Copyright (c) 2013 Mathew Jenkins
The chief use of the "plastique art," as Sir Henry Wotton has it, was in England the "graceful fretting of roof's," and he alludes to the durability and cheapness of this form of ornament. The art was introduced in Henry VIII.'s reign by Italian craftsmen, who were engaged on Henry's palace of Nonsuch, and the plaster statues and bas-reliefs modelled by them on the exterior of the building were much admired by Evelyn after the Restoration. It was the Gothic joiners' craft that first influenced the design of plasterwork, and their flat timber ceilings, divided by moulded rectilinear ribs ornamented with a carved boss at the intersections, governed the setting out of the earliest extant Tudor plasterwork. In the ceiling in Cardinal Wolsey's closet at Hampton Court the rectilinear wooden ribs enclose papier-mâché fillings to the panels of delicate design, centering in a badge, such as the Tudor rose or ostrich feathers. Round the walls on two sides is a frieze bearing the Cardinal's motto, " Dominus Mich. adiutor," and badges in roundels varied by ornament in the Italian style.
In the ceiling of the chapel of St James's Palace, the panels are divided by gilt wooden ribs, and a small running ornament, cast in lead, enriches the underside of the ribs. The panels contain coats of arms, emblazoned in their proper colours, and foliage. The date 1540 occurs in several places. In the coved plaster ceiling at Holcombe Court, built in the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII., is a design formed of shallow ribs, and a number of 'paterae' are introduced, each containing one of the letters of the name of the builder, Sir Roger Bluet, enclosed in a wreath.
With the use of plastic material for the ribs in the ensuing period there was no necessity for a rectilinear setting-out ; and the designs may be divided into geometrical schemes, ranging from the simplest to elaborate compositions and including every shape of panel, curved, angular, and interlaced, and into free designs, either of interlaced strapwork or of all-over floral ornament. In a pattern book for glazing the author claims in the title-page that his "drafts are not impertinent for Plasterers," and his more elaborate designs are entirely suitable for geometrical setting-out.
Moulded plasterwork is usually on a flat ceiling, but it is not unusual to find the panels curving downwards at intersections to form a pendant, which adds variety to the surface. The ornament is softly modeled, free from undercutting and sharp projections, and melting agreeably into the background. In Elizabethan examples, narrow ribbing, closely following the mouldings of timber construction, appears.
This early simple work has reserve and character, and is appropriate to the small rooms and houses of moderate size. The repeated ornamental motifs radiate from the metered angles of the moulded ribs, and isolated ornaments, badges, rosettes, formal sprays, and fleur-de-lys are also placed in the centre of the panels. In small rooms a central treatment was used, such as a square or diamond-shaped panel with foliated terminals.
It is evident, from the number of houses in which plasterwork still remains, that the output of modeled plaster which " serves passing well to make little images in fretwork to set forth houses " 1 must have been very great during that great building period, the last quarter of the sixteenth and the first quarter of the seventeenth centuries.
The deep coloured frieze in the presence chamber at Hardwick Hall stands alone in its broad pictorial rendering of landscape and figure subjects; for in this large room Diana and her attendants are seen hunting with dogs and spears amid a forest of trees which shelter animals of the chase, including stags, lions, and elephants. The modeling of the human figure is in advance of the period.
In the reign of James I. the ribs assumed a wider, shallower form, enriched with minute floral and scrolling ornament, as is shown in the illustrations of ceilings at Albyns and Boston House, and in the detail of Great St Helens The ribs enclose in the panel spaces heraldic badges, flowers, strapwork, rosettes, formal floral designs, or medallions containing animals and heads.
A ceiling in the drawing-room at Canons Ashby is characteristic of the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The larger panels are filled with conventional thistle sprays, the small panels with a draped head; and in a large panel over the chimney­piece are the arms of the Dryden family. The central pendant consists of four human headed scrolls, forming a shaft for a lamp.
The ceiling formerly at the Reindeer Inn, Banbury, is also an example of fine Carolean work. The moulded ribs are enriched with delicate scroll ornament which has been outlined with a modelling tool, which helps to give it sharpness and strength. The formal ornament of fantastic scrollwork and figures within the panels shows traces of gilding. The contemporary ceilings at Aston Hall, especially that of the long gallery, are remarkable for the delicacy and skilful handling of the purely formal ornament.
Strapwork designs of an all-over design without panel ribbing are less interesting. The design consists of a flat interlacing ribbon or scroll in low relief, studded with small jewellings, rosettes, and discs, as in the small drawing-room (formerly the King's room) at Apethorpe, in rooms at Audley End, and at Beckington Abbey. This type of ceiling dates from the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
Mathew Jenkins works with the Woodcarvers Guild preserving the history & finesse of period furnitre and architectural fittings. Would you like to have your own piece of captured history whether it be wall panelling, four poster beds, furniture, etc? Go to for more information and for a free ebook.
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