really knew them at all.”

The new exhibition, which opens for previews when Oxburgh itself reopens in spring on February 15, includes specially-designed cabinets to display wallpaper samples and is an extension of a previous exhibition which opened last year. Far more is now available to see and work will continue on discovering more about the history of the hall’s interior decoration.

Both Wendy and Anna said they would struggle to live with many of the vibrant wallpapers that have been hung at Oxburgh – although both like a Briar Rose design – but admit that working with wallpaper so closely has made them both fall in love with it.

“For some reason, I’ve always painted the walls in my own house,” admitted Wendy, “but I’m definitely going down the wallpaper route next time I decorate!”

For more information, contact Oxburgh Hall on 01366 328258 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall.

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