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Butterfly Frieze
Uncovering the history of this exquisite design began with finding a sample of the wallpaper frieze in the British Patent Office and eventually led to revealing the identity of the designer.
One look at the frieze from the patent office collection and I knew I had seen it someplace before. That "someplace" was a late 19th century Liverpool interior published in Nineteenth-Century Decoration: The Art of the Interior by Charlotte Gere. The room has not been identified and is unlikely to have survived, existing only as a photograph in the collection of the National Museums Liverpool.

The room in the photograph is a superb example of an Aesthetic Movement interior. It contains many of the iconic elements which characterized the decorating style: tasteful wallpaper, abundant displays of china and simplified furniture forms, with a sprinkling of the Orient throughout the room - all assembled and arranged to signal that the occupants had an artistic flair and were current in their taste.

But what of the wallpapers used in the room? Closer examination of the photograph shows the wall fill to be "Jasmine," a design William Morris registered in 1872. Although the Liverpool frieze is an excellent complement for the wallpaper, it is not a Morris design. The patent office records the frieze as "English Style," having been registered in June of 1870 by Gillow of Lancaster & London, a specialist furnisher catering to the upper classes. While the designer is not credited on the patent, it is stylistically similar to known wallpaper patterns by Bruce J. Talbert printed by Jeffrey and Co. Talbert created furniture for Gillow; could Gillow have contracted Talbert to design this frieze? Talbert's association with Gillow is intriguing, but not strong enough evidence to definitely credit Talbert with the design of this beautiful frieze of flowing leaves, flowers, and butterflies. For now, the designer would have to remain anonymous.
Liverpool Interior

At left, a Liverpool interior, c. 1880.

Image © National Museums Liverpool.

Bruce Talbert was a supernova who briefly shone over British design. Born in 1838 and dead by age 43, he left behind an impressive body of work. Best remembered as a furniture designer, his studio also produced copious designs for wallpaper, textiles and metalwork for several British manufacturers. Talbert's influence was also felt in the United States and elsewhere through his design books and exhibition pieces. Trained in architecture and skilled as a woodcarver, Talbert designed complete interiors and was a master at synthesizing Gothic and Japanese elements into a new style that would become a hallmark of the Aesthetic Movement. Dying at the height of his fame in January of 1881, tributes poured in from around the world. His astounding talent was memorialized in a number of journals and with the posthumous publication of a collection of his designs in book form. Once as prominent as Morris, Talbert has drifted towards obscurity, while interest in Morris has steadily increased.

Although I was still curious about the designer, it seemed I had reached a dead-end for uncovering any more clues about this wallpaper frieze. Happenstance found me thumbing through a bound set of the The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher journal in a small shop, about an hour away from home. The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher was a London trade journal that began publication in 1880. Profusely illustrated, it was one of the periodicals that commemorated Talbert after his death by printing a series of his designs. Flipping through pages of the thick volume provided one visual treat after another. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, just absorbing the panorama of late century design and thoroughly enjoying the confluence of art and commerce on the old, yellowed pages. Talbert was well represented by furniture design after furniture design and one room design after another. As I was giving a cursory examination to one page, something caught my eye. Eureka! Before me was a sketch for a room design by Bruce Talbert with the patent office/Liverpool frieze running prominently across the top of the wall. The description of that Talbert sketch in the August 1, 1881 issue is as follows:
"THE DESIGN FOR SIDE OF DRAWING-ROOM, page 32, illustrates a complete scheme of decoration after the favourite manner of this architect's drawing-room furniture, and the good points of the design will be apparent on the face of it. The introduction of high-class painted panels into modern furniture was largely due to Mr. Talbert's efforts. In the over-mantel there are three studies of that class. The introduction of birds and squirrels in the scroll of mantel frieze is very pleasing, as also the butterflies amongst the flowers which form the frieze of the wall decoration." The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher
With three pieces of the puzzle fitting together, I am confident that Talbert was the author of this design. Some detective work, a lot of looking at books, a little help from my friends and some fortunate circumstances allowed me to put the pieces together. I am pleased to be able to provide a few historic details for this pattern and delighted to offer this exquisite design to a new generation who wish to bring art into their homes.

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