A subtle treasure

During a recent restoration of pioneer photographer Fred Holland Day’s home in Norwood, project workers came across quite a find: original rolls of 1890s wallpapers, stored by a curator in the attic decades ago.

William Pudsey, then president of the Norwood Historical Society, which has owned the 17-room F. Holland Day House since 1934, recalls that it was cold in the house the day the discovery was made. John Burrows, owner of J. R. Burrows & Co., which supplies reproduction fabrics, wallpaper, and carpets, posed a simple question: Were there, he wondered, any rolls of wallpaper anywhere in the house?

The question triggered Pudsey’s memory. “I think there’s a box in the attic,” he said. Sure enough, inside a cardboard container marked “Wallpaper -Save” lay the originals. “The colors were unladed. They were beautiful samples,” said Burrows, who then undertook the reproduction of the English Arts and Crafts wallpapers.

He has now reissued seven wallpaper patterns in cooperation with the historical society and will donate the papers to the house as each of those rooms is ready to be restored.

Window on the 1890s

What’s interesting about the papers “is finding what a man of refined artistic sensibility would purchase!’ said Burrows, who added that Day chose not to select William Morris papers popular at the time but rather ones that were not widely distributed. “They are quiet patterns, beautifully drawn. The papers are subtle … meant to showcase other things in the room.”

Burrows arranged to have one of the papers, “Sandringham,” produced by an English firm, Watts & Co., to be manufactured and distributed in England. The company “liked it so much that they [featured] it at their booth at Decorex,” an international interior design show held in London last fall.

Fred Holland Day was an internationally known photographer whose essays advocated photography as a fine art form. His pictorial photographs represented classical and religious subjects, including a series of the life of Christ with Day himself as the crucified.

As a partner in the firm of Copeland and Day, he published the works of Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Stephen Crane, and Louise Imogen Guiney in exquisite bindings. Now collects’ items, the books sell for hundreds of dollars. Day helped to preserve the work of his close friend, Guiney. by donating the Auburndale poet’s letters and writings to the Library of Congress. Day owned what contemporary accounts called the world’s best collection of books and memorabilia of John Keats, which he gave intact to the Keats homestead in England.

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A wealthy man, Day was a patron of struggling artists. He spent the last years of his life working in seclusion. At his death in 1933 at the age of 69, Day was scorned as an eccentric.

Day clearly loved the house, which he had remodeled over three years starting in 1890. “He must have had a very unusual relationship with his parents,” said Burrows. “What parent would let you do that to their house.”

“That” involved changing the house from an 1859 French-style mansard to a stucco and timbered mansion with a three-story central hall, an Arts and Crafts extravaganza. He kept only the original foundation and the living room where the charter creating the town of Norwood was signed 125 years ago.

“Day really zoned the house so that his parents had their own space, but he had space that was quite uniquely his,” said Burrow’s.

As scholars begin to reevaluate Day’s life, his contributions are seen in a new light. Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts displaced some of Day’s photographs from its collection. And his work was an important part of the exhibit, “Inspiring Reform: Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement,” in the Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

Last April, Norwood Historical Society, Stonehill College, and the Fuller Museum of Brockton jointly sponsored a symposium, “Fred Holland Day in Context,” in conjunction with “The Poetic Lens,” an exhibit at the Fuller Museum of Day’s work as a photographer and publisher.

One of the reproduced wallpapers, “Sandringham,” was hung as a frieze in the gallery at the Fuller Museum. John Burrow’s remembers the first time he saw the actual wallpaper. He had agreed to reproduce papers for the restoration of the Day bedroom. It was in bad shape, but because Day had taken several photographs, restorers knew how the paper should hang. One of the papers, “Depden,” was intact behind the bookcase, so the colors were documented. “This was hung as the dado, but at shoulder level,” said Burrows. But there was no large sample of “Sandringham,” which was hung as a frieze.

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“I came very close to trying to draw it as a 2-inch sample from a photograph, and just on a whim I asked if there were any old rolls there.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bedroom restoration

In addition to the authentic wallpaper, the restored bedroom features olive paint on the trim and light moss green on the ceiling that are documented colors. The paint on the chimney surround is the exact paint. All of the paint was applied or touched up by volunteer artist Jean Detrick with advice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.

“Babel’s [of Norwood] donated the paint, a standard Benjamin Moore number,” said Detrick.

As for the papers, it was no accident that they were saved. In the 1970s, Barbara Rand, a volunteer curator with the historical society, carefully cataloged objects in the Day house. “I did this to make sure that they stayed together and didn’t get cleaned up in any housecleaning effort,” she said. As a result, the original rolls of wallpaper were saved in the attic. “Objects don’t lie. They tell their story, speak to you of the time they came from, and are not reinterpreted by what we want to see in them.”

The restoration of the bedroom was funded by members of the Tanneyhill family. Alfred Tanneyhill went to work for the Day family when he was 18 and remained both an employee and family confidant until after Day’s death.

(Read more about the Tanneyhill, Diggs and Grandison families here)

For Burrows, Rand, and Pudsey, the house and especially the bedroom embodies the spirit of Fred Holland Day. Pudsey notes that Day drew the layout of the room on the wall so that the carpenters would put things where he wanted them. “When you step into the house, you step into another world.”

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“Fred wanted the house he was born in,” said Rand, “only older.”


J. R. Burrows & Co. will display the Day House wallpapers at Restoration and Renovation Boston to be held today and tomorrow from noon to 6 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. at the World Trade Center on Northern Avenue. Admission is $25 for all three days; Saturday admission is $30.

John Burrows will speak at the Day House at 7:30 p.m. on April 22, sponsored by the Norwood Historical Society. The event is free and open to the public. Call 781-762-9197.

The wallpapers in the Norwood-Day Collection are silk-screen printed by hand in Massachusetts. Burrows named four papers: “Priory Garden,” “Chrysanthemum,” “Peruvian Lily,” and “Phillimore Wreath.” The other papers are “Depden,” “Sandringham,” and “Kensington.” The original “Kensington” paper hangs in the F. Holland Day Archives room.

The wallpapers cost from $42 to $54 per single roll, which covers about 30 square feet. They are available in the documentary colors as well as in custom colors.

By Cynthia Stanton GLOBE STAFF

Thu, Mar 12, 1998 – The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts)