Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lost Jacobean Plasterwork Ceilings II

The example left was a plasterwork ceiling found in one of the bed chambers at Bampfylde House and covered an area approximately 20ft by 10ft. This ceiling either dated from the first few of decades of the 17th century or, more likely, from the time of the building's construction in the 1590s. In some respects it was similar to the ceiling in the Tudor Room of St Nicholas's Priory. Quatrefoils, a standard motif in both Gothic and Renaissance design are used once again, outlined by thin ribs, but now a square has been added to the centre of each quatrefoil leading to a greater complexity in the overall design.

Plain plasterwork beams divided the ceiling into four panels. In the two larger panels the quartefoils merge, with sprays of flowers festooning the corners of the each of the central squares. The two smaller panels both held a slightly different design, a single quatrefoil and square, but with a greater abundance of floral motifs.

A similar ceiling existed in the dining room, but both that one and the ceiling in the bed chamber were completely destroyed during the air-raid of 01 May 1942.

An even greater loss at Bampfylde House was the elaborate Jacobean plasterwork ceiling in the parlour, also known as the Oak Room. It measured approximately 20ft by 15ft and was certainly one of the greatest examples of its type that had ever been constructed in Exeter below right. It dated to the 1620s or 1630s when the skill of the Jacobean plasterer was at its height and when the most elaborate designs were being executed all across England. Now the emphasis was on the geometric complexity of the pattern and the plainer ribs used in the above-mentioned ceilings had been replaced with what was known as strapwork, heavily decorated plaster ribs that criss-crossed the ceilings in an exuberant display of craftsmanship.

Ceilings such as this were both extremely expensive and time-consuming and were a sign of high status. The techniques would differ from ceiling to ceiling but the general idea was to plaster the ceiling as normal over a series of oak lathes. Once done the plasterer could begin to draw the outline of the design directly onto the flat ceiling before building up the strapwork itself, using moulds to create the cornices and to give each rib a finished appearance. Once the strapwork was complete the application of various motifs could take place. These would all have been prepared from moulds and then applied individually onto the strapwork by hand. In the Oak Room at Bampfylde House most of the strapwork was enriched with a running foliage design but also included the sprays of foliage familiar from other ceilings in Exeter, growing out of the geometric shapes like two-dimensional bunches of flowers. The entire ceiling was destroyed in 1942.

The next ceiling illustrated by Bankart is a slight mystery. It was part of the public house known as the 'Courtenay Arms' which, at least in 1909, was situated near to the church on the eastern side of Mary Arches Street but at the moment I know little about the building or its origins. This is perhaps the most immediately attractive of all of the Exeter ceilings illustrated by Bankart left. The strapwork was slightly less ornate than that seen in the Oak Room at Bampfylde House but all the spaces within the geometric design were flooded with masses of curling flowers and foliage.

And in amongst the thicket of leaves were beautifully naive depictions of birds and animals: a horse; a very cheerful lion with a long, straggling mane; two falcons and a deer; three intertwined fish; dogs with short ears; dogs with long ears; a rabbit; a snake and a very strange creature that looks like a griffin or a dog with wings.

It was an incredible piece of work. It measured approximately 18ft by 15ft and was divided into two panels by a beam, each panel being a rough mirror image of its neighbour. I have no idea what happened to it. The building that housed the ceiling was gone well before World War Two and it's almost certain that the ceiling was destroyed within a few years of its being recorded by Bankart. As far as I'm aware Bankart's illustration is the only depiction of this wonderful ceiling that exists.

The next example is from No. 79 Fore Street, one of the two 17th-century timber-frame houses that together were known as 'The Chevalier Inn' and which stood near the junction of South Street with Fore Street. Like the Oak Room ceiling in Bampfylde House, this ceiling at No. 79 Fore Street featured enriched strapwork but within a slightly less complex geometric design. The date of its installation was somewhere around 1630, soon after the house had been constructed.

The main feature of the design right were three over-lapping quatrefoils but, compared with earlier examples, these quatrefoils were hardily recognisable as such. The curves had been replaced with sharp corners, but the abundance of foliage springing from both the corners of the quatrefoils and the inset squares are very familiar. As at Bampfylde House, the strapwork itself was decorated with a profusion of running leaves that snaked across every part of the corniced ribs. It measured approximately 10ft by 20ft.

The Chevalier Inn had a number of other decorated ceilings of a similar date but with simpler narrow ribs instead of the ornate strapwork highlighted by Bankart. Both of the houses that comprised the inn were totally destroyed in the bombing of 04 May 1942 and all the ceilings were lost forever.

Part three of this post can be found here.


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