Combining Ceramics and Wallpaper, an Engraver Seamlessly Blends the Past and Present

This article is part of our Design special section, exploring new interpretations of antique design styles. Andrew Raftery, an esteemed engraver and printmaking professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, embarked on a unique venture to create his own wallpaper. Drawing inspiration from an 18th-century French format known as domino, he decided to produce small letterpress-printed sheets, originally used as shelf paper and box liners.

Raftery’s commitment to antiquated methods and crafts is evident in his intricate and labor-intensive process. Unlike many traditional artists who outsource certain aspects of their work, Raftery prefers to take full control and add additional layers of preparation and investigation. He even goes as far as making his own quill pens from crow and goose feathers and creating his own ink from oak galls and vitriol, the same kind of ink used to sign the Declaration of Independence. His meticulous attention to detail and preference for a slower pace sets him apart.

One of Raftery’s notable works is his engraving on copperplate titled “Suit Shopping: An Engraved Narrative,” completed in 2002. This print tells a story in five scenes that evoke the atmosphere of a 1940s film and garnered acclaim in the art world. He dedicated six more years to a series of engravings called “Open House,” exploring the modern ritual of house shopping. These engravings depict contemporary objects and images in a meticulous parallel cross hatching technique, creating a sense of familiarity and strangeness. “Open House” earned Raftery a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

His next significant project, “The Autobiography of a Garden,” took eight years to complete. This series consists of 12 plates that capture Raftery’s journey as a serious gardener throughout the seasons, from reading seed catalogs in bed to tending to a cold frame and deadheading. Each monthly activity is beautifully detailed in the applied engravings used to create ceramics known as transferware. These engravings possess a narrative power comparable to a John Cheever story, as described by Cary Leibowitz, co-head of the print department at the Phillips auction house.

Engraving is a marathon rather than a sprint, according to Raftery. Mastery in this art form requires practice and a continuous exploration of new techniques. Historical engravings serve as valuable references, allowing artists to analyze every stroke. Unlike paintings with their multiple layers, engravings offer a transparent view of the artist’s process, showcasing the entry and exit points of the engraving tool and the pressure applied.

Benedict Leca, the executive director of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, R.I., acknowledges Raftery’s unique approach, describing him as “slow food in an age of McDonald’s.” Leca commissioned Raftery to design a wallpaper for a room in the library, acknowledging his unrivaled skill in creating traditional old master burin engravings. Raftery’s work is truly exceptional.

Now, let’s turn our attention to Raftery’s venture into wallpaper design. After completing his transferware plates, exhibited at the Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City in 2016, Raftery became intrigued by wallpaper as a medium. In his research, he discovered the French tradition of producing wallpaper on small sheets, which he found intriguing. Taking inspiration from his garden, Raftery created designs reflecting the four seasons, incorporating elements such as irises and rosemary for spring, bicolor coleus for summer, and amaranths and coxcombs for fall. Even in winter, skeletons of native plants like asters, goldenrods, and thistles emerge from the snow in his designs.

However, don’t mistake these designs for ordinary or conventional. Raftery adds a twist by printing them in vibrant and psychedelic colors, creating a blend that captivates the eye. Achieving these vivid hues required a complex process involving collaboration with local printer and artist Dan Wood, who operates a letterpress shop in Providence.

During the early days of the Covid crisis, Raftery took it upon himself to install the wallpaper in his historic 250-year-old house in Providence, imbuing each of the four bedrooms with a distinct season. This project required approximately 300 sheets per room and followed instructions from a wallpaper trade school manual dating back to the 1920s. Raftery became adept at mixing wheat starch for the glue and setting each sheet meticulously to ensure perfect alignment of the patterns. The uneven plaster walls of his house proved to be an ideal canvas for this unique wallpaper installation. Today, his upstairs area serves as an art installation in its entirety.

Venturing through this artful installation on a hot summer afternoon, Raftery guided me through his home. He and his partner, Ned Lochaya, a health company administrator, purchased the house in 2018. Built in 1765, it once served as a gunpowder storage facility during the Revolutionary War. In the mid-19th century, it was relocated a few hundred yards, transformed into a coachman’s house, and underwent various additions over time. While an architect and artist renovated the house in the 1970s, certain elements were left untouched. The house boasts a modern kitchen and a studio for Raftery. When they acquired the property, they faced little competition, allowing them to purchase it for $635,000, nearly 25% less than the original asking price. The unconventional layout with small rooms, sloped floors, low ceilings, and non-plumb walls deterred most buyers.

“When I saw the house,” Raftery recalled, “I couldn’t believe it. I feel like I’ve waited all my life for a house like this.” Prior to this, he had been living like a graduate student in a small apartment in Providence, lacking substantial furniture. However, the apartment was brimming with thousands of pieces of transferware, a collection that Raftery and Lochaya have carefully assembled over the years. While Lochaya owns a brownstone in Brooklyn, the couple used to commute to see each other before the pandemic hit.

As they gradually furnished their new home, they filled it with period pieces and reproductions they discovered at auctions. The lack of demand for what is known as “brown furniture” made it easy for them to find pieces such as Windsor chairs, a Sheraton sofa, a grandfather clock, and electrified oil lamps. They proudly displayed their collection of engraved prints dating back to the 16th century, rotating the selection annually. During my visit, portraits adorned the walls, featuring Alexander the Great marching into Babylon, a mischievous-looking Louis XIV, and Madame Récamier, the 18th-century socialite, on her deathbed.

The dining room dazzled with transferware, carefully curated to match each season and selected based on color. Additional pieces are stored in the basement, alongside their collection of American pressed glass.

“Our collecting era is before 1851,” Raftery explained, “before the age of design reform, and the idea of ‘good’ design took over. That’s when we lose interest.”

In Raftery’s studio, delicate watercolors adorn the walls, showcasing historic rooms with scenic wallpapers. Over the past two years, he sketched these works during visits to the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware, as well as other historic Eastern houses. These watercolors will be on display at the Ryan Lee Gallery in Chelsea from October 16th to November 24th. Scenic wallpapers from the 19th century, featuring exquisite block printing, were popular during that era. Though some themes may seem jarring to contemporary viewers due to their colonialism and racism, they served as a form of transportation for viewers of the time, encapsulating the “Nature” of the age. Themes ranged from tiger hunting in India and Chinese motifs to scenes from the Western canon, such as “The Odyssey.”

Raftery’s commitment to historical art-making practices and imagery is unwavering. He finds inspiration in the remnants of the past that surround us, embracing their eclectic and captivating nature.


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