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Timber Roofs And Carved Wood Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

TIMBER ceilings may be divided into three broad classes : (1) open timber roofs, such as we see in churches and large halls ; (2) ceilings with visible beams in conjunction with boarded or plastered surfaces ; (3) boarded ceilings, plain or decorated and those of carved wood.

The simplest form of timber roof and ceiling is composed of a series of rafters resting on the top of the walls, or supported by one or more long principal beams running the whole length of the room, upon which a platform of boards or laths is placed to sustain the tiles or thatch of the roof proper, or the floor above. Of the development of this fundamental type we shall speak later.

A roof of the above description enters into the structure of a building as an integral part of it, but in a framed roof we have a carpenter's job, which is practically a complete structure by itself, resting on and fastened to the walls. These framed roofs embrace that whole wonderful series of open-timbered structures associated with Gothic architecture. Into the composition of these a large variety of members enter. The chief of these are the principals, or cross beams supporting the longitudinal rafters and purlins, on which boards or smaller beams are placed to support the outer shell, the ridge pole, generally sup-ported by a truss or perpendicular beam, which are in turn supported by wall beams and plates, running down the side of the walls.

The tie-beam roofs are associated with the Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular styles. The beam is either laid across the building from wall to wall (as in the primitive type), or more usually is supported by curved braces, connecting it with wall pieces. Over the Trinity Chapel in Cirencester Church, the tie beams are supported by curved braces, resting on small carved square pillars, which replace wall pieces and are not attached to the wall, but spring from carved Seraphims forming the capitals of pillars reaching to the ground. In other cases the braces are continued above the tie beam, and then form an arch intersected by the tie beam. Sometimes the tie beams of the aisles are carried through the walls to form corbels for the wall pieces and braces of the nave roof. As a rule tie-beam roofs of the Perpendicular period are very low-pitched, even approaching to flatness, in which case the timbering is reduced to the minimum, but the decoration is exceedingly elaborate.

A trussed roof has all the complicated appearance of the tie-beam type, but has , the advantage of using smaller, and especially shorter timber. In this class of roof the common rafters are prevented from spreading by diagonal ties (the braces) ; all timbers are halved and pinned together with wooden pins. Both purlins and rafters are used, as well as curved braces. Sometimes the roof is high-pitched, in later work, especially in the Perpendicular, almost flat. In any case the effect produced is a forest of timber overhead.

In arched-braced roofs, curved braces support the collar or cross beams between the purlins, in place of the tie beams.

In collar-braced roofs, the collar beams or merely the wall pieces, and principals are connected by straight or curved braces.

With hammerbeam roofs we have again a forest of timber, the hammerbeams being balks projecting from the wall and sup-porting the rafters by means of arched braces. These arched braces generally support cross beams ; on which rest perpendicular beams reaching to the ridge (king post). Sometimes the tie beams have three perpendicular beams, in which case the middle and larger one is the king post and the shorter beams on either side, springing from the collar or tie beam and reaching to the purlins (the queen posts). In double hammerbeam roofs we have one row of projecting beams above the other.

In connection with the intricate and very often delicate carpenter's work involved in all this knitting together of long and short, light and heavy timbers, with struts and braces, tenon dovetailed, or pinned, elaborate decoration was the rule. We have cambered tie beams, where the under-side of great balks are cut away to give an arched appearance; the edges of squared beams are cut off or rounded ; fillets and deep broad grooves are cut along them, and these grooves are sometimes filled with strings of beads or of billets, or with a running pattern of foliage cut out of the solid wood. Great floral or foliated bosses are also frequently seen, conventionalised in the earlier periods and more approaching naturalistic treatment as the Perpendicular is reached. Beams as they approach the walls may be decorated with flowers or leaves, or more or less roughly carved into the semblance of heads of beasts with open mouths, the latter a form frequently seen in domestic architecture. In churches we also see heads of birds, beasts and humans, grotesques or other-wise, but here the favourite motive is the chubby face and short wings of cherubs, which are also used as bosses in the middle of beams over the nave. Hammerbeams are frequently carved in the form of full or half-length angels, seeming to float horizontally overhead. Angels in the perpendicular or standing position are also seen on braces and tie beams, some-times carved out of the solid timbers, at others being separate carvings fixed in place. They bear trumpets, cymbals, scrolls inscribed with texts, or armorial shields. Bowden, speaking of Trinity Chapel, _Cirencester Church, says : " Every part of this roof susceptible of enrichment has received it to the highest degree; the tie beams are well moulded, with a deep casement filled in with flowers carved out of the solid ; most elaborately carved bosses cover the intersections of the mouldings. One very peculiar feature in this roof, which is not often met with in other examples, is the pendant which terminates the upright supports under the purlins and ridge. Floral pendants are, however, not uncommon. The wall pieces are also a constant object of decoration. They may be angels springing from architectural corbels, or beams wreathed about by creepers. The corbels themselves may be purely architectural forms, branches of leaves, or heads. In domestic architecture the face of the corbel may bear a shield displaying initials, badges, crests or arms. The wall pieces are frequently connected by wall plates, forming a continuous band, treated now as a cornice with many mouldings, now as a frieze highly decorated with carvings or paintings, and, especially in domestic examples, usually terminating in an embattled top.

With all this dealing in huge balks and a multiplicity of smaller timbers, the old carving and minute sculpturesque detail, the decorative sense of the medieval builders and their immediate successors was not satisfied. The notion of leaving oak and other woods bare never entered their heads. They used colour with happy abandon already described when dealing with Gothic decoration, but as an example of how colour carving and intricate carpentry were blended we may cite Knapton Church, Norfolk. It is a double hammerbeam roof, with rather restrained carving ; each horizontal timber, however, is adorned with an angel holding a shield. The wall beams are carved effigies of Scriptural personages supported by corbels composed of angels also bearing shields. The wall plate above the cornice is adorned with a double row of angels holding emblems of the Passion and other sacred symbols. The colouring on the timbers and the background of boards was mainly a rich yellow, with decorations in red, green and white. The colouring of the figures is somewhat unconventional, at all events as regards our ideas of angelic appearance : they have golden hair, green or red robes, while their outspread wings are painted red or green in reverse order to the robes. A pretty enough contrast, though rather suggestive of parrakeets to the unregenerate mind.

Three fine types of domestic timbered roofs are to be seen respectively in Westminster Hall, Crosby Place, and Hampton Court.

Westminster Hall, which formed part of the old Palace of the Saxon kings and of William of Normandy, was rebuilt in the early part of the fifteenth century, and we have the splendid open-timber roof to-day practically as it was put up under Richard II. It is really a composite roof, a combination of the hammerbeam, arched brace and collar beam, with king and queen posts and numerous upright struts. Along the sides of the walls are stone corbels, from these spring double braces of considerable scantling, the under one being curved and carried to the end of the hammerbeam. These hainmerbeams project far into the Hall, and are carved in the shape of angels bearing shields adorned alternately with the arms of Edward the Confessor and Richard II. The upper part of the double beam is carried skyward, intersecting the hammerbeam and curving outward to meet the brace from the opposite wall, forming an arch, queen posts from the head of the hammerbeam acting as struts. A brace is carried from the base of the queen post to the centre of the arch. The queen posts are carried right up to the purlins, and from purlin to purlin right across the Hall is the collar beam, with king and queen posts supporting a tie beam above. The space between the arched braces and beams is filled with perpendicular curved beams. Thus we have another arch within an arch as well as triangles. From brace to brace, over the roof beams are purlins supported by arched braces, the whole great structure being knit together into one perfect structure. The magnitude of this work will be realised when we find that the Hall is 239 feet long and 66 feet broad, while from the floor to the ridge is a distance of 90 feet, from the floor to the corbels, 21 feet, and to the angels, 42 feet. The depth of the roof itself is 48 feet. Sydney Smirke, who inspected the roof closely in the early decades of last century, classes it as a common collar-beam roof. He says

" A brace of very great strength has been made in every truss to relieve the principal rafter, by catching it at about two-fifths of the height upwards, and carrying down the pressure nearly ten feet below the foot of the rafter." He adds that the arch formed by the great curved rib (or continuation of the hammerbeam brace) does not sustain the pressure of the roof, for as a matter of fact its base in many cases did not rest on the. stone corbels at the date of his inspection, from which it appears to, and no doubt originally did spring. The arch, therefore,- rather hangs from than supports the principals, though, of course, it is of use in knitting the whole together. This roof, which Thomas Fuller speaks of as a forest of cobwebless timber, in allusion to the legend that it was built of Irish oak, among which no insects would live, is said to have been a replica, on a larger but simplified plan, of that over the adjoining St Stephen's Chapel, which was destroyed by fire.

Crosby Place, which Sir John Crosby erected in Bishopsgate as his town residence in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, was originally a very extensive building, but had suffered severely long before it was pulled down and re-erected at Chelsea. It possessed a large crypt with fine groined ceiling. The lofty Great Hall has a slightly vaulted ceiling, with a considerable amount of moderately heavy timber work, which, however, comes little below the vaulting, to the top of the windows, placed high up in the walls. Between the purlins and rafters are closely fitted boards. Down the whole length of the Hall are three rows of king posts, each terminated by short pendants, slightly carved. Braces form the two small middle arches, springing from the king posts, with a half arch on each side braced to the wall posts, which are supported by small corbels, the open space between the top of the braces and the rafters being filled in with small vertical beams. In this way a series of bays are formed right down the Hall. Another chamber of interest in this old mansion is the Throne Room, with its elliptical ceiling divided into small compartments by slender ribs of oak, filled in with panels, all finely carved. A combination of the two styles, with considerable modifications, may be found in the big Hall at Hatfield.

Hampton Court Palace also affords a fine specimen of domestic Gothic roof. This is seen in the Great Hall built by Henry VIII., in the perpendicular style. It is a single hammerbeam roof of seven bays. Substantial purlins are carried right down the Hall. The bays are formed by two half arches supporting a large central arch ; above this the same arrangement is repeated on a smaller scale, the open parts being filled with pierced tracery. Each half arch is composed of a wall post resting on a carved corbel, from which springs a curved hammer brace, supporting the hammerbeam, which juts out horizontally from the wall post. Each central arch is formed by curved collar braces, descending from the rafters above and meeting the hammer-beams and braces below. At these junctions are magnificently carved pendants, composed of pillars, pediments, floral and heraldic enrichments, all pierced a jour. These pendants are particularly worthy of study, owing to their evidence of Renaissance influence, the architectural features being classic. Above each central arch is a horizontal collar beam, supporting open timber, and scroll work filling the upper parts. The corbels are adorned with heraldic devices—supporters and coats of arms, and we also see heads carved in wood. Spandrels of elegant form fill up the space between the arches, enclosing bosses carved and emblazoned in colours with the arms and badges of Henry and Jane Seymour. It is certainly a magnificent production, superior to the ceilings of both Crosby Hall and Eltham Palace, and comparable in its own way with that marvel of carpentry work—the timber roof of Westminster Hall.

While in most timber roofs the ceiling of boards may be said to be behind the timbers, resting on the purlins and rafters and forming a platform for the outer shell, the boarded ceiling is placed in front of the beams and rafters, hiding them completely. We find instances of this practice at a fairly early date. The boarded ceiling may be flat, slanting (over aisles for instance), or shaped as a vault either in the form of a half sphere, or with polygonal sides. A good example of this is the ceiling of the church at Wimbsbottem, Norfolk. The boards are frequently decorated with carved beading concealing the joining of the boards, and with wood or metal bosses. For instance, a rather favourite combination is blue-painted boards studded with leaden or golden stars. Colour decoration on these boarded ceilings was decidedly lavish, quite the opposite to the modern practice of merely varnishing the natural wood, and perhaps adding a stencilled border in monochrome or pale tints.

In the " Parentalia" we find a long quotation from Dr Plot who describes and eulogises Sir Christopher Wren's flat timber ceiling over the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. This was Wren's second architectural venture, and the task he set him-self was to devise a flat ceiling for a great expanse, only using small timbers. He devised a huge framework, enclosing a perfect network of short and long beams, arranged like a grating, each piece tenoned into the other. It is the outcome of elaborate mathematical calculations. This work, however, is all concealed. Dr Plot, describing the decoration, adds : " The painting of the ceiling is worth examination ; for in imitation of the Theatre of ancient Greeks and Romans, which were too large to be covered with lead or tile, this, by the purity of the flat roof within is represented open. And as they stretched a cordage from pilaster to pilaster, upon which they strained a covering of cloth, to protect the people from the injuries of the weather, so here is a cord moulding, gilded, that reaches cross and cross house both in length and breadth, which supports a great drapery supposed to have covered the roof, but furled up by the genii round about the house toward the walls, which discovereth the open air, and maketh way for the descent of the Arts and Sciences that are congregated in a circle of clouds." From Elmes, who reproduces the plan and details of the timber ceiling, to be found, both in Dr Plot's work and the " Parentalia," we learn that the moulded cords were of carved wood, and were only placed there as realistic ornaments.

Flat boarded ceilings gave rise to a system which practically continued wall panelling overhead. Such ceilings often have panels of different sizes and shapes, either deep sunken or raised, and outlined by more or less elaborate mouldings. The decoration, which may be conventional, geometrical or largely heraldic, is sometimes carved in the solid wood, or is applied, being carved in wood or more generally moulded in lead, in composition or plaster. Charming specimens of wood panels, lead and composition-moulded decorations are to be seen in the ceilings of Wolsey's portion of Hampton Court, which show the foreshadowing of later all plaster work.

Serlio in his treatise describes and portrays certain flat carved timber ceilings which he designed for the Library of St Mark, Venice. It is particularly worth study, because, apart from the merits of the design, it gives a capital demonstration of how decoration and method may be adapted to fit in with particular cases. He shows the skeleton design of his ceiling, with large and small squares, oblong and oval panels, the mouldings and roses at intersection being merely roughed out. The next stage shows greater detail, more incavo and relief work, and he observes that in this state, painted in monochrome, or we might add two harmonising or contrasting colours, the ceiling is suitable for a small, low-pitched room. Then we see greater detail being added, partly by more carving, but chiefly by means of moulded stucco. The panels are filled up with floral designs in high relief, Greek patterns are given to the mouldings, the flat bands are covered with flora and arabesques, and the roses assume more importance, growing in size and intricacies. The plain geometrical design with a few conventionalised floral forms has now become a highly decorated production in which geometrical patterns intermingle with the highly fanciful Renaissance arabesques, in which half-conventionalised, half-realistic vegetable forms are blended with animal forms and human masks. Such a ceiling is intended to be coloured, with the vivid pure colour of the Cinquecento, set off by great splashes, bands and touches of gold.

This elaborate form of ceiling came to England at a rather later period. An interesting example is that of the Chapel Royal, St James' Palace, which is attributed to Holbein, and is dated 1540. It is almost flat but slightly coved at the long sides. The wooden base is divided up into a great number of panels by rib mouldings of wood, the background being covered with plaster which is carved into a variety of decorations in high relief. The centres of the panels are filled mostly by Tudor heraldic devices, including the red rose within the white, the Beaufort portcullis, the sun in splendour, fleur-de-lis, Irish harp of excellent outline, winged dragon of Wales, Prince of Wales' feathers con-joined with a sun in splendour, and the royal coat of arms (quarterly France modern and England, i.e., first and fourth quarters blue with three golden fleur-de-lis ; second and third quarters, red with three gold lions, passant guardant, the tongues and claws blue). Many of the ornaments are heavily gilt and shaded boldly with bistre. There are scrolls bearing mottoes such as " Henricus Rex VIII," " H. & A." (Henry and Anne of Cleves), the initials joined by lover's knots, " Vivat Rex, 1540," " Dieu et mon Droit," etc. The background of the panels is painted a dark blue, the mouldings of the ribs are painted green, and are ornamented on the under side with a small running ornament cast in lead. The foliated ornaments are also green, while the heraldic devices and supporters are emblazoned in proper colours. It is a handsome production, though its mundane decoration is more suitable for a State apartment than a church. It has under-gone various repairs, notably by Sir Robert Smirke in 1830, but practically remains in its original condition, thus giving us an interesting and exceptionally fine specimen of the mixed work referred to above. It is a kind of work that found many experimenters and liberal patrons,

Hampton Court offers a most happy hunting ground for those interested in the decorations of ceilings. Not the least noteworthy specimens are the few remaining going back to Wolsey's time. George Cavendish, Gentleman Usher to, and faithful biographer of the great Cardinal, writes enthusiastically about the splendid Thameside Palace, which he watched gradually rise under the commanding genius of his master, who laid all civilised Europe under contribution to embellish this gorgeous cell, where the mighty of the earth were to come and do him homage. Cavendish sings of:

"My buildings sumptuous, the roofs with gold and byse,
Shone like the sun in midday sphere
Craftily entailed, as cunning could devise
With images embossed, and most lovely did appear."

Of these purple ceilings, flashing with gold, something remains. The ceiling of the so-called Cardinal's Closet, at the east side of the Clock Tower, is flat, of wood panels with ribbed octagonal designs of moulded wood and decorative scroll work, balls and leaves of lead being placed at the intersections. Originally the background was painted blue, and the raised patterns gilded. The Cardinal's Withdrawing room, adjoining the Great Hall also has a flat timber ceiling, decorated with moderate sized pendants, terminated by circular cartouches emblazoned with heraldic shields. Between these are fleur-de-lis, Tudor roses, portcullis and other badges, as well as shields with the quartered royal arms, France and England. Moulded ribs of oak divide the ceiling in geometric panels, the whole formerly being richly painted. The great Watching Chamber, or Guard-room, has a low ceiling of intricate ribs and pendants at the intersections. The ribs and pendants are of oak. In the centres of the compartments are oaken wreaths bound by ribbons, enclosing arms and Tudor badges, including the white Yorkish rose within the Lancastrian red rose, Henry VII.'s hawthorn bush, Jane Seymour's phoenix rising from the flames, and her castle with rose bush and phoenix, fleur-de-lis, the arms of France and England quarterly, all in their proper colours and gilt. These ornaments are carried out in a form gesso—in this case apparently a kind of carton pierre, or paper soaked in glue, made into a paste and pressed into moulds.

After the Restoration wood carving became more florid, we have many specimens of combined boarded backgrounds, with plaster or wood ribs, arranged as high relief mouldings or as flat strapwork, and sometimes carved wood framing. But we also have the frankly carved wood specimens associated with the school of Grinling Gibbons. The work of this school, as of the master himself, is marked with con-summate craftsmanship, often keen observance of nature, but very little taste or sense of the appropriate in design. Gib-bons'. long garlands, short swags, drooping sprays of foliage and fruit (often mixed with birds and game, and sometimes supported by naked amoretti) are usually wonderfully close to nature (although occasionally the natural is curiously jumbled with the conventional). The carving is generally in high relief and deeply undercut. You feel that you could pick the various items to smell or taste them, yet the general effect is poor, because too heavy, and seldom seemingly in its right place. The carvings of this school always appear as somewhat obtrusive accessories, not as the obligatory accompaniment or spontaneous outgrowth such as we see in the best Gothic work and of all true decorative art. Of the actual skill of Gibbons there can be no doubt, but he does not belong to the select band of perfect designers. Two good examples of his ceiling work, in different manners, exist in London, and we append a description of these, kindly contributed by Mr Mackenzie MacBride, who has made a special study of this period : " The ceilings carved in lime wood or oak left to us by the great wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, are few in number, and they stand quite apart ; for in England carving in wood of any kind is as much a lost art as is engraving in mezzo-tint since the days of Samuel Cousen and David Lucas, the last of a great tradition. There are specimens of Gibbons' ceilings in the heart ,of London, which, though quite unknown to the public, are nevertheless worth study. I refer to the fine ceiling of the Court Room of the Haberdasher's Company in Gresham Street.

" The Haberdasher's Hall was destroyed, like so many others in the great fire of London, and Sir Christopher Wren was called in to design a new building. In the fire which broke out on the premises of Messrs Tapling, next door, in 1886 or 1887, the great Dining Hall by Wren was almost completely destroyed, the roof being entirely so, but the Court Room and the Drawing-room remained unharmed.

" The ceiling of the Court Room is an admirable piece of work ; as a specimen of Gibbons' carving at his best it would be hard to find work more spirited, delicate, and deliciously suggestive of the lusciousness of fruit and the beauty and freshness of flowers wet with the dew from the walled garden and green, meadows where they grew, than in the splendid triangular panels at the four corners of the ceiling, which are the chief strength of the whole well-planned design. From these panels, which are deeply undercut, and in full relief, the eye passes to the great oblong central space, which forms the centre of the ceiling and throws the work of the carver into prominence. The intervening space is filled with swags of leaves of bay, with grapes and other fruit all in high relief and boldly and deeply undercut.

" Near the entrance are carved and emblazoned the arms of the Company, and the room has a plain and admirably effective frieze of the leaves of the acanthus painted in gold. In the recesses on either side of the fireplace, designed so that they may in no way distract the attention from the great central portion of the scheme, are two oblong panels carved in low relief. The moderation in the carving of these panels strikes one as being well considered. A novice would have exerted himself to beautify them, Gibbons knew that to do so would be to make them centres of observation, and so spoil the spectator's sense of the beauty- and completeness of the whole ceiling, and the great beauty of the four triangular panels set -close by the carver of the restful undecorated oblong in the centre of the room.

" The only jarring note in the work strikes us as being the coat of arms, which, amongst the classical suggestions of the acanthus and other forms of ornament used, gives a suggestion of incongruity, and, in view of the wonderful delicacy of the chief panels, almost of vulgarity. This is, however, little reflection on the designer or the sculptor, for the presence of the arms was inevitable, and the designer, in placing them near the entrance and outside the main design, minimised the evil as far as it was possible.

" One of the excellent points in the decoration of the room is that, though rich of its kind, it is not overdone, as was so apt to be the case in designs of the kind. In this case the large plain central oblong saves us from excess and carries the eye for relief to panels as fine as anything we know in the London neighbourhood.

" Gibbons was seldom reticent. He was German in taste rather than British. As a rule he gave us an orgy: here he has given us only a solid meal, which we can digest and appreciate.

" If the Court Room is strong and effective, the Drawing-room is a triumph of delicacy and daintiness. The design, which is in low relief throughout, centres round a diamond formed of four swags joined at each point by a trefoil, the diamond is overlapped by two circles formed of a string of myrtle leaves on the outside, and decorated inside with a semi-circular arrangement of leaves. In the middle of these rings are radiations springing from the chandeliers : these are surrounded by wreaths of leaves and flowers. At the four corners of the room are ventilators formed out of roses surrounded by wreaths. A cornice formed of vases alternating with honeysuckle adds greatly to the effect. Over the door is a simple swag of silk the walls are panelled throughout. All the decorative carving is painted gold, while the ceiling and walls are cream colour. The whole effect is excellent and admirably suited to the purpose for which the room is intended. It is refined and dainty rather than flamboyant, and there is no note of vulgarity in any part of the scheme. Gibbons and the men of his time delighted in catching the effect of silk in their ribbons and drapings, and here we agree with Ruskin who did not consider such cheap and ephemeral objects worthy of a great craftsman's skill and imitation, in a quite alien material. The presence of the ribbon is the only thing the designer might have left out in a delightful room."

It will be seen that in the main we are in agreement with Mr MacBride. An instance of Gibbons' rather weak designing talent is shown in his treatment of the armorial bearings of the Company, which appear rather obtrusively as outside the scheme, instead of being incorporated with it, and the crudities of a bad period of heraldry, softened by association with floral scrolls, which is certainly the course that the men of the early Renaissance would have taken.

With the Georgian period, this kind of ceiling went out of fashion, and of recent years has been represented practically only, by flat and polygonal construction, the boards being either varnished or coloured in tempera.

Gothic Architecture - Timber Roofs
Moslem Architecture - Ceiling And Roofs
DESIGN STYLES: ARCHITECTURE


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