‘Chawton Leaf’ wallpaperText by Grant Montgomery, Production Designer
This vibrant and in some ways quite contemporary design “Chawton Leaf”, beautifully recreated by master specialists Hamilton Western, leaps out from the walls of the Dining Parlour in all its arsenic green glory. The dense leaf motif repeat pattern surrounds and insulates you like that of a hedge or a maze. A small fragment of the original hand printed paper was found in the top corner of the room behind a cupboard by conservator Mark Sandiford and from that this incredible wallpaper has been recreated. The finished article keenly informs us that Jane Austen’s world was far from the safe pale and pastel of many film and television adaptions.
In the Georgian period wallpapers were an expensive and hugely desirable status symbol, so much so that advertisements for Paris apartments in the 1780s specified wallpapered walls at an added cost to the rent. Colours ranged from Tangerine to Turquoise, patterns from neo classical to chintz. You could have trompe l’ oeil representations of stucco ornaments, classical statues and niches, even gothic tracery. Scenes for covering whole walls were available very much like a poster wall effect and a fashion sprung up for simulated draped silk materials. You could purchase colourways to match furniture and curtain material if you so desired. And if it is costly and desirable then it’s going to be taxed. In Britain from 1714 to 1836 there was levied a wallpaper tax. The original fragment of “Chawton Leaf” has a tax stamp allowing it to be dated to when Jane was likely to be living at the House.
And therein lies a mystery. Did Jane choose it? It is thought that other papers in the House may have been bought by Mrs Austen and her daughters as bargain bin purchases or end of runs. But with “Chawton Leaf”, I like to think it was Jane’s choice. It might be wishful thinking on my part but somehow this surprisingly alive, not to be taken for granted wallpaper seems to capture her spirit entirely!