Robert Graves Co. was founded by a Brooklyn-based Irish immigrant, and was one of the most successful wallpaper manufacturies in the United States from the 1860s to the 1920s. This wallpaper frieze was made by the company c. 1905-1915, and would likely have been marketed with a coordinating sidewall and ceiling paper. It features a leafy swag of pink roses outlined in glittering gold mica. The applied mica flakes are known as “flitter,” which might be the most fun wallpaper vocabulary word I have ever learned. The blended background fades from deep to pale pink, and the panel is bordered by delicate stripes of green and gold.
Apparently Robert Graves himself was just as pleasant to look at as his wallpaper: the New York Times wrote “He was regarded as one of the handsomest men in [Brooklyn]. Over 6 feet in height with flowing hair and beard, keen blue eyes, and florid complexion, his appearance attracted general attention.” The success of his wallpaper business made Robert Graves a very wealthy man, and he decided to build a fabulous mansion on Clinton Avenue for his beloved second wife Cesarine. Sadly, Cesarine passed away in December of 1885, before construction was completed. Her grief-stricken husband passed away less than a month later. According to close friends, he died of a broken heart. The mansion was sold at auction, and longtime employee Henry Burn took over the the wallpaper company. Robert Graves Jr., one of the elder Graves’ eleven surviving children remained nominally involved with Robert Graves Co., but sold his interest in the late 1920s. Troubled by financial difficulties, Robert Jr. took his own life in 1931 after a few tumultuous decades filled with divorces and yachting. The wallpaper company was also unable to weather the Depression, and was in the process of liquidation at the time of Robert Jr.’s death.
Anna Rasche is a student in the History of Decorative Arts & Design graduate Program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.