wallpapers then and now

study, Inn at Government House

a study, Inn at Government House

I recently came across a stash of photos I took awhile back when I was in Baltimore working on a new performance piece at the Baltimore Theatre Project. Through the BTP, we were able to stay at the Inn at Government House, a restored 19th century mansion that bills itself as the “Official Guesthouse of the City of Baltimore.” (It’s also open to the public; the guestrooms are actually in an annex and a good deal less posh than the main house, though also decorated with an assortment of period bric-a-brac.)

paneling and wallpaper details

paneling and wallpaper details

As a working artist sweating out long hours on a complex project with a crazy small budget, it was distinctly odd to have the run of a mansion in my free time. But it was also a lot of fun, like hanging out in a museum after hours.

Art Nouveau peacock border

peacock border

Finished in 1889, the Inn is an archive of the high design of its period, especially in the woodworking and wallpaper departments. The wallpaper runs to the most elaborate Art Nouveau styles, a thorough-going testimonial to horror vacui. But this same feature also made it unusually comprehensive of symbolic motifs: in just the few images shown here, there are forms that resemble pomegranates, poppies, acanthus leaves, peaches, lilies, ferns, roses, lotuses, gentians, and seed heads. I was especially taken by a border of peacocks, with its elaborate golden ferns and blue lilies. What is it about peacocks that made them one of the key symbolic motifs of the late 19th century—think of Whistler’s Peackock Room for the Leyland house, for instance (now in the Freer Gallery in Washington).  Some gut-grabbing compound of the vanity of life, beauty of nature, orientalism, and decayed Christianity?

green windows

green windows diptych

In one of the sitting rooms, I came across a set of mullioned windows through which the light came green and gold, filtered by the trees outside—you can see them in the top photo on this page. I was struck by the way the old, wavy-textured glass abstracted the trees so that the effect was no longer one of looking through a window at nature but something much closer to stained glass. The light and color seemed to be in and of the glass itself. So when I got back home, I cropped and composited a couple of my photos of these windows to create the diptych shown here. It’s proportioned to serve as that most contemporary form of wallpaper, the desktop picture or screenpaper. Feel free to grab a screen cap, or download a 1024 x 768 version here (234 kb).