In Memoriam: Tribute to Henry Wilson
MAY 24, 2017 | By John Snelson
It is unusual to step through the door of a Victorian terrace house in London only to find oneself immediately transported several thousand miles away. But that is exactly what happens in Henry Wilson’s home, a palatial Indian world all its own. Henry is best known for his photography of India over almost three decades.
He first visited in 1983 and began to explore the country, especially Rajasthan and Gujarat. He travelled her length and breadth photographing the rich landscapes and people for books, including his own study of Benares for Thames & Hudson and more recently two books of Indian interiors.
With all his early travels, Henry developed a love for India’s artistic heritage, especially the paintings, inlay and carvings of the historic palaces and forts. He was also drawn to the vibrant colours found everywhere, from food markets to clothing. “Strong colour is joyous and uplifting, particularly pink (which I’ve always loved), and I love certain combinations like navy blue and orange. These are the types of colours you see in women’s saris and on painted walls,” he says. And so his own house is bold: The hallway has vivid yellow, red and gold on the ground floor and purple, orange and silver from the top of the stairs; the rooms leading off are rich in blues and greens, with a mass of gold and silver to bring a lightness and shimmer to every surface.
How much a labour of love the house has been can be judged by the sheer effort required to create it – all done by Henry himself, from the intricately stitched petit point of the cushions to the elaborate papers on the walls and ceilings and the delicately-etched glass. Many of the designs are multilayered and incorporate intricate finishes (faux-marble, gilt and antiquing) to reflect rich marble inlay or fine block-printing, with the result that a single drop of the hand-made paper can take a week to produce. Henry explains that “one of the principal aspects of Indian design I love is pattern – still so much done by hand. This is something we have lost in the West. Modernism is the enemy of pattern, and although I can appreciate clean lines in some instances, I think keeping clear of pattern is a great loss.” The ideas for the floral and geometric designs in the wallpapers come primarily from India too.
Each design takes many stages to evolve into a finished paper. It should be an industrial scale of production, but is done by Henry with stencils laboriously cut and then stamped out on a small kitchen table. “All the pattern in my house makes me think of the labour and the artisanship in India, because it’s all done by hand by me. I’ve been so inspired by what craftspeople can still do.”
Henry’s house is also full of decorative objects on every shelf and surface. There are pieces from Turkey to the Far East. Each has a particular charm, as Henry explains: “I have so many favourite items in the house – such as the sickle moon on the kitchen table. Often I am most taken by the small objects, not just for their artistic merit, but for the images they provoke and the ideas they inspire.” This is the source of the unique interior – a constant reinterpretation of the artistry of India past and present, focussed through the eye of one individual. As Henry himself puts it, ‘the only way is “all or nothing”’. He will settle for nothing less than all!
This story, originally published in the Feb-March 2010 issue of ELLE DECOR India, has been republished in remembrance of Henry Wilson, who passed away in a tragic motorcycle accident yesterday. He had worked closely with the magazine for several stories featuring homes. The team misses him dearly.