Ornamental lime-plaster ceilings and the plasterer’s craft in Devonshire (1909)

Author(s): Fouracre. J. T. Origin: DA Transactions
Topic(s): architecture and art Year published: 1909
Location(s): Pages: 256-262
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By J. T. Fouracre. (Read at Launceston, 28th July, 1909.)

THE study of the arts and crafts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is peculiarly interesting, inasmuch as it embraces a changed condition of architectural development. The Field of the Cloth of Gold during the reign of Henry VIII marks the beginning of the English Renaissance; the suppression of the monasteries indicates the final close of the Gothic Period, and gives place to the age of English Domestic Architecture. The destruction of the Spanish Armada inaugurated the beginning of English trade with the East, and the merchant became affluent as a consequence of ever-increasing commercial intercourse. Commensurately with this growing wealth there sprang up a desire to surround himself with the best art and handicraft available, not only native, but from countries over sea. Necessarily, much of this work shows foreign influence, but on examination of the domestic arts of this period of English handicraft, we become conscious of that clinging to tradition that is to this day characteristic of the Englishman.

I propose to deal with but one phase of this period, and that only as far as is found locally, viz. the ornamental plaster ceilings in various parts of Devonshire.

The period I have indicated witnessed the rebuilding of a considerable number of our Devon manor-houses, and illustrates one of the most complete and artistic systems of English Domestic Architecture, sometimes called a debased period, yet evidencing a national spirit or characteristic. It was the time of oaken panelling, with such a wealth of quaint carving executed by the local craftsman, who so invested his productions with that spirit of unmechanical art so apparent in the true artist.

Tapestry hangings were still used as wall decoration, although the influence and realism of Raphael’s cartoons destroyed that peculiar beauty of earlier design so much in harmony with the ornamental plaster ceilings, of divers patterns and pretty foliage details, factors in the general effect.

This period of Domestic Architecture has given our Association much material for illustration and research, and although we cannot claim for Devon the possession of any building as a great example of this particular era, still we do possess, in various parts of the county, some excellent old manor-houses – or at any rate remnants – that still appeal to us as indicating the activities of the arts and crafts.

A great number of the examples of these old ceilings that I have examined are decidedly English in character, and possibly a Devonshire type may be claimed. This, of course, is quite possible, for is not this tradition particularly evident in carved details of the rood screens in our parish churches? And I would suggest that much of the detail in many ornamental plaster ceilings is charmingly characteristic of native tradition, echoing the same individuality so evident in the rood screens in the later period of Gothic Art.

With the advent of the Renaissance came the introduction of the plaster ceiling, at first so evidently of Italian influence, and eventually – at any rate in Devon – are found examples decidedly English in technique and influence. A comparison of the work of the plasterer, as executed by men having Italian or other foreign influence, with that executed in so many local examples, must make it conclusively apparent that most of the work in the period named is decidedly English, for in no other instances have I been able to detect in other countries similar detail or design. In many cases in certain localities we may observe foreign influence; this is, and always has been, apparent during epochs of architectural development. As nearly every parish in Devonshire has its parish church, so also few parishes are without some evidence of a house with ornamental plastering in the interior. It may be on a flat ceiling, or a segmental surface, or as a frieze under the cornice of a ceiling; the general design is frequently a pattern work of projecting ribs, arranged on a geometrical basis. In section they are generally simple. In other instances, wider in the area and of less projection, with a pattern of repeating ornament in a matrix between the two moulded sides. The effect is generally produced by the most simple arrangement of these ribs; in other instances a more elaborate design found favour. The suitability of the various patterns to position or space to be adorned is always most complete and satisfactory, and when calmly viewed by us of to-day presents a satisfying effect, without which no ornamental composition can be satisfactory.

According to the amount of light, so these perfect craftsmen modelled and worked their plaster surfaces – a most striking example of Domestic Art in the time of Queen Elizabeth and James I.

The foliage detail is particularly interesting, and evidences a trend to ornamental or floral design, quite English in its inception. The acanthus and cartouche, although existing, appear only in an altered form, if they appear at all. Headings of title pages and endings of printed matter will make apparent the love of flowers from the gardens of the early part of the seventeenth century. Examine the “Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes gathered by John Gerard of London, Master in Chirurgerie, London, 1636”, and you have some idea of the spirited and careful detail bestowed upon the printer’s art in this profusely illustrated herbal in a manner now entirely lost to us.

It becomes apparent that ornamentation was generally affected by this popular display of plant form, and the manner in which it has been utilized in the contemporary plaster-work must kindle the warmest praise from us who do not now practise the art.

The rose, treated heraldically, may be seen in most examples or compositions of ornamental design, and it is highly interesting to note how this national flower was utilized as a decorative factor. Amongst other floral representations may be noticed the vine (I submit a photograph from a fragment secured from the debris of a dilapidated ceiling at Burrell, near Saltash, showing vine ornamentation), the columbine, oak, lily, daisy, pink, tulip, pine-apple, etc.

There seems every indication that the system of ceiling ornamentation was evolved from the wood rib and carved boss. At Wortham, in the parish of Lifton, is an example of a ceiling ornamented with oak rib and boss, and, although somewhat ecclesiastical in character, no room for doubt exists that the handicraftsman handed his tradition on to his fellow-craftsman, who worked in the new material, plaster, when it was called pargetry, i.e. adorning with plaster.

In Vol. X of the Archaeological Journal is an account of a survey of the manor-house of Wymbledon, with the rights, members, and appurtenances thereof, lying and being in the county of Surrey, late of the possession of Henrietta Maria, the relict and late queen of Charles Stuart, late King of England, 1649. In a description of one of the rooms is seen the following: “Wainscotted round with oak wainscot, above which is a border of freet or parge worke wrought having thereon set eleven pictures of very good workmanship; the seeling is of the same freet or parge worke”.

The word “pargeting” is seldom or never used at the present time, and when mentioned is generally applied to the plastering or pargeting of chimneys or flues, meaning smoothing with plaster on the brick or stone construction.

Something may now be said on the material employed, and the method of execution, as far as one is enabled to discover from the examination of actual work, either in process of repairs or demolition.

Generally the ceilings under review, up to the end of the seventeenth century, seem to have been worked in slaked lime, that had been kept for a considerable period. With this material properly tempered and worked, the greater part of this beautiful ornamentation was produced. According to the space at disposal so was the design evolved on the actual ceiling, and how often do we notice the clever and workman-like manner by which cramped conditions and irregular forms are negotiated and transformed into ornamental features. Examination indicates that laths of oak were fixed to the ceiling joists in the usual manner, and on this a first or preparatory coating of plaster, or what may for convenience be termed plaster, was laid. This first coat, in the works which I have examined, seems to have been composed of a kind of fine sandy earth, probably gauged with lime and plenty of cow’s hair. This composition was generously laid or spread over the lathed surface, and when fairly set formed a light, tough, and to some extent elastic composition. The ribs, or rather the projections generally, were formed in general contour, and the whole design was blocked out, much as a sculptor or wood-carver models his design before attention to detail.

On this preparatory work was laid, or rather trowelled, the lime plaster, and the fact that it had a strong affinity for the first or preparatory coating accounts for the wonderful manner in which these ceilings have stood the vicissitudes of time and neglect. I need scarcely dwell longer upon technical matters, other than to suggest that ornaments recurring were probably cast in moulds, and affixed to the flat or other portions of the ceiling, whilst the ribs, either straight or curved, were run by means of the ordinary mould, and the ornamental portions were trowelled up in position on the ceiling, possibly with the assistance of a metal mould, used much as the dairy-maids used to press their butter. I use the past tense, because even the ornamental adjunct of a pat of Devonshire butter in our time is fast losing its traditional floral design.

Very often a feature is made of the intersection of the ribs in the centre or other parts of the ceiling by the introduction of pendants or drops. Where this feature occurs in the centre of the ceiling, opportunity is taken of making it a somewhat striking feature, and of considerable projection. In most cases a metal ring or hook is introduced, probably for the purpose of suspending the chandelier for artificial light.

A characteristic example may be seen in the ceiling of the hall from Burrell. That plaster ceilings were much in request during the Elizabethan era is most apparent, for an old chronicler affirms “it maketh the room lightsome, is excellent against raging fire, and stoppeth the passage of dust”.

The Guild of Plasterers were responsible for the manner in which their art was practised. A master was a specialist in every sense of the word: he must have been a modeller, a fairly good draughtsman, and possessed of geometrical knowledge, to say nothing of the technicalities of his craft. That he must have been resourceful, and knew how to use his few patterns of foliated ornament to the best advantage, can be seen after a careful examination, when you become completely conscious of the ingenuity displayed in the arrangement of rib and ornament, important elements of beauty in this ancient handicraft – ancient in its traditional descent from people to people, in the stuccoed column of the Egyptian temple and the plastered Roman vault, lingering through the Middle Ages, and eventually recurring in the form I am endeavouring to describe to you, and illustrate by examples of Devonshire work. The photographs represent some types constantly met with in Devon, and are fair examples of sixteenth and seventeenth-century craftsmanship.

No. 1 is an example from Bampfylde House, Exeter. It has the advantage of a plaster frieze, and much of the original oaken panelling remains in the room.

No. 2 is from an old manor-house, now used as a farm, named Burrell. It is a short distance from Saltash, and, of course, on the border of Cornwall. This example is practically identical with that before-named at Exeter, in geometrical arrangement and detail, except that its surface is segmental instead of flat as at Exeter. Here, then, is an example of the repetition of a design in its entirety.

Example No. 3 is also from Burrell, quite of a different character from the last-named. The Burrells owned and lived at Burrell for more than four hundred years, from about 1400 to 1800. The pendant in centre is quite a good example of the usual means of making a feature of the crossing ribs.

Example No. 4 is from a ceiling at Totnes, and is in fair preservation. There is every indication that the house was erected about the latter part of the sixteenth century.

The fifth example is from a house next door to the preceding, and is quite different in arrangement, although certain details may be noticed in repetition.

Example No. 6, also from Totnes, is in an upper room of the Naval Bank premises. I have selected a wreath on the under-side of a beam. These wreaths occur at intervals on its soffit, and are extremely artistic in design. The letters “M.E.” occupy the centre, with the characteristic ornamental adjunct seen in writing in the reign of Elizabeth.

Excellent fragments of pargeting may be seen in the frieze of the council chamber of Totnes Guildhall. Boweringsleigh also possesses some good ceilings, although of a later period than those already indicated. Many other excellent examples may be found in Devon districts that proclaimed the prosperity of trade during the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign.

When calmly and critically examined, these old ceilings may often appear wanting in geometrical precision, and a clumsiness may perchance be detected in some detail of the ornamentation; or you may take exception to the want of machine-like precision that is nearly always seen in present-day work ; but, still, they are invested with the quality that impresses you with the feeling that you are in the presence of the old craftsman and his vigorous execution, and who is as much entitled to respect as the metalworker, the potter, or the weaver of textile fabrics.

[Editor’s note: The six examples referred to above do not all appear as illustrations in the original article. Nos 1 and 2 appear to agree, but illustration No. 3 apparently refers to example 4 or 5.]