Two conservators from Somerville have been painstakingly cleaning and restoring the historic and rare wallpaper in the dining room of the Isaac Davenport mansion at the Wakefield Estate in Milton — revealing details of images that tell the story of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake,” in a panoramic mural.
And the results — especially, after old varnish is rubbed away — are startling, Deborah LaCamera, of Studio TKM Associates, said in a recent interview.
“The difference is pretty amazing,” she said. “The varnish was so brown and so streaky that you couldn’t get an appreciation of the true color. The improvement is vast, to both the color and the image.”
The wallpaper, which was installed in the 1860s when the house was renovated and a kitchen became a formal dining room, is in remarkably good condition and has been responding to the conservation techniques, LaCamera said.
“It’s been behaving itself really well — which doesn’t always happen when you are talking about something that is 150 to 200 years old,” she said. “Preindustrial wallpapers were really meant to last.”
The wallpaper was made in France at the Zuber factory, which has been printing wallpaper from woodblocks since 1797. The most famous Zuber wallpapers in the United States are in the White House, LaCamera said.
She said the design at the Wakefield Estate originally was meant for a European castle in 1827 in 32 panels that show scenes from “The Lady of the Lake” poem.
“It is essentially a black-and-white image created in seven colors of grays and blacks that would have been printed from thousands of wood blocks on hand-painted ground. It’s a really labor-intensive process, but the results are very beautiful and very intricate,” she said.
The “Lady of the Lake” wallpaper was discontinued in the 1860s, and very few examples remain, she said, with no known copies in the US.
The conservators began work in the fall and expect to continue into the spring. LaCamera said the biggest task left is to recreate the sky in the mural, which takes up about a third of the walls and has been completely overpainted, probably to hide water damage.
She’ll use infrared cameras, which can sometimes make overpainting translucent, so the original image is visible. The conservators also have found another copy of the wallpaper — in Finland — with much of the sky intact and they will be able to study it, LaCamera said.
“We have a much better sense of what it looks like and it will be a question of piecing together information from multiple sources,” she said.
The project is being funded in part by a grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The conservators will discuss their work, and wallpaper history in general, as part of the Stone Soup and Speaker series on Jan. 26, at 6 p.m. at the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum, 1465 Brush Hill Road in Milton. The event is free, but preregistration is required at wakefieldtrust.org.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at email@example.com.