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Plaster Work And Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

PLASTERING, if not as old as the hills, is, in its primitive type, at least as old as the first attempts of non-cave dwellers to build themselves weather-tight huts. From the practice of daubing an outer coating and an inner lining of unctuous mud on wattle or rough stone huts, to the discovery of the superior merits of slaked lime for the purpose, is but a step or two in the long march of art progress. At all events we find plaster—lime alone or as an admixture—being employed in Egypt, not only for the purpose of providing a smooth surface, but as furnishing a means to decoration, a surface which could be ornamented with sunk or raised patterns and the application of colour. The Greeks early recognised its merits, using a fine, hard stucco, probably of marble dust foundation, which they placed on walls both inside and outside their temples, and no doubt on the ceilings.

They, through Etruscan intermediaries, introduced it to the Romans, who seized upon it gladly as affording them facilities for carrying out those lavish schemes of decoration of which they were so fond. Evidence abounds of their extensive adoption of lime stucco for adorning private and public edifices, both within and outside the borders of Latium proper. They produced a plaster of wonderful brightness, almost translucent, and of great durability. They moulded and carved it, decorated it with raised and incised patterns, gilded and painted it, and placed it in combination with costly materials. Vitruvius, writing in the first century B.C., gives elaborate directions how lime stucco is to be prepared and applied, clearly dealing with common and widespread practices. While advising the selection of cypress, olive, heart of oak, box or juniper for ceiling joists, as least liable to decay or warp, lie insists that lime for stucco should be air-slaked, and allowed a long time for maturing, moreover, that it should be pure white and unctuous. Very beautiful work in low, medium and high relief was carried out with this stucco on vaults and ceilings as well as on walls. The art of decoration with stucco travelled eastward with the migration of the Imperial Court to Byzantium, and flourished there for a time, but soon lost its prominence as the Byzantine style was evolved.

In Europe the same forces that replaced classic architecture- with the Romanesque and Gothic, tended to dethrone stucco from its eminence. But plain plastering, such as that described as carried on at Mount Athos, must have been very efficiently practised right through the Middle Ages, as is evident from the extensive pictorial decoration on brick and stone walls and vaults, which necessitated a smooth, unbroken surface. With the Italians some-thing more than a mere tradition of the past glories and the possibilities of stucco must have lingered, for right through the fifteenth century we hear of attempts being made to introduce some lasting form of plastic material for mural decoration and modelling. Donatello, for instance, used crushed brick and glue for modelling statuettes and plaques. Then Bramante, Raphael's uncle and architectural tutor, produced a white plaster, with which he embellished houses inside and outside. It is important to remember this, for he had great influence on his nephew, and one of his assistants was Jacopo Sansovino. To some extent, therefore, Raphael and his coadjutor, Giovanni da Udine, when they received the commission to open up Nero's Golden House, were prepared for a great revival in decorative art. While Raphael was struck with the beauty and variety of decorative motives, Udine studied the stucco, which remained as hard and brilliant as when first applied. No doubt, too, the translation of Vitruvius' manuscript on the art of building put them on the right road, and so a very good imitation of the old stucco was available for the decoration of the Vatican and other buildings in Rome. When Raphael died, he left Guilio Romano and Giovanni Penni as his executors, with the duty of completing the works he had begun. They had formed quite an important school of stucco modellers and painters, which was dispersed after the sack of Rome by Francis I. of France.

Udine went to Florence, Sansovino to Venice, Romano to Mantua, Pierino del Vagua to Genoa, where public buildings and private palaces were soon adorned with staircases and chamber ceilings, gorgeous with painted and gilded stucco work. Every Court in the peninsular competed for masters of the art. Moreover, the Courtiers and Generals of Francis, with the travelling prelates, spread abroad a longing for the fashion. Francis begged of the Duke of Mantua that a competent master of plaster work should be sent to him, and Francesco Primaticcio, who had graduated in the school of Udine, at Florence, went, and to him are due the superb ceilings and deep friezes which are the chief glory of Fontainebleau. Primaticcio was not only an accomplished draughts-man, but an artist of merit and considerable originality. His designs were classical, and showed a lavishness in detail, but without the unbridled luxuriance of later men. In execution he was bold, modelling in high relief, and as far as friezes and overmantles are concerned, almost in the round, especially in the case of figure work, which have all the finish of sculptures. Influenced by the old school of realists, yet formed on a study of the antique, he evolved quite a marked type of beauty, his large and small semi-nude figures being tall and slender, like those of Cimabue and his school, but with all the idealism of classic sculpture, together with perfect ease and naturalness of pose and grouping. His idea of beauty for the human form had more lasting influence on French art than had his taste in purely decorative designs, as we see if we compare the fine work he, and other Italian plasterers of this and immediately succeeding reigns, executed in France, with the ceilings and friezes to be seen at Versailles. Following the fashion in Italy and even outdistancing it, plaster work in France became more and more sculpturesque, great panels and deep sunken coffers being richly decorated, surrounded by heavy frames, and the whole encircled by huge masses of far protruding modelled plaster figures, garlands and trophies.

In England, plastering came down from Roman, if not pre-Roman times. We know that it was extensively employed. Remains of quite fine plaster have been recorded in churches of the Romanesque and Transitional periods. It is quite obvious that for domestic buildings it must have been in even more general use. We find, for instance, that after the destruction by fire of London Bridge, with its super-structure of shops and dwelling-houses, King John ordered all houses on the Thames-side, as well as all houses wherein ale was brewed or bread was baked, to be plastered both inside and out, as a precaution against conflagration. This plaster was fine enough to permit of walls being painted in distemper, and later in oils. There was a large and competent body of craftsmen-plasterers—known as pargeters —whose guild was powerful enough to be recognised and receive a charter from Henry VII. They used plaster both on the outside and inside of houses, covering the blank spaces on the half-timbered building with repeat patterns, either slightly raised or with sunken lines, which were carved with trowel and style, or impressed by stamps.

Therefore, when that art loving, enigmatic personage, Henry VIII., fired by the ex-ample of his rival, Francis I., induced Luca and Bartolommeo Penni, brothers of Giovanni Penni, to come to England, these Italian experts found themselves con-fronted by a native school of plasterers. The brothers, with other of their compatriots, were chiefly engaged on the embellishment of the Palace of Nonsuch, which Henry built at Cheam. It is noteworthy that this vast pile, with its two quadrangles, which foreign visitors of renown, as well as English connoisseurs, regarded as a marvel of beauty, and the very acme of refinement, the ne plus ultra of plaster work, was essentially English in style, for it was a half-timbered edifice. This being so, it is possible that though the brothers Penni adorned the King's side with stucco figures in medium relief larger than life size, representing the Labours of Hercules, and the Queen's side with similar figures of naked females, in decorative detail, they had to conform to local taste. That was certainly the case at the Hampton Court of both Wolsey and Henry, which was almost pure Gothic, with just a quaint infusing of classical detail or influence here and there. In fact, the brothers Penni, like Gerome da Trevisa, Ricciavelli and others, found in England a strongly individualised domestic Gothic, which rather baffled them. They were even at a loss to provide a suitable stucco, and had to fall back on a paste of rye meal. In France and in other Continental countries, the Romanesque still prevailed to a large extent, and undoubtedly influenced their domestic Gothic, thus furnishing an easy path for the classicism of the Renaissance. So, while the Continental plasterers, but more particularly the French, early developed the florid exaggerated inherent in the revived style, our pargeters working amidst more distinctly national architectural surroundings, and moreover, shut off for many years from free intercourse with Italy, elaborated plaster ornamentations on lines of their own. They had learnt from the Italians the possibility and merits of using plaster as a substance to be moulded and modelled, but in the main they remained craftsmen, handling the plastic material and colour with great skill, though rarely attempting to follow their foreign masters in the higher flights of their art—the sculpture of figures, leaves and flowers.

Usually they regarded plaster as a means for surface decoration, with strict limitations, and did not attempt to repro-duce the art of the sculptor of stone or the carver of wood. The imitative came at a later, less virile and less fruitful period. But the work at Nonsuch and Hampton Court created a furore for more decorative plaster work, especially for ceilings, than had been in vogue with the old pargeters.

During the Tudor period plaster-work designs were chiefly based on geometry, combinations of squares, oblongs, circles, ovals, octagons, diamonds, often interlaced, forming stars and intricate labyrinths. Many of these squares had radial ribs intersecting the points, and these ribs were sometimes arched to form pendants, reminiscent in design and elaboration of the best stone and wood carvings, as, in fact, much of the rib work itself was suggested by the old timber ceilings. Quite frequently this elaborate strapwork—for the geometric patterns were carried out in solid or outlined bands, at first with sloping sides, forming a sharp apex, and then flat—was associated most effectively with purely Gothic surroundings. For in-stance, vaulted and groined ceilings, from which the floral pendants hung with natural grace. Indeed, the pendant, small and large, which may be a mere swelling of the intersecting ribs, or foliaged bands developing into great bursting buds, even pierced à jour, at other times conventional structures, sculptured and ornamented with heraldic devices, became a distinguishing feature of English plaster work, replacing the rose and mask or alto-rilievo sculptures of Continental practitioners. Greater variety and complication came in with the introduction of Celtic curvilinear knot tracery. The Renaissance influence is seen in the occasional resort to scrolls, but more particularly to the manner in which the ribs and strapwork developed. At first plainly moulded in the style of wood panelling, the ribs and patterns are gradually flattened, the edges moulded, and decorated on the surface with small ridged longitudinal lines, or with running floral patterns, generally carried out by means of revolving stamps, or dies like those used for marking patterns on butter. Sometimes the geometric patterns are skeletonised, as it were, the space between the two parallel lines being filled in with small scroll work, a series of four-leaved flowers, or leaves close packed, as in the classic type of wreath. The pendants themselves may be architectural in form, with small columns, standing on bases, capped by Doric or Corinthian capitals, even supporting pediments and sheltering small figures. On the other hand, heraldry is employed with a medieval freedom of handling and feeling—coats of arms, badges and devices were welded in as part of the pattern, quite frankly as essential to the scheme, without the elaborate harmonising frames and accessory scrolls seeming to ensist a foreign body, as is the manner of Continental artists, or as blatant interferences, quite useless to the development of the design, as was the method of our own late seventeenth century and eighteenth century Renaissance men. As the designs became more complicated colour was largely abandoned, and in Elizabeth's later days only a little gold, together with the vivid heraldic emblazoning, gave that touch of polychromism which had delighted alike the medievalist and the men of the early Renaissance.

With the Jacobean period there came a more decided return to Renaissance ideals. Cheek by jowl with the native geometrical and curvilinear knot tracery, ever growing in elaboration, the floreated scroll made its appearance, and greater use was made of both human and animal figures. Decorative enrichment of panels was carried boldly into the raised traceries, so that every inch of the ceiling was covered with decoration, which was made to harmonise with the wood-panelled walls by means of deep friezes, having between mouldings, masses of plaster ornaments impressed or hand modelled. A keen appreciation of this art rapidly spread all over the country. We find it as much a part of domestic architecture in the South of England, the West Country, East Anglia and the North as in London itself. It is used as lavishly in the homes of wealthy merchants and prosperous graziers as in the comfortable manor houses and splendid mansions of the nobility, while James' courtiers introduced it into Scotland, where it was welcomed, being finely handled by the Scots, who, however, never seem to have developed a style of their own. Jacobean architecture is, as we know, a happy blend of the Gothic with the Flemish, touched by a reflex action of the Palladian style, and to this, plaster work was as naturally allied as to the half-timbered houses of the immediately preceding age. A suggestion from this older form is frequently seen in the great beams of the ceilings, which in-stead of being concealed were left apparent. Sometimes they were slightly carved or painted, or were coated with plaster impressed with running designs, while the sunken panels between were covered with decorated plaster, the whole combination giving excellent results. Of the abundance then produced we have numerous fair examples remaining. Indeed, so numerous are these splendid specimens up and down the country that we cannot follow our usual course and describe individual examples, nor would this serve any useful purpose, where general tendencies are of more importance.

This golden age of native plaster work suffered an eclipse in the following reign, for Inigo Jones' influence with Charles and his nobility was the means of introducing a still more decided leaning towards a severe classic style. Jones, though no slavish copyist of the Renaissance, was a thoroughgoing admirer of Palladio and his school. He simplified geometric patterns, and in place of ornamental strapwork a curvilinear design, introduced formal classic mouldings, superceding arabesque scrolls with precise foliage arranged in the rather stiff style seen in sculptured monuments and bronzes of the ancients. The carving, or rather moulding, for a more mechanical method had ousted hand model-ling, was distinct, but the mass of decorated plaster was generally kept low and arranged in frames surrounding large and small panels reserved, as a rule, for paintings. His decorative taste though formal was pure, harmonising well with his stately architecture. His imitators, however, became far too formal, replacing Jones' natural flowers and leaves with not over pleasing conventionalised forms, blemished, moreover, by the inappropriate classic trophies (breastplates, greaves, helmets, lictors' bundles of rods and axes and Roman standards), and unmeaning architectural details. An undoubted deterioration followed the increasing use of mould and stamped decorations, prepared elsewhere and then fixed to the ceilings. With the purely formal mouldings of Jones this procedure could be resorted to safely enough, but it was other-wise when greater exuberance came in, and when plaster was applied in heavier masses.

Puritan feeling under the latter part of the reign, and under the Commonwealth, tended towards excessive simplification, and the little plaster work of this period was of the severely straightforward strap-work type in conjunction with plain panels between ceiling beams.

A rebound came with Charles II. Sir Christopher Wren, although quite as classic in feeling as Inigo Jones, brought a gayer, freer note. He frankly discarded old Tudor traditions, using large panels with broad,, heavy frames of deeply carved plaster, sometimes in the form of complicated mouldings with decorated hollows and beadings, but more commonly composed of masses of flowers and leaves. He used the oak, bay and acanthus largely, but his whole floral design is away from the conventional, and a direct reproduction of Nature. His workers were both Italians and Englishmen, like Grinling Gibbons, who, however, were all imbued with the Renaissance feeling, in which a reminiscence of arabesques is curiously mixed with very close studies of Nature. Some figure work was introduced, though development in this direction was left to his successors.

After Wren came a constant stream of Italian artists and Italianated-Englishmen, who forced the classical note, overburdening their ceilings with massive, deeply undercut scrolls, arabesques and frames, the panels large and small being filled in with paintings and miniatures. Plasterers became essentially carvers, and, while much of the detail was exquisite, individual flowers and fruits being perfect of their kind, the general scheme of design suffered. Colour was once more the rage. With plaster, however, it is mostly a question of feeble washes, with deeper tones and gilding for enrichments. Full-bodied colour is used in the heavy mouldings, and on certain coved ceilings ornamented with deep coffers, bearing a raised flower or star in their centres. Elaborate figure carving for both ceilings and friezes became the rule. Alas ! the work is almost always without the vigour of a Sansovino or the grace of a Primaticcio. The human form, especially the favourite, not to say fashion-able, amorini, grew chubby, with a suggestion of the squat, so sliding into tile uninterestingly vulgar. This frenzy for over-elaboration, for loading ceilings with great sprawling masses of tortured plaster, was abated for a time by a return to rectangular formalism under William III. and Queen Anne. Indeed, in minor buildings in the Queen Anne style, which was a semi-Dutch, semi-Jacobean, had a considerable vogue. Italian influence dominated in the long run, and under such men as William Kent and his followers the bastardised Renaissance ornamentation was carried very far.

All this, however, was extremely costly, so there was a tendency to revert to a Puritan lack of decoration amidst semi-classic surroundings, which sounded a note of incongruity. The result was that a new school arose, preferring to go back for inspiration to the masterpieces of Greece and Rome. Prominent in the vanguard of this movement were the Adam brothers, who drew constant supplies of classic drawings from correspondents in Italy. Robert Adam's claim to recognition as a reformer and as a contributor to our art progress, rests chiefly on his insistence upon a building being treated as a whole by the architect, who, he held, should de-sign the decorative scheme to suit the shell. So he not only drew plans and elevations, but designed doors, fireplaces,, mural and ceiling decorations, and even furniture. Unfortunately he had studied in Italy the school of Renaissance in its third stage of decadence, when the exuberance following on Raphael's effort and the almost foetid exaggeration following on that, had given place to the puerilities of exhaustion. With Adam and his numberless imitators (among whom we may single out Colin Campbell and Richardson) we have the low relief frames and conventional floral patterns or classic mouldings. These enclosed panels filled with miniature paintings, while the free spaces are covered over with a meander of scroll and arabesque work, either in low relief or merely painted, generally in tertiary colours on muddy-tinted washes, intended, no doubt, to throw up the miniatures of Angelica Kauffmann and lesser lights, though actually having the effect of making their brilliant colouring positively garish. But, as a matter of fact, for one Angelica Kauffmann there were hundreds of poor draughtsmen and wretched daubers, who covered their ceilings with a motley crowd of nudities only fit for the attention of the pathologist, as we see in so many of the Campbell and Richardson productions. This school had a weakness for pentagons and octagons of irregular formation, often with incurved, outlines, and also for fluted fan ornaments placed in angles of rooms or alcoves. Adam used plaster for the flat spaces, but a secret composition for his stucco ornaments ; this gave him a practical monopoly for the less expensive type of work. The secret was ultimately discovered, opening up wide competition. Meanwhile a class of plaster moulders in situ, and producers of mouldings, sprang up, who-showed considerable manipulative skill, among these being the Roses, a London firm, though they carried out work for Richardson and others all over the country. The craftsmanship was good. Unfortunately it was divorced from invention, these modern craftsmen, unlike their Tudor and Jacobean forerunners, having to depend for designs on artists whose pretensions were in inverso ratio to their good taste and their ability to construct a reasonable scheme of decoration.

Some idea of the general prevalence of fine art plaster work in the mansions of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries may be gathered from glancing over the illustrations of Mr Chandler's " Private Palaces of London."

We have mentioned that the Penni brothers when decorating the Palace of Nonsuch are credited with having used a paste of rye flour. This was, in fact, a form of gesso. The Italians had long used colour pastes, gesso sottile, a mixture of whiting in -a gluey medium, and gesso duro, a mixture of plaster and glue. The former was applied with a brush to form slightly raised enrichments ; the latter was applied more as a pliable paste. These were often coloured before application, during the process of mixing, the process thus corresponding to the methods of Donatello and those employed by the Egyptians, who used tinted clays to decorate mummy cases and so on. Gesso was largely employed throughout the Renaissance period, and was revived in the nineteenth century by such decorative artists as Walter Crane (who boiled one part of powdered resin in four parts of linseed oil and six parts of glue, and then added enough whiting—previously soaked in water—to form a thick cream), and others used the same mixture, but without the resin, or plaster dissolved in glue with a little oil. This was applied with a brush, either previously tinted or to be painted after application. One method of using gesso was to lay on successive layers, making a raised block within the outlines of any figure, and then scraping away superfluous material with a kind of scalpel, so that it combines the arts of the painter and the sculptor. In old practice, where high relief-was needed, if the foundation was wood, this was carved away so as to leave rounded surfaces, or rough ingrossments of the design, which were afterwards covered with gesso ; or the foundation might be of coarse plaster, covered with gesso. It will be seen that method differed with stucco work, though its result in low and medium relief was much the same, but with softer outlines. Other variations were compositions of different descriptions used in moulds to produce light castes ; or carton pierre, that is a form of papier mâché, thin paper being soaked in glue until almost a paste and then pressed in successive layers into moulds. Casts thus produced were extremely light, took coloured varnish well and were easy to fix on ceilings or friezes.

If we take a broad survey of plaster work in England we find three schools. First we have the Tudor or Jacobean periods, characterised by geometrical foundation in design, carried out in medium or high relief by means of broad bands, curvilinear tracings, with floral additions, a comparative moderate use of the human figure, of birds and beasts, but on occasions a lavish resort to heraldic embellishments. Then we have the classic sculpturesque style, formal and restrained with Inigo Jones, florid with Christopher Wren, and exuberant with their successors. Finally the decadent style represented by Adam and Richardson.

There can be no question that it first lent itself admirably to domestic architecture, it was easy for it to be suited to the needs of each milieu. A simple, open pattern in low relief for small, low, plain rooms; greater freedom of outline, with enriched members of considerable projection—even developing into monumental pendants—for lofty rooms of great extent. Grafted on to a Tudor Gothic and the later Jacobean and modified Dutch Queen Anne, it is really, in its simplified form, at home amidst almost all surroundings. It is far otherwise with the sculpturesque style, which is only adapted to large and lofty rooms of considerable pretensions, and even then looks heavy unless the wall decorations and furnishing are in keeping. As for the decadent style, it is finicking and tiresome, at its best only suitable for a boudoir or a breakfast-room. Even when refined by a severe process of elimination and inspiration from the formalism of Inigo Jones—a combination, if we accept a few characteristic ornaments, practically forming the Empire style—it is too precise, too " genteel " to be accepted as satisfactory.

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