Fine hand-printed wallpaper designs by printmaker Andrew Raftery, immersed in historical technique, reveal powerful color instincts in elegant patterns.
By Cynthia Close
Printmaker Andrew Raftery worked for eight years designing, etching, printing, and transferring his prints onto a set of ceramic plates, which he and his students had also designed. The result was a set of 12 plates, each representing a different month of the year. Together, they present a visual narrative of a year in the life of a garden and its gardener. Raftery’s ambitious series, entitled Autobiography of a Garden, is a widely acclaimed masterwork.
But when it came time for the long-awaited exhibition of this work, Raftery felt a disconnect between the cold white walls of the gallery setting and the intimate, domestic atmosphere suggested by his engraved plates. Patterned wallpaper seemed like the perfect solution. So he created his first handprinted wallpaper, titled Spring Salad, a cool-toned design of leafy mustard greens that provided a more apropos backdrop for displaying the plates.
The Legacy of Hand-Printed Wallpaper
Known for his penchant for historical research and deep dives into subject matter, Raftery continued his investigation of wallpaper design. Scenic, hand-painted woodblock printed wallpaper was popular in the 18th century, particularly in France, and was embraced in American well-to-do homes. The most famous scenic wallpaper manufacturer was the Frenchman Jean Zuber, whose factory opened in 1797. It took 20 engravers several years to produce their first paper, Views of Switzerland, in 1804.
Adapting the cyclical theme he followed in his plate engravings, Raftery produced four wallpaper patterns, one for each season of the year. The project revealed Raftery’s powerful color sensibilities and rhythmic feel for pattern — innate characteristics that were unexploited in his black and white figural engravings.
A Perfect Setting, Built in 1765
In 2018 Raftery found the perfect setting for his transferware collection, his wallpaper designs, and his art. He and his partner, Ned Lochaya, bought the 1765 Powder House. This is an historic home in Providence, Rhode Island, that was used to store gunpowder during the American Revolution. The rough white plaster walls provided the ideal surface for the application of Raftery’s printed designs. The artist evaluated the light and atmospheric qualities of the rooms to match the mood with the corresponding wallpaper.
A Room for Every Season
The Summer room is papered in a bright, contrasting mix of geraniums with pinkish-red and green coleus, one of Raftery’s favorite plants, “because it seems printed.” When he used it on the walls of this modest room he was, “surprised that such an intense pattern actually made this small room seem bigger.” The Spring room is covered on the north and south wall by a pattern of repeating purple irises on top of a rainbow-like effect of blended color. Dan Wood, a printer in Providence, worked with Raftery to execute these complex printing challenges on his Heidelberg Press.
The Autumn room is the darkest space in this area of the house. Raftery’s nocturnal scene of lush foliage in pinkish moonlight against a deep blue starry sky is far from the usual fall oakleaves and acorns. Raftery’s propensity for storytelling extends to the description of his wallpaper patterns. Walking from the warm October evening depicted in the Autumn room, Raftery rhapsodizes, “the Winter room offers the blinding brightness of a sunny morning after a nighttime snow.”
Next Steps on a Scenic Journey
Raftery may be done with wallpapering the Powder House, but he’s not done exploring printed wallpapers. His next project takes him outdoors. He’s been drawing in plein air along historic Blackstone Boulevard in Providence, preparing for a scenic wallpaper journey encompassing moments along the 1.6-mile walking path. He’ll also be conducting research on installed scenic wallpapers at the Winterthur Museum Garden and Library. We look forward to seeing how Raftery reinvents this historical craft to present his unique personal vision tied to a particular contemporary place and time.
Meet the Artist
ANDREW RAFTERY has earned many awards, including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the John R. Frazier Award for excellence in teaching from RISD, the Boston University Distinguished Alumni Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award in and the Fritz Eichenberg Fellowship in Printmaking, Narrative Engraving Project from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts. He was elected to membership of the National Academy in New York City in 2009. Learn more at ryanleegallery.com.
See more on Andrew Raftery in the July/August 2021 issue of Artists Magazine.
Cynthia Close is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. Learn more at cynthiaclose.com.