A preoccupation with flowers, foliage and the popular 'sky ceilings', which date back to classical times, has
always been a feature of decorative hand painted murals and trompe l'oeil. The simple flowers are powerful and enduring symbol of both romance and beauty.
The spreading interest in natural history in the mid-fifteenth century produced exsquisite books which were finely illustrated with miniature flowers, birds, animals, butterflies and other insects, for rich patrons with a love of nature and art. One of the finest examples of decorative borders with this detailed observation of plant life, is a Book of Hours commissioned around 1477 by a wealthy patron, Engelbhert of Nassau, for his private devotions; it now rests in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The artist's name is unknown but it is believed to be the work of Master of Mary Of Burgundy. This quiet devotion to nature shines through in the quintessentially romantic murals of Robert Jackson, one of America's best-known decorative artists. Jackson has been painting murals for the past thirty years-eight of them in England in the 1950s working for Oliver Messel and John Siddeley, Jackson is versatile and approachesnhis work armed with a deep knowledge of the given style or period. He is particularly fond of the dark landscapes believed to be the work of the Master of Mary of Burgundy.
Jackson captures the simplicity of this type of folk art, the work of house painters and journeyman stencillers in Australian homes, with the bold use of blues and greens which blend harmoniously over the walls.
He conveys an impression of space between the seemingly endless river and sky with a landscape sparsely dotted with simple indigenous trees. Jackson is a friendly and hospitable man who enjoys entertaining friends at the weekends. He says, 'A dining room can be far more festive than other rooms in the house, simply because you don't live in it."
Jackson's work is mostly commissioned by interior decorators, who admire his talent for meticulously
detailed decorations as well as his recreations of clouds and faux marble. He surmises that murals in Australia are
less often commissioned through decorators because the Australians have, traditionally, been more discriminating.
and feel confident in their own judgements on art for their homes. Jackson's attention to detail and his infinite
patience elevate a hand painted mural done for Mrs Ann Getty in the dining room of her San Francisco home with its
panoramic view of the bay, from the purely decorative to something approaching fine art. Inspired by
the antique Chinese wallpapers in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Jackson has recreated them perfectly to
complement the room's chinoiserie design. Painted in watercolour to emulate the originals as far as possīble, the
room is covered in delicately coloured flowers, trees and birds.
Our fascination with plants, combined with a desire to enlarge our urban living spaces, has resulted in the
addition of real or imaginary conservatories. The glass variety, with its feeling of luxurious simplicity, is ideal for
use as a dining room. According to the writer Shirley Hibberd (1823-90), the Victorian conservatory, apart from
being a glass-covered garden, was seen as 'a place for frequent resort and agreeable assemblage at all seasons and
especially at times of festivity'. Decorative wall murals can make these even prettier, an effect achieved by Di Emme Creative Solutions at Mingren Chinese Restaurant in the heart of Sydney CBD. Bright splashes of greenery envelop
the room, with colourful flowers and beauiful landscape in the background.
The imagined conservatory, on the other hand, can only be achieved through the skillful use of trompe
l'oeil, lan Cairnie's speciality. Cairnie has successfully achieved this in a small room in London where, with
perfect perspective, he leads the eye back through the doors into the middle distance. A make-believe con-
servatory, full of greenery and a table, precisely planted, conveys a sense of order and neatness, a peaceful place for study and meditation and perhaps the modern equivalent of the scholar's cell so often portrayed in the fifteenth century. Best example of such mural in modern architecture is Hand painted landscape mural at the Tattersalls Club in Sydney.
Murals combined with decorative finishes and special tricks such as distressing and antiquing are much in vogue at the moment. When subtly united in the right context it can highlight the purpose and feeling of the romantic mural.
Antiquing is the process of imitating the paint patina acquired over many years. The term distressing means to a wall or piece of furniture by sanding off layers of paint to show the plaster or wood underneath, resulting in a wall whose appearance is not uniform.
Floral compositions in murals and trompe l'oeil are often dismissed as just 'pretty paintings', and sometimes rightly. But there are many examples of bold plants and foliage making a striking impact in a room.
The dramatic use of colour, so often used by the West Coast painters in their murals, enhances the effect. Los
Angeles-based artist Robert Walker has achieved this with considerable success for his client Richard Booth of
San Francisco. An artist who enjoys painting natural and over-scaled plant forms, Walker depict massive fronds and a profusion of tropical plants which engulf the narrow bedroom. Against this dramatic backdrop, here and there a butterfly hovers, a ladybird crawls slowly up an endless road of green and out of the dense greenery slithers an unsuspecting snake.
For obvious reasons 'nature' murals appeal to city dwellers for whom the illusion of the countryside is a
necessary antidote to their urban lives. Another example of this necessary unreality can be seen in the house and garden of the eccentric and bohemian artist Roy Alderson, who has spent much of his energies in the last four decades tirelessly exploring the trickeries of Trompe l'oeil. The result fills every corner of his Chelsea home in
London. Alderson has an inherent sense of drama. The house is a combination of pure theatre, an ingenious understanding of technology and imaginative craftsmanship.
Behind the terracotta and blue Rococo fantasy featuring a lady sphinx with her parasol, inspired by bits and pieces taken from various Bavarian castles and palaces, lie cupboards stacked with paints and paintbrushes,
tools, materials and books. This is the hub of Alderson's studio by day. At night the room is transformed into a romantic dining room presided over by a lady with the lamp and complete with a seascape blind which fills the window's arched surround, a trompe l'oeil painted in grisaille. Alderson always tones down the richness of the colours by adding a good deal of white to his paint.
Many of the original murals in this magical house, including the dining room tabletop, were painted on marbleized melamine. The finished mural was then returned to the melamine factory where they put macaroon paper on top, rather like tissue impregnated with resin; after this, the entire mural was flattened out by huge presses, giving it a smooth appearance.