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Ceilings And Present Day Practices

( Originally Published 1920 )

DURING the Victorian era various causes combined to emphasise the tyranny of the plain white plaster ceiling, so bitterly railed against in the eighteenth century. For one thing the dead, and deadening, hand of building lessors became oppressive in the land, so that the majority of men looked upon their homes as mere temporary abodes, taking little pride in them. It was a tyranny scarcely made more tolerable by the monstrous usurpation of that nondescript centre ornament( ?), the so-called rose, with its central bud (sometimes expelling a gasolier, as though from sheer weariness and disgust), surrounded by radiating rings of foliage, each row of a different kind, the outer ring of attenuated acanthus alternating with foliated spikes, terminating in a blossom the like of which nature never produced. This hideous travesty of the old rose (that ancient symbol of the sanctity of domesticity and joviality—for it represented the culminating points of the roof-tree ; of the most sacred and tender things that Christianity has to teach—so that all that passed " under the rose " was secret) is an eyesore possessing distracting attractiveness, revealing all too well the blatant nakedness of its surroundings.

Charles Reade led a vigorous crusade against this state of things, and in his "Builders' Blunders " speaks of " standing on the first floor of the thing they call a house, with a blunder under my feet—unvarnished, unjointed boards, and a blunder over my head the oppressive, glaring, plaster ceiling, full of its inevitable cracks, and foul with the smoke of only three months' gas." This " plaster ceiling " he adds, " may pass with London builders for . a venerable antiquity that nothing can disturb, but to scholars it is an unhappy novelty, and, in its present form, inexcusable. It was invented in a tawdry age as a vehicle for florid ornamentation ; but what excuse can there be for a plain plaster ceiling ? Count the objections to it in a kitchen, (1) A kitchen is a low room, and the ceiling makes it nine inches lower ; (2) White is a glaring colour, and a white ceiling makes a low room look lower; (3) This kitchen ceiling is dirty after a month's wear, and filthy in three months, with the smoke of gas, and it is a thing the servants cannot clean ; (4.) You cannot hang things on it. Now change all this : lay out the prime cost of the ceiling, and a small part of its yearly cost, in finishing your joists and boards to receive varnish, and in varnishing them with three coats of copal. Your low room is now nine inches higher, and looks three feet. You can put in hooks and staples galore, and make the roof of this business-room useful ; it is in colour, a pale amber at starting, which is better for the human eye than the white glare, and, instead of getting uglier every day, as the plaster ceiling does, it improves every month, every year, every decade, every century. Clean deal, under varnish, acquires in a few years a beauty oak can never attain to."

This revolt has borne fruit ; firstly in the flat ceiling once more being treated as a surface to be decorated, and secondly, in a return to the boarded, or plaster panel ceiling with visible joists. The former is applicable to town houses, be they ever so fine, or ever so commonplace ; the latter to the modern and rather uncertain but decidedly improved suburban villa, and to the more characterised country cottages or modest dwellings.

Flat ceiling decoration has taken four main forms: revival of mixed gesso painting or modelling on plaster ; covering the ceiling with some imitation of plaster work or wood carving ; the application of printed or-embossed paper.

Modern gesso work is generally applied to a surfaces of plaster or fibrous plaster, of which, panels and broad decorative details are found. The detail-decorationsfigures, flowers, scrolls—are then applied in a semi-liquid, or very plastic, composition. Walter Crane used a mixture of one part of resin, boiled in four parts of linseed oil and six of glue, to which sufficient soaked whiting was added to form a thick cream. Mr G. T. Robinson used plaster dissolved in liquid glue, to which a little oil was added to secure fluency. If desired these mixtures can be tinted before application, or painted when the decoration is completed, but still soft. The stiffer mixtures are handled like putty, or as a modeller handles clay, being put on the surface to be decorated in thin dabs of requisite size and shape, the ornament then being formed by removal of superfluous material. If the composition is of the more fluent description, it is applied by means of brushes of different sizes. In this way low relief work of considerable delicacy and durability can be carried out. It is practically an exaggerated form of impasto painting, and thus the actual touch of the artist is shown on all the work. The danger is that finicking over decoration may result, a defect which was observable even in some of Walter Crane's ceilings.

Wren used to form many of his plaster ornaments in moulds the casts subsequently being fixed to the ceilings. Others followed his example, as did Adam with his composition. But in 1856, a -French modeller, L. A. Desachy, improving on certain dateless rule of thumb methods, took out a patent for ` producing architectural mouldings, ornaments, and other works of art formed with surfaces of plaster." It was a process for moulding with canvas as a basis, and he took powers to lay wires " into and between the two or more layers of canvas. ' Flat surfaces are strengthened with canvas, wires, hooks and pieces of wood may be inserted whilst the plaster is in a fluid state." It was, in fact, a process to enable large sections of decorative plaster work to be made quite light, very little material being used, whilst durability was assured, and hand-ling made quite easy. The ancient Egyptians had availed themselves of a similar process for decorating mummy cases, dipping canvas in liquid plaster, wrapping the cases round and adding cast low relief plaster decoration, or merely a coating of plaster which was painted and varnished. Desachy's process attracted attention, Owen Jones being among those architects who employed it largely. Fibrous plaster possessed obvious advantages for many kinds of work, for instance, the decoration of temporary buildings ; but as manipulation improved, its value for permanent work was recognised. Much of the fine plaster ornamentation at the Paris Opera House is in fibrous plaster, and this material is now commonly used for ceilings in public buildings and private houses. The method enables panels and sections of large and small size and all kinds of shapes to be moulded, safely transported and then nailed in position to the joists. Of course, any style of decoration may be carried out in this work, whether in low, medium or very high relief, while paint, tempera or oil, and gilding can be applied.

While fibrous plaster can be moulded into any size and shape desired, it is, of course, hard and unbendable, though it may be cut away where necessary. The need of some more pliable material, producing much the same effect as fibrous plaster, was felt, and as a result a large variety of fabrics have been produced, comprising a canvas backing, or composed of fibre, a glutinous substance and filling material. For instance, " Lincrusta Walton " is a mixture of oil and very finely powdered cork, pressed in moulds on canvas.

Lignomur " is a preparation of wood fibre embossed. Anaglypta " is a form of moulded paper pulp, while in the composition of the associated " Salamander " asbestos enters largely. All these materials are capable of being impressed with any kind of pattern in low and medium relief, whether floral, geometrical, or genre subjects are chosen. The advantage is that they are not only easily applied to ceilings, but may be cut or bent to cover covered surfaces or to form canopy ceilings. Of course, they can be painted in any media preferred.

A drawback at first attaching to the use of the canvas materials (and to commercial fibrous plaster, that is to say plaster slabs manufactured wholesale, and not to special design for a special room) was that it was difficult to choose a pattern which did not betray the mechanical nature of the treatment. For some time past, however, great care has been taken in designing patterns which may be carried out in small and large panels, corner pieces, etc., so that by subtraction or addition any, sized surface can be fittingly covered. It now merely resolves itself into a question of showing judgment in selecting a type suitable for any given position.

Metal ceilings have also come into extensive use. They are stamped into thin sheets with embossed designs, generally in imitation of decorated tiles, or mosaic work the under surface being coated with a non-tarnishable patina and the upper enamelled in colours. These ceilings are generally made to adhere to boards, or to the joists by means of a special cement. Or they may be tacked down with ornamental headed zinc nails. Conventional patterns being chosen, and suitable border strips being also provided, it is easy enough to contrive good joining. These enamelled metal ceilings are excellent for bathrooms, corridors, nurseries, and school-rooms, and kitchens, because they can be washed regularly. For tropical climates and for the " week-end " type of bungalow, where the inroads of vermin and damp have to be guarded against, they are to be recommended. It is to be observed that the enamel can be made with polished or mat surface.

Ferro-concrete construction is often looked upon as inimical to artistic development of building. This has certainly not been the case as regards the decoration of ceilings. In schools and other public buildings, the ferro concrete beams are exposed, forming deep bays, while the arched braces ha been utilised to give handsome coving effects. Of course the sides and soffits of the beams and the sunken panels can be decorated like ordinary plaster work. In small ceilings, where only slender beams are required, these intersect at regular intervals to form shallow, square coffers, the soffits of these concrete beams being moulded with plain fillets forming a frame round each coffer, or they may be decorated with a running foliage pattern, with moulded bosses at the intersections. The coffers themselves may be decorated with raised mouldings. Of course the finishing coat of the concrete is of a rather fine quality, but it gives a more rugged appearance than plaster, which is not unpleasing. Concrete can be coloured as desired. Very good examples of this latter form of decoration are to be seen in the Shropshire County Council. Offices at Shrewsbury. The principle of reinforcing mortar with a steel skeleton, however, has led to a remarkable development—the suspended ceiling, which may be compared to Wren's ceiling at the Sheldonian Theatre. When the reinforcement consists of sheets of expanded metal, or of a network of steel wires, woven into locked mesh panels, these sheets can be cut and bent to any desired shape, and fastened by means of steel hangers immediately below the flooring joists or roof principles, or at some distance below them. This last-named method is often adopted in order to form a chamber for the accommodation of pipes, electric wires, and ventilating ducts. Moreover, the sheets can either be stretched flat from wall to wall, curved to accommodate itself to the architectural features of the room, or formed into bays and coves. The metal is then covered either with fine concrete and a plaster finish, or only with plaster, the expanded metal or wire mesh affording a splendid key for the plaster. Of course the plaster can be stamped, moulded or modelled, and painted as desired. Good examples of this kind of work can be seen at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington, the Dining Hall at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and the Westminster City Council's Offices.

An easy way of mitigating the objection to plain white ceilings was easily found by covering the surface with wallpaper, and this is still largely in vogue. The difficulty of finding suitable patterns, that is, papers not obviously intended to cover perpendicular walls, has been overcome by designing special ceiling papers. As a rule, plain, pale tints are chosen, contrasts of colours being avoided. In America, however, a favourite method is to divide up the ceilings with moulded ribs of wood, and filling in the panels with richly coloured papers of the embossed variety. If discretion is observed there is no reason why very charming effects should not be provided in this way. For instance, if we have oaken or gilded ribs, with buff or dark green paper, bordered respectively with a deep crimson and a bright, not too deep pink, we obtain a combination quite suitable for a library or study. A good colour scheme for a dining-room would be maroon, with dull gold embossed border. For drawing-rooms and boudoirs a light bright blue, a creamy blue of light biscuit gemmed moderately with more decided colours in harmony with the decorative scheme of the room, the dividing ribs being gilded or coloured, would look well.

Where the panel type is not adopted a room is often canopied—that is to say, the ceiling paper is brought down on the sides of the walls, six, twelve or eighteen inches, and separated from the wall-paper by a gilded or coloured moulding. A modification of this canopied style may be tried in this way : divide the ceiling into triangles, choosing a diapered paper, covering the junction in the centre with a rose, circular or boss ornament, and the juncture at the sides with a moulded cord. Bring the wall-paper down the side of the walls and end with imitation fringe or rich embossed border. The cord and fringe should imitate either bullion or bright-coloured silk. In this way a tent-like effect can be produced, quite suitable say for the " snuggery " of a globe trotter. Embossed leatherette paper in browns gives very effective renderings of dark or light carved wood ceilings, relieved, occasionally by a slight touch of gold.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century it was quite fashionable to have " Indian " or " Chinese " rooms, with lacquered walls and ceilings bearing more or less truthful oriental ornamentations. A modified revival of this is sometimes seen where walls and ceilings are covered with Japanese fibrous paper, which is both embossed and slightly coloured. If the ceilings are framed, or divided up into panels, with bamboo mouldings, the effect is improved.

So much for the flat plastered ceilings, but Charles Reade's idea of exposed joists and boards is, in part, at least, very commonly adopted by present-day architects—occasionally for town houses, but more generally for the better type of suburban dwelling, and country houses both of the cottage and studiedly simple mansion type. It is true we do not always have the plain varnished joists and boards, although this is often seen. More frequently, however, we have wooden joists in combination with plaster, the beams being either plain, decorated with mouldings or with carved ornamentation. For the living rooms of cottages, the halls, dining and billiard rooms of more pretentious houses, the beams are often varnished or painted with a dark stain, the deep coves being filled with plain white plaster, and then we have practically a return to the very favourite old time colour scheme : a contrast in black and white. Endless variations are introduced by the grouping of the beams. We may have joists running across the room, or longitudinally ; or in long rooms we may have one or two heavy longitudinal beams intersected by crossing joists of slighter scantling, thus forming a diaper pattern, the ornamentation being painted, they are either stained or varnished, but may be decorated with centre roses, stencilled borders or a running diaper pattern, the ornamentation being carried out either in white or black, some shade of brown, or even in bright colours. More often this form of treatment is reserved for plastered surfaces between joists, and they may have quite elaborate painting. The beams, whether varnished or stained, or, as is sometimes done, painted, are decorated with curvilinear or running floral patterns on their soffits, or their sides, or both.

In one successful example where a billiard room has two longitudinal beams with slimmer cross joists, the ceiling is finished in a creamy white, the soffits of the timbers being decorated with stencil-ling in red, black and gray.

It is a most hopeful sign, this renewal of interest in the ceiling, even in modest houses for it reveals a revolt against the reign of ugliness introduced during the last couple of centuries.

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