Farringford’s Wallpaper

In Tennyson's time a good wallpaper became a statement of taste, and also class, almost directly reflective of the people who occupied the rooms.

In 1840 interior decoration was changed almost for good as a technique was discovered for the mass production of wallpaper. At Farringford House, the wallpapers on display show the Victorian penchant for the new fashion. The Gothic wallpaper in the linking corridor between the schoolroom and the anteroom has been restored, and part of the blue room frieze as well as a fragment of the schoolroom paper have been restored. Throughout the house, the many wallpapers have been painfully repaired and several recreated from historic fragments using the traditional wood block printing method, including the star pattern that decorates Audrey’s bedroom.

A Statemant of Taste

After 1840, a good wallpaper became a statement of taste, and also class, almost directly reflective of the people who occupied the rooms. This can be seen most clearly in Tennyson’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing, in particular her famous novel ‘North and South’, where the love affair between Mr Thornton and Margaret is foreshadowed through a change of wallpaper.

‘But, oh mamma! speaking of vulgarity and commonness, you must prepare yourself for our drawing-room paper. Pink and blue roses, with yellow leaves! And such a heavy cornice round the room!'

But when they removed to their new house in Milton, the obnoxious papers were gone. The landlord received their thanks very composedly; and let them think, if they liked, that he had relented from his expressed determination not to repaper. There was no particular need to tell them, that what he did not care to do for a Reverend Mr. Hale, unknown in Milton, he was only too glad to do at the one short sharp remonstrance of Mr. Thornton, the wealthy manufacturer. – North & South

Wallpaper to Reflect the Natural World

Matthew Sweet’s book ‘Inventing the Victorians’ suggests that the bold colours and patterns of Victorian wallpaper were all the more necessary because of the soot and smoke which darkened papers in industrial cities, perhaps explaining the Landlord’s original choice in ‘North and South’, and making Margaret’s desire for subtle wallpapers another indicator of her out of place ‘southern ways’. If for Margaret Hale wallpapers indicate class, then it reflects a larger trend amongst the Victorians generally, where wallpapers came to signify everything from philosophical stance to religious position. The Arts and Crafts wallpapers of William Morris echo his philosophy laid out in his Utopian imagining of society in ‘News from Nowhere’ that the interiors of rooms should reflect the natural world and be handmade. These papers were perhaps most famously used in Standen in the 1890s, a house whose owners, like William Morris, had strong socialist principles.

Classical Themes

Perhaps the most out there of the wallpapers of Farringford is the interior decoration of the Blue Room where a fragment of a paper frieze by Jeffry Allen & Co was discovered. The design is called ‘Elgin Marble’ and depicts a section of the Parthenon Frieze. It was originally produced as a design for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It is understood that the frieze was a gift to the Tennysons, possibly during the late 1850s from their close friend and neighbour Julia Margaret Cameron. The frieze was overlaid onto a bright blue ultramarine paint and, like many of the wallpapers of the time, the decoration reflected Tennyson’s interests. Classical themes appear throughout his poetry, as well as Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography, from ‘Oenone’ to ‘Ulysses’:

    ‘Hither came at noon
Mournful Oenone, wandering forlorn
Of Paris, once her playmate on the hills.
Her cheek had lost the rose, and round her neck
Floated her hair or seem'd to float in rest.
She, leaning on a fragment twined with vine,
Sang to the stillness, till the mountain-shade
Sloped downward to her seat from the upper cliff.’ – Oenone

‘I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.’ – Ulysses

Wallpaper Reflecting a State of Mind

Virginia Woolf, connected with Tennyson through her father Leslie Stephen’s friendship with the poet, also sees in the wallpapers of rooms a reflection of the state of mind of those within them. However, the wallpaper here takes on an almost sinister life of its own, as the life seems to seep out of Septimus and into his surroundings.

‘Septimus Warren Smith lying on the sofa in the sitting-room; watching the watery gold glow and fade with the astonishing sensibility of some live creature on the roses, on the wall-paper.’ – Mrs Dalloway

The most sinister and powerful wallpaper of all however must be in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s late Victorian novella ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, where the wallpaper, like the wallpaper in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ becomes symptomatic of the mental state and position of the individual occupying, or in this case, locked into, a room. 

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time! – The Yellow Wallpaper

One thing is for certain, the wallpapers of the Victorians tell the stories of their age and the careful recreations of Farringford’s wallpapers and paints therefore allow a glimpse, not only into Tennyson’s life, but also into his mind.

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