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Pictorial Ceilings In England

( Originally Published 1920 )

ALTHOUGH we hear of mural painting in Medieval England, we have no evidence or pictorially decorated church vaults or palace ceilings such as we have in plenty in other European countries. Excellent carvers and colourists we had at work in great fanes and humble parish churches, but such painters of genre as we had in our midst scarcely turned their attention to ceilings.

It is to foreign wielders of the brush, quite late in our artistic development, that we owe the recognition of ceilings as available for pictorial treatment, a step which proved anything but an advance. Holbein, who designed the ceiling in the Chapel Royal, St James' Palace, is credited by Samuel Pepys with having also painted certain gallery ceilings in the Whitehall Palace of Henry VIII., then (August 1668) in a most dilapidated condition. The diarist laments the general decay, declaring it was a " pity to see Holbein's work on the ceiling blotted on, and only [all ?] whited over." No records, however, exist of Holbein working here, and as our worthy gossip was decidedly incorrect in other particulars relating to art, we may dismiss this talk of the great German as an idle rumour, but interesting as showing that some notable painting had been carried out in the galleries before the reign of Charles I. Hard by this spot, in Inigo Jones' Banqueting Hall, we have a remark-able painted ceiling. The Hall is a lofty one, measuring 110 feet by 55 feet, and Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned to carry out the work. He made elaborate sketches while in London for submission to the King, but the work was carried out by the master and his pupils on the Continent. The various panels are painted on canvas and held in place by heavy gilt frames. The subject is the Happy Life and Apotheosis of James I. There are six panels in all. The large centre one is an oval in which we witness the apotheosis of James ; the King, in his robes of the Garter, with full-bottomed wig and three-cornered hat being borne heaven-ward on the back of a Jovian eagle. His Majesty, with straddled legs, looks exceedingly uncomfortable in his perilous position. The panel is between two oblong canvases, representing respectively the good deeds of James I., and that King designating Charles I. as his successor. The oval panel is flanked by two squares, and the oblong panels by two ovals, filled with allegorical pictures. The colouring is beautiful, if somewhat brilliant, but we must remember that the canvases have undergone various restorations. Much heavy and elaborate architecture is shown in the paintings, the grouping being rather disconcerting to the star gazer, and, indeed, the perspective has been severely criticised. The figure drawing, with the difficult foreshortening, is admirable, a great task, for Smith tells us that " the children are more than nine feet, and the full-grown figures from twenty to twenty-five feet in height."

Dr Waagen gives a description and an appreciation of this scheme " which is divided into nine compartments. The largest, in the centre, of an oval form contains the Apotheosis of King James I. On the two longer sides are large friezes with infant genii, loading with sheaves of corn and with fruit, carriages drawn by lions, bears and rams. The proportions are so colossal that each of these boys measures nine feet. The other two pictures in the centre represent King James as the protector of peace, seated on his throne, appointing Prince Charles as his successor. The four pictures at the sides contain allegorical representations of Knightly power and virtue. These paintings, executed in 1630 by order of Charles I., gave one very little pleasure. Independently of the inconvenience of looking at them, all large ceiling paintings have an oppressive, heavy and considered as architectural ornaments unfavourable effect; for which reason, the refined taste of the ancients never allowed them ; substituting light decoration on a light-coloured ground. Least of all are Rubens' colossal and heavy figures adapted to such a purpose. All allegories are cold, and the overladen and clumsy character of these is not calculated to make them attractive, nor were the character and reign of James I. such as to inspire anyone with any, enthusiasm. There is little doubt that the greater part was originally executed by the pupils of Rubens, while the deep, unctous, and transparent tone of the nude, and clumsy form of the chief pictures leave no doubt that Jordaens, especially, was employed on them." Sir Godfrey Kneller, who had in his possession some of the original sketches, is one of the authorities for the statement that Jordaens helped largely in painting these pictures, for which Rubens received 3000 lbs.

Charles II., who during his Continental wanderings had imbibed a taste for the mock heroic in art, with its strange medley of mythological personages, allegorical figures and modern folk masquerading in the pomp of Augustus Caesar, soon after the Restoration brought over Antonio Verrio to re-establish the tapestry works at Mortlake. This _ enterprise was never carried out, but Verrio, who had studied in Naples, and was g kind of universal genius, was employed by the Earl of Arlington in decorating Euston. Struck by the daring gaudiness, Charles promptly set the Italian to work at Windsor. Fine old timber ceilings, others coved and decorated with plaster work or carved wood, were hidden by flat plaster ceiling, whereon as the Duke of Argyll says, " Verrio's flying and flitting angels whirled in chaotic allegory around the heads of kings enthroned in thunder clouds.' Many of these have been removed revealing the better work beneath, but several specimens remain, and others deserve description. Among those which remain is a ceiling in the Queen's Presence Chamber, and another in Charles II.'s Dining-room, where we are shown a banquet of the gods, the cornice and frieze being heavily decorated with fish and game, His most ambitious work was carried out in St George's Hall, on the walls of which he painted the legend of St George and the triumph of the Black Prince. The ceiling he divided into panels by means of heavy plaster mouldings of foliage. The centre elliptical panel he filled with a kind of deification of Charles II., who, seated amidst the clouds in the royal robes of the Order of the Garter, he pressed his right foot on the head of a lion, while Religion and Plenty crowned him, and angels and rays of light swept down towards him, England, Scotland and Ireland reposing at his feet, with Mars and Mercury in attendance. Two octagon panels contained elaborate groups of figures, representing the triumph of Charles, and in one of these a nobleman, not liked at Court, was represented as a friend dispersing libels. Verrio's efforts in the King's Guard Room was less of a jumble, more appropriate and truly decorative, for he filled compartments with figures of Peace and Plenty, Mars and Minerva, and again Mars with war symbols. In the Queen's Guard Room, a large oval in a coved ceiling, showed Queen Catherine as Britannia seated on a globe, receiving offerings from Europe, Asia, Africa and America. It is one of a long series of ceiling devices in which the Queen was granted heavenly honours by order of her erring spouse. In this instance the design was fairly successful, the blaze of light descending on Britannia being splendidly contrived. In the Ballroom Charles was again in the clouds, this time represented as giving peace to Europe. Verrio's performances in the Chapel Royal, adjoining St George's Hall, was remarkable in many ways. The coved ceiling was painted with the scene of the Resurrection, not at all a happy effort. On the North wall the miracles of Our Lord were shown, and among the crowd stood Verrio and some of his familiars in contemporary costumes and full black wigs.

In this ceiling Verrio carried out a device not unknown to the early Renaissance painters, which he used with good effect on other occasions. The coves were divided into highly decorated panels, but the artist carried the sky and clouds from the central panels over the coves in straggling masses, with angels in their midst. Carefully done, this emphasising of the continuity of walls and ceiling is very pleasing, making an elaborate picture overhead more tolerable. Michel Angelo arrived at the same result in a different way, using architectural forms and sky, Verrio,„ ho had found time to reorganise the gardens at Windsor, and who had been made Master Gardener, with a home in the Mall, close to St James's Palace, became the rage, painting ceilings for noblemen in all parts of the country. He was employed by the Earl of Essex at Cassiobury, Lord Montagu at Montagu House, the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, the Earl of Essex at Burghley (of which more at length later on), and others.

Both Charles and James kept him busy at Hampton Court, where much of his work, characteristic, hut perhaps not of his best, is still extant. When William ascended the throne Verrio retired to the provinces, carrying out numerous commissions to decorate great mansions. For a long time he obstinately refused royal patronage, for he was loyal to his old masters. It was during this partial eclipse of the Italian luminary that a revival iii better-class plaster work came about, characterised by a certain quaint Dutch formalism, suggestive of tulips and parterres. However, Verrio recognising that the Stuart cause was hopeless, grudgingly accepted the commands of William and his Consort, resuming his labours at Hampton Court, where he associated Laguerre in most of his work.

It is at Hampton Court that we are con-fronted with one of his most glaring abuses of the mock-heroic, for the Grand Staircase presents a brain bemusing medley of mythology, allegory and history. We are bidden to attend the marriage of the Thames and Isis, over which preside Jupiter and Juno enthroned in the clouds, attended by Ganymede cup in hand, riding the eagle, while Juno's peacock stands in front, the splendours of the far-spread tail vieing with the vivid hues of the rainbow which canopies Diana. Within the charmed circle are Apollo with the nine Muses, haggard Fate snipping the thread of life, Pan with his pipes, Hercules leaning on his club, while Mercury brings forward Julian the Apostate. Elsewhere Ceres, offering wheat-sheaves, gods and goddesses, Nymphs, Naiads, Zephyrs, Satyrs, and Bacchanals are intermingled with genii, personifications of the Virtues and so on, while Romulus attends with his shaggy foster-mother, and Aeneas introduces the twelve Caesar's. Then there are overflowing cornucopias, flowers and fruit, architectural features and much more besides, the crowded composition overflowing from the ceiling into the staircase walls. Most of all this is bad, for looking at it as a picture the colouring is harsh, the drawing defective, many of the figures loutish, and the whole conception chaotic. Yet if we look upon it not too curiously, this massing of colour, and rather clever treatmenf of light, is impressive, and yet again, as William Howitt says, though " the figures in general are too ponderous for their ethereal character and position, here and there your eye is caught by some shape of sweetest grace or countenance of sunny beauty." It is, indeed, a. patch-work affair, with some delicious bits and quite excellent decorative details. And so it is with most of his compositions. Among his work here for Anne was the painting of the Queen's Drawing-room, the large centre chamber on the east front, measuring 41 feet by 25 feet. On the ceiling Queen Anne is represented in the character of justice, with scales in one hand and sword in the other. Her dress is purple, lined with ermine. Over her head a crown is held by Neptune and Britannia, while surrounding her, floating in the clouds, are various allegorical figures of Peace, Plenty and other pleasant attributes. For King William's State Bed-chamber he carried out a rather pretty concert : Endymion is shown reposing his head in the lap of Morpheus, Diana with crescent moon looking on admiringly, while Somnus and his attendants are seen in the background. There is a border of four dainty landscapes, each panel separated by nude boys with baskets surrounded by poppies. Decidedly quaint, though less excellent as a ceiling composition is the sleeping Mars seen in the adjoining Little Bed-chamber. Mars is asleep in the lap of Venus, and small cupids swarm around and rob him of his shield, armour, helmet, sword and spear, while others entwine his arms with wreaths and roses. The border is composed of orange, jasmine and other somniferous plants in ornamental vases, with parrots (the Oriental symbol of love) and other birds flitting about them. Other ceilings of his exist here.

We have mentioned that the Earl of Essex employed Verrio at Burghley, a mansion possessing so many fine Elizabethan plaster ceilings with pendants. He treated the Grand Staircase ceiling in a way foreshadowing his subsequent design at Hampton. He took for his subject the hell of the classic writers, depicting persons whom he disliked (notably the old housekeeper and a neighbouring cleric) in most invidious positions. Indeed, he allowed great license to his pencil, introducing touches (fully described by Dr Peck in his " Desiderata Curiosa "), of extreme coarseness, just such touches as we see disfiguring much of the modern popular fresco work of Italy. Less offensive, but in equally doubtful taste, is the ceiling of the fifth George Room, which is described by Chalton thus : " In the centre are Jupiter and Juno, with the Zodiac over their heads, Below them are Ganymede, the eagle and peacock, Cybele, with turret on her head, drawn by lions, and attended by the Corybantes and Ceres drawn by dragons. To the right, Minerva is seen resting on her shield ; and in various parts of the, ceiling are depicted, Bacchus crowned with the vine leaf, and Ariadne with the seven stars, Apollo, Diana, Hercules, Castor and Pollux, the Goddess of Sleep, Fame with her trumpet, etc. On the west side, Mars and Venus are represented as caught in a net by Vulcan, who is attended by Envy : the God of Sleep is showering poppies on the head of Mars ; Mercury is descending towards them ; and Time and Janus, Cyclops, etc., are looking on. Towards the North, the Graces appear to be spectators of the scene ; beyond is a nymph, who is taking a sketch of it whilst husbandmen are standing and laughing from the between the pillars. In the background is the sea, from which Neptune has just disembarked with his attendants ; and Bacchus is bestriding a barrel on the shore. The east side exhibits Vulcan at his forge, Cyclops working near him. In this group the artist himself appears." Equally crowded and confused designs are seen on five other ceilings here.

Take, for instance, the ceiling of the Great Drawing-room, which represents the gods celebrating the nuptials of Jupiter and Juno. In the centre is the festive table Jupiter and Juno at its head--at the sides, Pluto, Proserpine, Neptune, Amphitrite, Cupid and Psyche. At the bottom two cupids holding doves ; whilst Mercury is seen flying to Jupiter with a paper in-inscribed, " Fit totem Fabula cœlum. Minerva and Mars are in attendance, Ganymede is presenting the cup, and Flora receiving refreshment from a Cupid while Bacchus is busy pouring out wine, and Bacchanalians carousing, with Ceres and the Nereides. Near them is the figure of Plenty, seated with cornucopias, from which are issuing bread, fish and fowl. Near the window are seen Cyclops and others carrying viands, and female attend-ants strewing flowers. It was poor stuff, but at that time very fashionable. As Pope sang ___

"On painted ceilings you devoutly stare,
Where sprawl the saints of Verrio and Laguerre."

Only neither the Italian master or his French pupil were much concerned with saints though they certainly took upon themselves the beatification of generous patrons. Laguerre besides assisting his chief, did a considerable amount of independent work at Hampton Court, Marl-borough House, Burghley, Petworth, Blenheim and elsewhere. He was equally florid, given to mythological, Greek and Roman personages, and while not showing the fertile fancy of Verrio, was quite as chaotic and deficient as a draughtsman and colourist.

They were followed by a crowded, busy school of disciples, who worked on a less ambitious scale, but showed similiar lack of taste and sense of proportion.

For a time a note of dignity was introduced by Sir James Thornhill, who added to a thorough mastery of human anatomy, a feeling for beauty, an exquisite sense of colour and great skill in composition. We have already referred to his monochrome work in St Paul's Cathedral, of which only his sketches now remain. A fine example of his method and taste is to be seen on the ceiling of the Queen's State Bed-chamber at Hampton Court. It represents Aurora rising out of the sea, in her golden chariot, drawn by four white horses, and attended by cupids. Below are figures representing Night and Sleep. The cornice is adorned with four medallions, bearing portraits of King George I. with crown Caroline, Princess of Wales; George II., Prince of Wales ; and their son, Frederick, later Prince of Wales, as a boy of nine. Thornhill also worked at Windsor. Perhaps his best-known paintings are the decorations at Greenwich Hospital, but these, with the exception of the cupola painting, are in a more inflated style, which only the stately proportions of these halls make tolerable. In the centre of the cupola is a great compass with its points duly bearing. The coved sides are filled with four gigantic groups of figures, representing the winds, painted in mono-chrome in a manner to suggest high-relief sculpture. A winged figure of the East Wind rises from the East, bringing light to the world with a flaming torch, while with his left hand he pushes the morning star into the dark. Round about him are half figures and boys showering the morning dew. The South Wind, with dripping wings, is seen squeezing rain out of a bag, while little boys in a variety of vigorous attitudes are casting thunder and lightning earthwards. The West Wind, accompanied by Joyful Spring playing on a flute, is surrounded by small zephyrs scattering flowers from baskets. Cruel Boreas, issuing from the North, appears with dragon's wings, accompanied by a fierce band showering down hail and snow. Certainly an appropriate scheme for such a place. More gorgeous colouring and crowded composition is seen in the Great Hall. In the middle of a large oval we see seated under a canopy of State, attended by the four Cardinal Virtues, King William and Queen Mary, Concord sitting between them, while Cupid holds the sceptre. The King is presenting Peace and Liberty to Europe and trampling on Tyranny and Arbitrary Power. Beneath the group stands Architecture, holding a drawing of part of the Hospital and pointing-upwards to the royal founders. We also see Time bringing Truth to light, while Wisdom and Virtue in the person of Pallas and Hercules destroy Calumny, Detraction, Envy and other vices. In the circumference of the oval are the twelve signs of the zodiac, presided over by Flora, or Spring, Ceres, or Summer, Bacchus, or Autumn, and Hyems or Winter. Apollo on high, in chariot drawn by four white horses, and accompanied by the Hours, Dews falling before him, sheds brilliant light on the whole scene. The oval frame is supported by sculptured figures amidst a profusion of trophies, all painted in monochrome, thus 'throwing up the fresh colouring of the great central picture. Each end of the ceiling is raised in perspective with balustrades, colossal figures supporting elliptical arches, forming galleries in which are grouped Arts and Sciences, relating to Navigation. In the middle of the gallery next the Upper Hall is the stern of a British man-o'-war, Winged Victory filling her with spoils from the enemy. Under the step is London sitting on the Thames and Isis, with the smaller rivers bringing treasures to her. The River Tyne is there pouring forth abundance of coal. In the centre of the Gallery at the lower end of the Hall, is the stern of a Spanish galley filled with trophies. Under it is the Severn with her lampreys, and the Humber with his pigs of lead. On the left hand is Tycho Brahe, near him Copernicus with his System in hand, accompanied by a philosopher pointing to some mathematical figures of Sir Isaac Newton. On right of gallery is Flamstead the astronomer, his disciple Thomas Weston, Master of the Hospital, assisting him in taking observations of Eagre on the Severn, while an old man marks time on a clock. In the four angles are the Elements, Fire, Air, Earth and Water, offering their productions to the King and Queen, while Fame at the end of the oval descends sounding the praise of the pair. On the North side of the Hall are painted in niches eight of the social virtues.

The ceiling of the Upper Hall is raised in perspective, showing Queen Anne and Prince George of Denmark surrounded by Concord, Liberality, Piety, Victory and other Virtues. Neptune attended by Trittons, presents his trident to Prince George as Lord High Admiral, and other divinities advance with offerings, while Juno accompanied by Aeolus commands a calm. In the covings are figures of the four quarters of the globe admiring British maritime power, the angles being framed with the arms of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, adorned with festoons of sea-shells, trophies of war and pots of flowers. Inflated no doubt all this is, but the mock-heroic is redeemed by the clever grouping, the studied balancing of the compositions, the beauty and strength of individual figures, and the appropriateness of the symbolism,

Thornhill's active rival for royal patronage a most indefatigable worker and favourite with the nobility, was William Kent, a man of very different calibre. A decorator of much merit and some originality, he aimed at greater things, and though receiving distinguished support, proved himself an inferior architect and very bad painter. Specimens of his work are numerous, but perhaps the most favour-able, and certainly among the most important, is the painting on the walls of the King's Staircase at Kensington Palace, The ceiling is flat, the back-ground painted grey. There is a centre panel and smaller panels, the whole ceiling heavily framed with modelled plaster. The centre square encloses a circle, within which are four semi-circular spaces, the whole representing a pierced dome with galleries. Three of these galleries are filled with musicians playing on instruments, and spectators gazing on the crowded walls, filled with figures shown walking up steps and garden terraces. In the fourth semi-circle Kent himself, palette in hand, and accompanied by two pupils, is seen. The scheme was altogether too big for the artist, who was unable to manage convincing grouping. There are several other ceilings of his here, betraying only too glaringly the influence of Verrio and Laguerre. For instance, in Queen Caroline's Drawing-room, within a heavy frame of moulded plaster, the Queen, represented as Minerva, is seen attended by History and the Arts, a set of heavy, simpering persons, In the King's Drawing-room, the coves are decorated with rather elaborate, but fine plaster scrolls and architectural details, richly painted and gilt, medallions on each side being supported by female figures. On the flat part of the ceiling is a deeply moulded plaster frame, enclosing a badly drawn, crudely coloured picture telling the story of Jupiter and Semele.

This kind of thing, which called forth Pope's satire, was largely imitated, peopling the ceilings of town and country houses with a monstrous army of mythological, allegorical and historical person-ages, whose constant presence must have been a wearisome impertinent intrusion, scarcely improved by their distorted writhings. Charles Dickens has told us how, from the ceiling of Mr Tulkinghorn's Chambers in Lincoln's Inn Fields, " fore-shortened allegory, in the person of one impossible Roman upside down, pointed with the arm of Sampson (out of joint, and an odd one) obtrusively towards the window." For many years the persistent Roman has been pointing with no particular meaning, until one morning he is found `` pointing at a table, with a bottle (nearly full of wine) and a glass upon it, and two candles that were blown out suddenly, soon after being lighted. He is pointing at an empty chair and the stain upon the ground before it that might be almost covered with a hand. These objects lie directly within his range. An excited imagination might suppose that there was something in them so terrific, as to drive the rest of the composition, not only the attendant big-legged boys, but the clouds and flowers and pillars too—in short the very body and soul of allegory, and all the brains it has—stark mad. It happens surely, that everyone that comes into the darkened room and looks at these things, looks up at the Roman, and that he is invested in all eyes with mystery and awe, as if he were a paralysed dumb witness." It is this ever present incongruity of a pictorial ceiling of the heroic school that makes them especially objectionable, thoroughly unrestful.

Scarcely more pleasing to the eye or reposeful to the mind were the crowded allegories of Campbells, Richardsons and others, or even the little inanities of a Cipriani and an Angelica Kauffmann.

The truth is, the pictorial ceiling to be worth anything must be distinctly decorative, like the best of those in Venice, or, in the French capital, Benjamin Constant's magnificent painting in the Reception Hall of the Hôtel de Ville, showing Paris welcoming the world to the banks of the Seine. But these triumphs, if we except religious paintings on church vaulting, are few and far between.

Before closing this chapter we must refer to a rather pleasing conceit carried out by Henry Holland at Carlton House, where the ceilings of the fine series of reception-rooms were all painted as skies ; not of the classic symbolical kind, but with different shades of blue and natural cloud effects. It was just sufficiently decorative, yet not obtrusive, to suit any accessories of wall coverings and furniture.

Ceilings Of The Ancients
Interior Decoration in England Prior to the 18th Century
Rubens, England, and the Whitehall ceiling


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