Paul Montgomery’s Handpainted Wallpaper Murals

It’s a tall order, finding beauty in an industrial park off of Route 81 in Staunton. But here, inside a steel building, a team of five artisans is transforming panels of silk into the beginnings of elaborate panoramic murals that are then hand-painted by artists in China. The nearly lost art of traditional Chinoiserie wallcoverings is a luxury few can afford. But interior designers think of Paul Montgomery’s work as fine art—without the frame. 

“Mural or wall painting is the original interior decoration,” says Montgomery, the artist behind this thriving enterprise. “It dates back thousands of years.” Hand-painted on silk, Chinoiserie murals became popular in Europe in the mid-18th century. Today, the appetite for these custom designs—a single panel can cost $2,500 or more—runs strong among clients who appreciate this rarefied art form. 

Custom works by Paul Montgomery have graced the walls of the spas in the Wynn Las Vegas and Wynn Macau in China. They’ve adorned private jets owned by tech CEOs and the palaces of royalty in the Middle East. And most recently, they’ve transformed the Nelson-Galt house at Colonial Williamsburg. Built around 1695, it’s one of the country’s oldest residences. 

Photo courtesy of COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG

2271 Colonial Williamsburg Nelson Galt House

A Lifelong Love 

Though born to an Irish mother and an American military dad, Montgomery considers himself a Virginian. His family relocated here from Northern Ireland when he was two. A precocious artist when he was young, he painted his first mural at 14, a Christmas scene. By 16, his paintings were attracting buyers and, at 19, he’d found his path. “I was asked to help paint a baroque-style ceiling in a house in Miami and fell in love with the large-scale aspect of painted interior décor,” he says. 

A five-year apprenticeship in Sacramento followed. There, he took part in the California State Capitol’s restoration. “I was fortunate enough to work under some true masters in the 1980s, where I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience,” he says. “Many of our projects involve painting on-site at hotels around the world. We learned to work fast and efficiently on a deadline, and to tackle the circumstances and challenges that the project teaches us.”

By 2000, Montgomery had returned to Virginia, settling in Staunton where he opened his design studio. Fellow artist and designer Peter Evans, also a native Virginian who’d been painting murals for a Colorado design firm, joined Montgomery in 2006. Evans brought his talent and deep experience to Montgomery’s studio when he moved back to the Valley. 

For this team, the mural-design process is both meticulous and intense. “We put up large pieces of paper in the studio and sketch out the basic shapes of the imagery,” says Evans. “Then we put paper over that and, using reference books, hand draw all of the leaves and flowers onto the design. The drawings are sent to China to be hand-painted,” says Evans. The artists they work with there have refined the traditional silk painting technique over generations.  

Evans then turns to the computer to create pattern repeats for wallpaper murals. This is Montgomery’s subsidiary line, Mural Source, which offers digitally created murals at a lower price point. “We’re able to draw on the computer when people come to us asking for a new mural,” he explains. “We also use high-resolution scans to create a reproduction where images run seamlessly from panel to panel.”

An Historic Collaboration

For the Nelson-Galt house, Evans took the lead, collaborating with Colonial Williamsburg’s current designer-in-residence, Heather Chadduck Hillegas, under the guidance of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He drew inspiration from illustrations, lithographs, and original artworks, many sourced from Colonial Williamsburg’s archives. Inspired by global design influences from the 17th century to the 1930s, he painted London skylines, botanical landscapes, and regency-style motifs. From those, Evans and his team created silk murals as well as the pattern repeats for wallpaper used in the house.

“The London skyline was a long etching, so we made it panoramic, adding Tower Bridge and the Tower of London,” says Montgomery. “But instead of doing a predictable etching-looking thing, we took it into an art deco style, as if it were a rendering of the London skyline done in the 1920s or 1930s.”

“The first concept that I shared with Paul and his team became the Regency Views mural,” says Liza Gusler, associate director of brand and licensing for the Williamsburg line of historic paint, fabric, home furnishings, and wallpaper that includes Montgomery’s designs. “The mural is based on a book of landscapes designed by Humphrey Repton, a prominent landscape designer in England in the late 18th century. Repton showed these images to his patrons so they could envision their estates with his landscape designs.”

Of Palaces and Planes

Mongomery’s clients include his fair share of celebrities, even royalty—who live in royal residences. While he can’t speak about his palace work, for the 727 jet project, commissioned by the plane’s owners, Montgomery referenced family photographs for a mural, then turned his attention to the clouds. “The dome in the airplane was painted as a sky scene, giving an open feeling in the passenger cabin,” he explains.  

Meticulous research goes into each of Montgomery’s installations. He’s known for referencing geographically specific books and illustrations to capture the flora and fauna specific to a mural’s location. “We are very enthusiastic about the accuracy of location material,” he notes. “We will select a theme that is then researched and composed to meet the client’s desire. It’s very important that we get it right so that there is no room for criticism about doing our due diligence, in a sense.” 

Of all the work he and his team have completed, Montgomery says it’s the work in his studio that is his favorite. “The studio has always been the place where all the magic happens. From concept to creation, our team flourishes in our special environment.” PaulMontgomery.com


This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue.

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