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IV – From timber to plaster – British Renaissance Plastwork

From timber to plaster: courtly ceilings in the sixteenth century

Most accounts of English decorative plasterwork take as their starting point the panels applied to the exterior of Nonsuch Palace in the early 1540s. This is to ignore the evidence of experimentation with plaster as a decorative medium in England before this date and leads to over-simplification in the account of subsequent developments. The history of decorative plasterwork in the mid-sixteenth century is one of interwoven strands, which the paucity of evidence makes it difficult to unravel, but the following account will attempt to clarify the issues and suggest some alternative interpretations of the surviving evidence.

No attempt will be made in this chapter to survey the history of decorative plasterwork in the sixteenth century across the whole of the British Isles, either socially or geographically. The regional studies of plasterwork which have so far been undertaken are too few in number to make such an enterprise practicable, and detailed studies of some of the most important centres, such as Bristol, remain to be attempted. It may well be that the great quantity of excellent plasterwork surviving in West Country houses of gentry and yeomen, dating from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, represents experimentation with the new decorative medium that was to prove influential in the region; but further research is needed in this and many other localities to test this hypothesis further.

This study will, therefore, concentrate on the evidence (material and documentary) which points to the influential role played by the court in the dissemination of new fashions in ceiling decoration in the sixteenth century. In the first part of this chapter the innovative ceilings which were designed for Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII in timber and plaster in the first half of the century will be examined, and the contribution of Nicholas Bellin of Modena to the development of English plasterwork assessed. This will be followed by a consideration of the role of royal palaces and aristocratic and senior courtier houses in the expression of these new fashions, in the medium of plaster, in the second half of the century.

Although the number of examples of decorative plasterwork which fall within this last category is rather small, the houses in which they occur are scattered widely across the British Isles. The majority of them were located in London and southern England (and generalisations will refer to English plasterwork) but the Midlands, the north of England and Ireland are also represented. Reference will also be made to plasterwork in Wales but there were no parallel developments in Scotland until later in the sixteenth century.

Decorative plasterwork was used in the second half of the sixteenth century to ornament three specific areas of the English interior, singly or in conjunction: the ceiling, the frieze and the chimneypiece. In all three areas plasterwork drew inspiration from developments which had already taken place in interior decoration using other materials, namely timber and stone. Throughout the period under discussion, friezes continued to be carved in wood, and chimneypieces in wood or stone, alongside their plaster counterparts. Only on the ceiling did plaster come to dominate the decorative scene in England in a manner which was unknown in the rest of Europe. However, as the plasterers at first followed very closely in the footsteps of the joiners who were responsible for much of the innovatory ceiling decoration of the first decades of the sixteenth century, some account must first be taken of developments in ceiling design in those years, a period of rapid change in interior decoration as a whole.

Early developments in ceiling

From the fourteenth century onwards, rooms were increasingly provided with mural fireplaces which meant that they no longer had to be left open to the roof to allow smoke to escape from an open hearth. Now they could be boarded or plastered to ceil them, reducing draughts and dirt. The creation of flat timber ceilings was not unknown in medieval palaces, but their costliness restricted their use to the houses of the wealthy.[1]It should also be pointed out here that ceiling was an alternative spelling for sealing and could refer to the covering of walls as well as ceilings, whether with plaster or timber panelling.

Flat timber ceilings were created in one of two ways: sometimes with a slight pitch, sometimes completely flat. They could be entirely boarded with planks, creating a flat field to which wooden battens were then applied in a variety of rectilinear patterns, usually based on squares or lozenges. These designs were known as fretwork, regardless of their style or the materials used in their execution. A particularly rich effect was obtained by the insertion of carved wooden tracery or cusping in the panels so created, as on the ceiling of the Beauty Room in Henry VIIs tower at Windsor Castle (1500-02) (Fig. 7).

Many of the patterns produced with ribs or battens on the flat surfaces of these timber ceilings are to be found in medieval churches, executed in stone or timber on curved vaults or flat roofs. The continuity of this tradition of roof decoration was to prove an important strand not only in the design of decorative plaster ceilings but also in their embellishment. Links with the medieval past are particularly apparent in the practice of placing bosses and/or pendants at the intersections of the beams or ribs, familiar from several centuries of ecclesiastical masonry and timber vaulting. On domestic timber ceilings this practice may have served a functional purpose, since it concealed any failures in the mitreing; but the bosses also helped to break up the expanse of relatively flat surface in the larger ceilings. Both bosses and pendants might also be ornately carved, increasing the decorative effect of the ceiling. The four leaves which typically radiated from the bosses into the corners of the rectilinear panels were more likely to be made of lead than wood, so that they could be bent up onto the ceiling more easily.[2]

Fig. 7. A measured drawing of the ceiling of the Beauty Room at Windsor Castle (1500-02).

Documentary records provide no certain evidence as to the specific appearance of patterned ceilings since all rib designs were termed frets. For example, when Richard Ridge, a joiner, set up new battens in the roof of the kings privy chamber at Greenwich in 1536-37 after the anttycke faccon, this may refer to the layout of the ribs but is just as likely to refer to the enrichment of the battens themselves, for which gilded lead antick was supplied by John Hethe.[3]

However, documentation is invaluable for another entirely traditional element that emerged in the decoration of the panels between the timber battens of the ceilings of Tudor royal palaces. Heraldry played a key role in this area, as evidenced by the plethora of heraldic badges, mottoes, cyphers and coats-of-arms that were listed.

An alternative method of ceiling was to leave the main structural timbers exposed, using moulded timber ribs to break up the rectilinear fields, laying them in parallel with the larger beams to create smaller squares or rectangles. Decorative carving of the woodwork added greatly to the ornamental effect of this form of ceiling, which continued to be constructed throughout the sixteenth century. They could, however, easily appear overwhelming if not scaled to suit the size of the room, as in the Withdrawing Room at Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire (c.1559), where the great timbers of the ceiling bear down oppressively on the spectator (Fig. 51).[4]Such a quantity of expensive oak must have resulted in a rather gloomy interior and this was no doubt the prime reason for the increasing use of plaster on ceilings.

At Muchelney Abbey, Somerset (c.1470) the Cheese Room was ceiling entirely in oak but in the Abbots Parlour a much brighter effect was achieved. The structural timbers remained exposed but the rectangular fields they created were filled with plaster, on which were laid moulded wooden ribs, sub-dividing the fields into smaller rectangles (Fig. 8). This ceiling must have demonstrated very clearly the advantages of plaster over timber in terms of lightness and, probably, expense. This format, of a ceiling divided into quarters by the main cross beams, with the areas between the beams plastered, survived well into the seventeenth century and will be encountered again during the discussion of decorative plasterwork later in this study.

Fig. 8. Plan showing layout of ceilings at Muchelney Abbey, Somerset. (From T Garner & A Stratton,The Domestic Architecture of England during the Tudor Period,1911).

Early decorative plaster ribs and bosses

A more significant step, from the point-of-view of the plasterer, was taken at Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire (c.1480). Although the original ceiling of the hall was demolished in the nineteenth century, it had been recorded by J C Buckler in 1823, showing that the plaster panels between the timber beams were decorated with plaster ribs. One of the square bosses that covered the intersection of the ribs survives in the house and it, too, was made using plaster (Fig. 9). Drawings were made of all the bosses, many of which were decorated with mottoes and badges of Thomas Tropenell, the builder of the house.[5]This would appear to be the earliest example of plaster used for decorative purposes on a ceiling and its appearance in a gentry house suggests that experiments with plaster were likely to occur in houses where patrons might not have had the resources to invest in a roof entirely of timber. As the hall at Great Chalfield has windows along both its long sides, considerations of lightness were probably not the prime motivation in the choice of plaster rather than timber.

Fig. 9. Watercolour of the hall of Great Chalfield Manor, Wiltshire, in 1823 by J C Buckler, held in the house.

Plane plaster surfaces, new timber-rib patterns and a painted fret

The advantages in lightness and economy must have applied equally to those ceilings where the structural timbers were completely covered and a plane surface created. Provided a smooth surface was achieved, plastering the ceiling would result in just as satisfactory a field for the application of further decoration as a timber ceiling. The ability of plasterers to achieve an even surface must have been a crucial factor in this development, and the increasing use of the designation plasterer, rather than dauber or pargetter, probably reflects the growing importance of this skill. Brief mention was made in Chapter I of the use of gypsum plaster on ceilings in Henry VIIIs palaces and houses to provide a smooth surface for the joiners to decorate with timber frets. This suggests that the plasterers were able to fulfil this requirement to the kings satisfaction at least by the 1530s. In fact, some of them must already have acquired the necessary expertise by the 1520s, when they were similarly employed by Cardinal Wolsey at Hampton Court and by the 1st or 2nd Lord Marney at Layer Marney, Essex, where two such ceilings have survived, which are deemed to date from the years immediately preceding the death of the 2nd Lord Marney in 1525. While one of these consists of ribs of two widths laid very simply lozenge-wise, the second combines octagons, hexagons and Greek crosses in a style more commonly associated with Italian Renaissance designs (Fig. 10), which will be discussed further below.

Fig. 10. Rib layouts on ceilings from Layer Marney Hall, Essex (early 1520s). (From T Garner & A Stratton,The Domestic Architecture of England during the Tudor Period,1911).

When speed was essential, as was the case for Nicholas Poyntz (who had only a short time to prepare lodgings at Acton Court prior to a visit by Henry VIII in 1535), a smooth gypsum surface could be embellished with atrompe loeilfret pattern in oil paint as a substitute for timber ribs. As illustrated in Chapter I (Fig. 3), the ceiling of the kings bedchamber at Acton Court was reconstructed by the archaeologist, Kirsty Rodwell, revealing a pattern of ribs painted with a central band of yellow ochre, flanked by outer borders of a darker orange-brown, to create the effect of timber ribs against a white ground.[6]The ceiling was further embellished with fully three-dimensional bosses, or bullions, held in place with metal pins. A geometric pattern was created on the ceiling based on a hexagonal grid of interlocking diamonds. This was complemented by a painted frieze and overmantel of early Renaissance character, similar to the friezes for which there is evidence in the other two rooms of the range. The high quality of the painting of these friezes (which is best seen in the central room) (Fig. 4) has suggested that Poyntz may have had access to artists who usually worked for the court. It is noticeable, however, that the fashionableallanticadesign of the frieze, with its classicizing roundels and grotesques, is not matched by the pattern on the ceiling.

This visually disconcerting pattern from Acton Court, based on regular diamonds, seems to have enjoyed some popularity in courtier houses between the 1520s and 1540s. With variations and using timber ribs it was to be found at Knole, Kent (in the Brown Gallery and Spangle Bedroom,c.1520), The Vyne, Hampshire (in the chamber over the chapel, 1525-6)

Fig. 11. The ceiling of the gallery at Bermondsey Abbey. (From T Garner & A Stratton,The Domestic Architecture of England during the Tudor Period,1911).

and at Bermondsey Abbey, South London (in the Gallery of Sir Thomas Popes post-Dissolution conversion,c.1540) (Fig. 11).[7]One of the motifs that emerges is a hexagonal star made up of diamonds but it is quite difficult to focus on this outline as the eye moves over the ceiling.

A rather different hexagonal design was devised for the ceiling of one of the rooms created in Cardinal Wolseys lodgings at Hampton Court between 1526 and 1528 (Fig. 12). Six-petalled flowers of a regular but unusual outline are repeated across the ceiling. Hispano-Moorish patterns come to mind as a possible source, hinting at the possibility that Katharine of Aragon may have acted as a conduit for such an influence to reach England.

However, none of these patterns was to be repeated in plaster. Whether this was because they went out of fashion or because they did not find favour with plasterers is not clear. The hexagonal gridmay have proved less easy to manipulate than the rectilinear gridswhich formed the basis of the majority of plaster ceilings in the second half of the century.

Fig. 12. A ceiling in Cardinal Wolseys Lodgings, Hampton Court (1526-8). (From L Turner,Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain,1927).

The ceilings of the Spangle Bedroom at Knole and the chamber over the chapel at The Vyne are not confined to hexagonal outlines but also include an eight-pointed star which was to prove one of the most enduringly popular design motifs throughout the sixteenth century. It is made up of eight kite-shaped panels and plasterers found that they could create a wide diversity of patterns based on it, by the addition of ribs or by overlapping the outlines. An early variant can be seen in another of Cardinal Wolseys ceilings at Hampton Court (Fig. 13) and it will be encountered again and again on plaster ceilings.

Decorated timber ribs for Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII

In his perpetual striving for novelty and opulence the overweening cardinal was one of the most influential builders and innovative interior decorators in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century. Two ceilings in what were his lodgings at Hampton Court are the only survivors from the numerous sumptuous interiors which drew paeans of praise from overseas visitors (Fig.12-13).[8]It is for the decoration of their ribs that they are particularly significant. Although the ribs of the ceilings were still made of wood, they represented a new departure in the experimental technique of their construction. Instead of carving the timber ribs to increase their decorative value, strips ofgrotesquework cast in lead were slotted along the centre.

Fig. 13. A ceiling in Cardinal Wolseys lodgings, Hampton Court (1526-8) (From L Turner,Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain,1927).

This type of Early Renaissance ornament was referred to as antick in the royal accounts of the following decade, when the technique was applied to ceilings created for Henry VIII. When his Holyday Closet was decorated in 1536, strips of antick from the same moulds used on Wolseys ceilings were attached along both sides of the ribs that were laid out in another variant of the eight-pointed star. Grotesquework was one of the most influential elements of antique Roman decoration recovered during excavations in Rome in the late fifteenth century. There is, however, no evidence that any of the Italian artists working for Henry were involved in the actual production of the antick elements for the interiors of his palaces; the names of the craftsmen involved which appear in the accounts are either English, Flemish or German.[9]By the time that plasterers were creating enriched ribs, towards the end of the century, antick was no longer in fashion; but it seems highly likely that it was these ceilings at Hampton Court that inspired plasterers to experiment with the decoration of their ribs.

Ceilings embodying the eight-pointed star motif point to the continuity within the native tradition of the influence of masonry ribbed vaulting. This was markedly reinforced by the application to timber-rib ceilings of bosses and pendants. The decoration of the intersections of ribs in this way was to continue on wholly plaster ceilings throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is in the Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court that the earliest known surviving examples of pendants decorating a wood-and-plaster ceiling are to be found.(Fig. 14). In October 1535 a joiner turned twenty-five timber pendants for the fret of the roof, which were then cut and carved by Richard Ridge. Some weeks later Ridge was responsible for making, finishing and setting up the fret in the roof, the pendants requiring iron vices (screws) for fixing them in place.[10]The pendants were not simply attached to the flat ceiling, but where the ribs met at the centre of the stars they were pulled downwards and the pendants then screwed on. Here is an echo of the kind of Gothic vaulting which was familiar in England from ecclesiastical examples and it is noteworthy that this interruption of the flat plane of the ceiling and the attachment of pendants were both features which played a significant role in later plaster ceilings. The ceiling of the Inlaid Chamber at Sizergh Castle, Westmorland (c.1580) is but one of several examples which reproduce the Great Watching Chamber entirely in plaster (Fig. 44).

Documentary sources indicate that pendants very often continued to be made of wood, rather than plaster, for lightness. Extremely large pendants, such as the one over the staircase at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, were usually carved by a joiner, in this case, by Robert Lyming in 1628 (Fig. 16).[11]Once whitewash has been applied the difference in material is not normally visible to the naked eye, but at Hardwick Court, Oxfordshire, one of the pendants has slipped out of place and left exposed the cracked wood of its unpainted spindle (Fig. 16).

Fig. 14. The ceiling of the Great Watching Chamber, Hampton Court (1535). (From Joseph Nash,Mansions of England in the Olden Time

Fig. 15. The pendant in the ceiling originally over the Great Stairs at Blickling Hall, Norfolk (c.1620).

Fig. 16. A boss showing its timber spindle on the ceiling of the Great Chamber, Hardwick Court, Oxon (c.1610).

In his pursuit of fashion and novelty Henry VIII created two ceilings of great elaboration and richness dating fromc.1540. One of these was the ceiling of the Chapel Royal at St Jamess Palace, which bears the date 1540, and the presence of numerous heraldic motifs associated with Anne of Cleves, who married Henry VIII in that year, confirms that this date was not a later addition (Fig. 18). The wooden panels painted with these motifs are set within a timber framework of narrow ribs, enriched with the same kind of lead antick as at Hampton Court. The pattern created by the ribs is

derived from an antique Roman, but Christian, source in the ambulatory of the church of Santa Costanza.[12]The pattern had been used by Peruzzi to decorate a ceiling of the Cancelleria in 1520 and was subsequently included by Sebastiano Serlio (who had been apprenticed to Peruzzi) among the designs for ceilings in hisRegole Generale di Architettura, published in Venice in 1537, where no reference is made to the ecclesiastical source of the pattern (Figs. 18 &19).[13]

Fig. 17. Ceiling of the Chapel Royal, St Jamess Palace (c.1540). (C J Richardson,Architectural Remains of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I(1838).

Fig. 18. Serlio, Book IV, f. 68v, top left (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611).

Fig. 19. Serlio, Book IV, f. 69r, bottom right (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611).

This design was, however, known in England prior to the appearance of Serlios published volumes. Its earliest manifestation in this country would appear to be in the ceiling at Layer Marney of the early 1520s (Fig. 10). In truncated form it figured in the woodcarving decorating the screen and stalls of another chapel – that of Kings College, Cambridge. This was also a royal commission and it, too, can be dated by the carving of emblems associated with one of Henry VIIIs wives – the appearance of Anne Boleyns initials implies a date before her execution in 1536.[14]It may simply have been the presence of crosses which made the pattern seem suitable for the decoration of chapels, although the crosses are hardly intelligible as such on the coves of the screen and stalls of Kings College Chapel, which do not provide sufficient room for a single full repeat of the motif. Whether its early Christian origins might have influenced its choice for decorating the entire ceiling at St Jamess Palace can only be a matter for speculation, in the absence of any firm evidence. While it is possible that the design was chosen to carry the heraldic badges of Henry and his Protestant queen in an early manifestation of Protestant identification with the early Church it is perhaps more likely that it was selected simply in accordance with current fashionable tastes for Renaissance decorative motifs.

Fig. 20. Serlio, Book IV, f. 68v, bottom left (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611).

The second Henrician ceiling ofc.1540 which uses a pattern to be found in Serlio was created in the room at Hampton Court christened in the nineteenth century Wolseys Closet (Figs. 21 & 22).

Fig. 21.Top:Serlio, Book IV, f. 69r, top right (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611);bottom: drawing of detail of Wolseys Closet ceiling (from M Jourdain,English Decorative Plasterwork of the Renaissance, 1926).

The decoration of the room is partly the result of nineteenth-century remodelling and the ceiling must certainly have post-dated the cardinal, since it includes the Prince of Wales feathers, alluding to the birth of Prince Edward in 1537.[15]However, although this particular use of the Serlian pattern post-dates the publication of his book (and follows the style of decoration described and illustrated by Serlio very closely, with patterned fields and plain ribs), it was not the first occasion on which this rib design had been used on an English ceiling. An apparently much earlier example was to be found in one of the offices of New Palace Yard, Westminster, and was drawn by two nineteenth-century artists before its demolition, showing the Serlian rib design combined with Gothic cusped ornament around the edges of the fields, which Serlio either left plain or filled with antick.[16]This would suggest that this was another pattern available to the Royal Works before it appeared in Serlios published volume. Clearly patterns such as those popularised by Serlios book were available to avant-garde patrons prior to publication. The point has been made that there seems to be a tendency for a burst of engraved ornament to appear after, rather than during, the birth of a style in a court centre and this would seem to apply to Serlios publication of designs that had already been used in Italian and English court settings.[17]It is possible that loose sheets from the book circulated before being bound and published;[18]or perhaps drawings were transmitted by way of the Italian artists working for Cardinal Wolsey and Henry, or the diplomats who travelled on behalf of the cardinal and the king to Italy and France.

Whatever the means of transmission of these designs, two points need to be made in connection with their appearance in England. The first concerns Serlios own sources, and his claim that the designs which he illustrated in Book IV, Chapter 12, were for the most part, taken from antiquity.[19]This claim has tended to obscure the fact that several of the patterns would have been familiar to a medieval audience. For example, among the garden designs the barbed quatrefoil makes an appearance (Fig. 22), a motif found in decorative work in many different media throughout the Gothic period; and the hexagonal-armed cross which occurs in several of the ceiling patterns can also be found in Gothic vaulting (see Fig. 20).

Fig. 22. Serlio, Book IV, f. 69v, top left (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611).

This is not to deny the subsequent importance of Serlio (especially his Books III and IV) as a transmitter and populariser of many aspects of contemporary Italian design, but rather to suggest that, in the sphere of ornament, he drew together designs from a living European heritage which did not derive exclusively from Roman antiquity nor the Italian Renaissance and which did not, necessarily, need to rely on published sources for its transmission. Furthermore, the publication of designs which had originated in court circles probably meant that they were thus devalued in the eyes of their fashion-conscious patrons, providing the stimulus for further innovations from court artists.

The second point arising from the use of Serlian designs in England relates to the way in which they were perceived by English craftsmen. The ceiling layout for Wolseys lodging at Hampton Court (Fig. 13) can be associated most readily with Serlios eight-pointed star design (Fig. 23), but the complex patterns created by the additional ribs in the English ceiling tend to blur the simple geometry of Serlios outline and lend it a Gothic flavour. Moreover, it was in this form of a star with eight kite-shaped arms that the design became one of the most popular of rib-layouts during the remainder of the sixteenth century. Reference has also been made to the use of cusping to decorate apparently Renaissance rib patterns, and it would seem that English craftsmen found no difficulty in assimilating these imported designs and interpreting them within the context of their native decorative vocabulary.

Fig. 23. Serlio, Book IV, f. 68v, bottom right (Dover facsimile ofThe Five Books of Architecture, 1611).

What is more, as has already been pointed out, Wolseys ceilings do not follow Serlio in the application of antick ornament to the fields between the ribs (unlike the t