Historic Building Assessments

Richard Stocking
An exciting chronology of surviving historic wallpaper has been found in an 18th century Georgian building in Lymington, Hampshire.

When you carry out a historic building assessment you never know quite what you’ll find.  This historic appraisal was commissioned by Temple Bar Developments (Hampshire) Limited, who recently acquired the 18th century Georgian building in Lymington. They’re keen to carry out an extensive but sympathetic restoration of the currently dilapidated and much adapted Grade II listed building, so my job was to identify and improve understanding of the surviving fabric’s architectural and historic value.

...my job was to identify and improve understanding of the surviving fabric’s architectural and historic value.

Located in the High Street and within one of Lymington’s renowned medieval ‘burgage’ plots, the property has had a tumultuous historical development due to widespread 18th, 19th and 20th century adaptation and addition. The developer plans to maintain retail floor space and convert the upper floors for residential use.

My assessment aimed to understand the building and its fabric, establishing whether specific areas are of interest. This helps the local authority to make decisions that balance a building's historic significance against other issues such as its function, condition or viability. This building had already been identified as ‘significant’. As well as site visits, I carried out desk research, also using the local museum and records office to explore the building’s changing use over the centuries.

My assessment aimed to understand the building and its fabric, establishing whether specific areas are of interest.

The layers of wallpaper in a second storey room had been concealed by a flimsy dry lining of hardboard. The hardboard had also received successive layers of 20th century wallpaper and decorative coatings. The discovery was made when a section of hardboard was carefully removed. This revealed a mass of blackened, mould ridden, damp, deteriorating textile cloth, paper and an area of lime rendered brick wall with small patches of surviving in situ wallpaper.

I took photographs and sent them to the Wallpaper History Society. Expert examination of the wall surface and accumulation of textile cloth and paper told an interesting story. It’s an expensive wallpaper, dating to the third quarter of the 18th century. It's described as a dress silk, with a design that uses at least six blocks. Block printing is the method that was used for printing wallpaper and textiles for hundreds of years. The design was hand carved in relief on blocks of fruitwood, one block for each colour. The blocks were dipped in pigment and applied to the paper in sequence to create the design. This gave depth of colour and a distinctive texture. Block printing is now hugely expensive but still used for some historic projects for which the original blocks exist.

...it's so valuable to understand more about your building – then you can put together a proposal that is more likely to satisfy the conservation officer.

The dress silk pattern paper was overlaid by timber battens and five successive layers of wallpaper, so it's amazing that it survived at all. Just as interesting, the reverse of the printed paper shows 'First Account Taken' tax stamps. A duty was imposed on paper between 1715 and 1836 and these stamps represent that this had been taken.

Building owners understandably worry about what we’re going to find during a heritage assessment and how this will impact their plans. But it's so valuable to understand more about your building – then you can put together a proposal that is more likely to satisfy the conservation officer. First, you need to know what matters, and why. Then you figure out what to do about it, with minimum disruption. So the earlier a heritage advisor (someone like me) is involved, the better.

In the case of the wallpaper, the developer was seen to have evaluated the find, taken expert advice and thus there was a clear understanding of the significance. However, it’s not reasonable to expect the developer to maintain that layer of paper, so the case was put forward for its removal. This is the sort of sensible outcome that can be expected when the research is carried out satisfactorily and can become the basis of negotiation with the conservation officer.

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