Wallpapering the past: Where some Lost Flowers of Alice Hart were found

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In the new streaming series based on Holly Ringland’s book The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, the walls of the fictional homestead Thornfield, a haven for domestic violence victims, are as alive with flowers as the gardens that surround it.

Long before minimalism and white walls, an uncovered surface was considered ugly, and a plain wall was unfinished, said Michael Lech, a research curator with Museums of History NSW’s Caroline Simpson Library.

To bring the best-selling book to life in the new series starring Sigourney Weaver streaming on Amazon Prime, its production designer Melinda Doring turned to Lech and the Simpson Library for inspiration on interiors and wall coverings that would suit the family homestead where it was shot.

Alyla Browne plays a young Alice in this scene showcasing the wallpaper/interiors in Thornfield in the Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. Credit: Glendyn Ivin

Now, a new gift from Victorian architects has turned NSW’s Simpson collection into the largest repository of historical wallpapers in the country. It includes 3000 rare wallpapers from the late 19th century that range from the gold and the beautiful to elaborate children’s coverings and patterns featuring oversized flowers.

“Finding one wallpaper from this era in good condition is rare, but coming across thousands is remarkable,” said Lech.

Museums of History NSW Michael Lech, with a selection from a massive collection of wallpaper that has been given to the museum.Credit: Brook Mitchell

The wallpapers were rescued from a shed in Kyneton, Victoria, in 1978 by Victorian architects Phyllis Murphy, 99, and her late husband, John.

“I was speechless,” Murphy said in 2016. “There were hundreds of rolls, many with their diamond registered marks,” she said. “I was told if I wasn’t interested, they would end up in the bin.”

Caring for the collection during retirement, Murphy became an expert on wallpaper.

This wallpaper – an interwar paper that Lech described as looking like porridge – included an extra border that was papered over the top. Credit: Brook Mitchell

The collection includes unused rolls, sample books, and trade literature pitched at the homeowner who wants to impress friends.

Children’s wallpaper from a sample book by an English wallpaper manufacturer in 1889 taught the ABCs. It is included in a massive collection donated by the Murphy family. Credit: Brook Mitchell

Murphy’s oldest son Jock said word got around Kyneton that his parents were interested in old wallpaper. “Anyone renovating an old house, they’d find a bit of wallpaper … And be told to drop it off to Phyl.”

The rich floral patterns highlighted in gold from 1910 were designed to shine under candlelight at night, said Lech. Flicking through sample books, Lech described the interwar designs from the 1930s as resembling porridge. “Not to my taste,” he said.

For much of the 18th and 19th century, wallpaper was popular, affordable, and easier to use than paint. Often homeowners would slap a new more fashionable wallpaper on top of another. An old home in Pyrmont had a wallpaper sandwich of history, 11 layers.

More than a century before today’s peel and stick wall coverings, many wallpapers in the collection were designed to trick the eye. Some look like wooden panelling, kitchen tiles or pressed tin.

Lech said the collection shines a light on our past. “If our homes are tangible extensions of ourselves and our aspirations, then the colour and patterns we choose to live with must say something about our collective identities.”

Doring said the research at the Simpson Library with Lech had been “truly inspirational”.

It resulted in the wattle wallpaper made for the young Alice’s bedroom, aged to look as if it was original, a dining room featuring oversized flannel flowers, embroidery, woodwork and the family heirloom at the heart of the story, the Thornfield dictionary Language of Flowers.

An upstairs room was transformed into Alice’s bedroom, with a 1950s wallpaper design featuring wattle, which signifies, “I wound to heal.”

This children’s wallpaper dates back to the 1930s. It is from a massive collection of wallpaper that has been given to the Museums of History NSW by the Murphy family. Credit: Brook Mitchell

Doring said, “Wallpaper can tell a real story of the age of the room and the characters that live there (how long they have lived there, etc). The patterns bring the walls alive. On film/tv it can add an extra dimension and another layer of texture and richness to the frame.”

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is produced by Amazon Studios, Made Up Stories and Fifth Season and was directed by Glendyn Ivin.

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