When Lady Isabella Hertford of Temple Newsam House decided to cut up an old book to spruce up her wallpaper, she probably thought she was doing an ingenious and creative bit of interior decorating.
But had she been living today, she may have been horrified that her vandalism of the book could have made the decorating the most expensive of all time.
Experts at the East Leeds stately home have revealed that, if it had remained intact, the book “The Birds of America” could have fetched up to £7m at auction.
The wallpaper is in the house’s Chinese Drawing Room, which, along with the rest of the Tudor Jacobean mansion, is almost ready to open to the public for the spring and summer.
The stunning room was originally decorated by Lady Hertford with wallpaper given to her by her lover, the Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, in 1807.
Twenty years later, when she came to put it on the walls, Lady Hertford decided it needed to be more lively, and pasted on birds cut out from her copy of the first volume of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America.”
A first-edition copy of “The Birds of America” sold in 2012 for £7m at Sotherby’s auction house in London. Just 119 copies of the book are known to exist, with 108 belonging to museum and galleries.
The book, also known as the Double Elephant Folio because of its size, featured life-sized drawings of over 100 North American birds on its completion.
Customers received pictures of the birds via subscription, with a new set of five drawings arriving every few months.
Lady Hertford used 28 pictures from the folio to decorate the Chinese-inspired wallpaper.
For Temple Newsam House’s new curator Rachel Conroy, working on restoring the drawing room has proved the perfect introduction to life at the 500 year-old house.
She said: “It’s such an extraordinary room and it’s made all the more special because it’s largely been decorated by a former resident of the house and most of the furniture which is still on display was chosen by Lady Hertford herself.
“My previous roles have been in a more of a traditional museum environment, but Temple Newsam House is so different because it’s actually been a home where people have lived alongside their families. That opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for interpreting the house and the collection for visitors through those people and their stories.”
Specialised cleaning has taken place in the Chinese Drawing Room, using delicate brushes and miniature vacuums to remove surface dirt.
And antique furniture from the room has been waxed and polished, ceramics dusted, mirrors shined and intricate carvings brushed clean with tiny paint brushes and cotton buds.
Councillor Brian Selby, Leeds City Council’s lead member for museums and galleries, said: “The Chinese Drawing Room is just one of the many fascinating stories about the people who have called Temple Newsam home through the ages and knowing how much work goes into keeping the house so beautiful makes it an all the more precious and important place.”