In 1909 a book was published, written by George Bankart and entitled 'The Art of the Plasterer'. It was a comprehensive survey of the art of plasterwork decoration in England from the 16th to the 18th century, extensively illustrated with numerous plans and photographs. In researching the book Bankart visited Exeter and wrote the following, prophetic words: "Exeter is rich in examples of seventeenth-century plasterwork. Numerous examples of the interlacing square and kite-shaped panels formed by single moulded beams abound in this city" but which, he added, were "rapidly disappearing".
Bankart selected the city's finest remaining examples for use as illustrations in his book. He left out some notable ceilings, including the late-17th century examples at the Custom House, at the Half Moon Inn and the 'Apollo' ceiling at the New Inn, but he did include what were Exeter's greatest surviving Jacobean decorated ceilings, at No. 229 High Street, Bampfylde House, No. 38 North Street, St Nicholas's Priory, the 'Courtenay Arms' in Mary Arches Street, No. 171 Fore Street, No. 79 Fore Street (part of the 'Chevalier Inn') and No. 67 South Street. Shockingly, only two of these buildings survive today (part of the Benedictine priory and No. 67 South Street), the rest having been either demolished or destroyed.
The ceiling in the parlour at St Nicholas's Priory is Elizabethan and is probably the earliest surviving decorative plasterwork ceiling in Exeter top. Some of the Priory's buildings were converted into a townhouse at the time of the Reformation in the 1530s and later additions in the 1580s included the insertion of the ceiling. The design is relatively simple: a series of large quatrefoils delineated by narrow raised ribs and spread out over the ceiling at regular intervals, the internal corners blossoming into sprays of foliage and variations on the fleur-de-lis motif. The quatrefoils are joined together with rhombuses, elaborated with further bursts of foliage, inset into which are little four-petalled stylised flowers. Another motif is the Tudor rose which appears six times and the presence of which helped to give the parlour its alternative name: the Tudor Room. The ceiling has survived intact and can be visited at Exeter today.
A second early ceiling to survive is the one at No. 67 South Street right. This dates probably to the early years of the 17th century. The decorative plasterwork displayed here is minimal. The ceiling is divided into two panels by a beam. The edges of each panel feature a moulded cornice and where the cornice meets a spray of flowers blooms from each mitred corner. Bankart states that the modelling of the sprays in particular are "of much interest". This ceiling is not accessible to the public, but at least it still exists.
Of the greatest architectural and historic importance was No. 229 High Street, a treasure store of late-Elizabethan and Jacobean interior design. In one of the rooms was a large decorative plasterwork ceiling measuring 20ft by 20ft below left. This was probably created c1585 for the building's exceptionally wealthy owner, George Smith. It was infinitely more complex than the ceiling at St Nicholas's Priory. The design was based on a series of geometric shapes, squares and triangles joined together with curves and loops and all picked out by raised ribs. There were flourishes of fleur-de-lis and other floral motifs, and in each corner, set into a square, was the profile of a lion passant.
Appearing no less than six times within the design were the initials of Queen Elizabeth the First: ER. No. 229 was demolished in 1930 and the interiors were flogged off to William Randolph Hearst in the United States.
The loss of No. 229 is succinctly summarised by Peter Thomas in his book 'The Changing Face of Exeter': "The destruction of many of Exeter's buildings is more than regrettable, being an indictment of attitudes towards the city's historical fabric. The utter destruction of No. 229 High Street was perhaps one of the worst examples."
No. 229 High Street had a number of late-Tudor plasterwork ceilings. At least one was salvaged and appears today in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City along with intricately carved Jacobean panelling and a magnificent early-17th century fire surround and overmantel, also from No. 229, but the fate of the ceiling with the initials of Elizabeth the First and illustrated by George Bankart is unknown. It was either salvaged and sold or it was destroyed during the demolition.
Part two of this post can be found here.