What's left behind

Magazine editor Hatta Byng is peeling back generations of taste as she embarks on a project to preserve and restore the family home. 

There’s something thrilling about taking off a radiator, chipping away paint or peeling back wallpaper and revealing evidence of a previous decorative scheme, a glimpse into a different time and the lives of past inhabitants. These very tangible links to the past are at once reassuring, in the sense of home-making and the domesticity that they convey, and unnerving in the obvious indication that our lives are a mere moment in time for the buildings we inhabit.

As I embark on a large redecoration project of my own, I’m acutely aware that our time will just be a fleeting moment in the history of our house that was built in 1804, and that has been owned by several families over its lifetime and re-decorated many times. Much of what we’re replacing is the result of my husband’s grandparents’ redecoration – brave and exotic wallpapers and grand, now threadbare, curtains. Some of it is his parents’ – a welcoming family kitchen replaced the formal dining room – and some of it, like an old flock paper in the drawing room and the faux graining on the linen cupboard doors, precedes all of them. We think the flocked paper would have gone up in the 1930s or 40s. While it was probably a fairly standard off-the-peg design, it is rather wonderful in its disheveled state. It’s too far gone to preserve though, and not special enough either. But at nearly 100 years old, it feels momentous to take it down; it has been part of so many people’s lives. Is there a way of hiding a piece somewhere, I keep wondering? 

Certainly, upstairs in a bedroom in what would have been my husband’s grandparents’ ‘best spare’, I’ve asked the builders to save a slice of wallpaper behind the cupboards we’re installing to enable a future generation to see what was once there. Even now, I’m rather fascinated by the daring of this wallpaper, put up in the 1960s I imagine. I wonder what somebody will make of it in a 100 years’ time. Or maybe – and hopefully – our cupboards, our own imprint on this house, will still be standing. That is our hope and intention – for the cupboards, at least, although I’m sure wallpapers and paint colours will be buried under further layers. Old houses are like time capsules waiting to be discovered by curious future custodians – so many clues as to the lives, stories and tastes of the people that lived there before them. 

Hatta Byng has been the editor of House & Garden since 2014. She studied the history of art and architecture and has also worked as an interior designer.

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