Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lost Jacobean Plasterwork Ceilings III

Bankart's penultimate example was to be found at No. 171 Fore Street which stood near the junction of Fore Street with Mary Arches Street. Similar to No. 229 High Street but less well-documented, No. 171 Fore Street was one of the pre-eminent Jacobean townhouses in the city. On the first floor was a magnificent plaster ceiling (left) measuring approximately 14ft by 28ft. Described in 1901 as being "in the style of Inigo Jones", the ceiling was very similar to the strapwork ceiling in the Oak Room at Bampfylde House and was certainly its equal in terms of size, quality and the complexity of the geometric design. As at Bampfylde House, the strapwork ribs on the ceiling at No. 171 were lavishly decorated with a running leaf motif accompanied by intricately modelled sprays of flowers and foliage that sprung from nearly every corner. The ceiling dated from the 1620s or 1630s.

In the early 1930s the entire house was demolished. Ironically, the building that replaced it was itself destroyed in 1942 and so the destruction of the Jacobean building was inevitable one way or another. A few bits of carved woodwork from the facade found their way into the city museum. The early-17th century fittings, including an oak-panelled dining room, were probably sold off although the whereabouts of the panelling is currently unknown. The fate of the magnificent strapwork plaster ceiling is also unknown. It was either taken down in sections and sold or it was destroyed during the demolition, which is exactly what happened to the last of Bankart's featured ceilings.

In 1909, the same year that Blankart's book was published, an edition of the 'The Connoisseur' fine arts periodical featured an article on Exeter's civic plate, regalia and seals. The author also made the following comment: "Among the other sights of Exeter I must mention a portion of a fine sixteenth century ceiling, consisting of panels with floral insets and a coloured frieze showing birds and bosses, which can be seen in its original setting at 38, North Street". My original post on No. 38 North Street can be found here but to recap it was a merchant's house from the 1400s that was remodelled as a Jacobean mansion in the early-17th century. A number of 15th century features survived intact, including windows, fireplaces and the original hall roof, as well as much of the Jacobean remodelling. The entire building, along with its 15th century and late-17th century neighbours, was demolished by Exeter City Council in 1972 to make way for a shopping centre. One of the casualties was the plasterwork ceiling mentioned in 'The Connoisseur'.

Blankart's plan (right) shows only part of the original ceiling. When the building was modified for road-widening the front of the property was taken down and a portion of the front rooms was removed before the original facade was reinstated. This action included the removal of half of the original ceiling. The lost portion was salvaged by the renowned antiquarian and scholar, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and installed at his ancestral home at Lew Trenchard, a small village in West Devon, where it still exists today. (Baring-Gould's Regency birthplace near Dix's Field in Exeter was destroyed during World War Two.)

It's now believed that the ceiling at No. 38 North Street dated to the 1620s rather than being late-16th century, as 'The Connoisseur' suggested. The portion that survived until 1972 consisted of two panels, measuring approximately 24ft by 14ft, divided by a plasterwork beam decorated with vines and leaves, birds and animals. The geometric design was a complex mix of kites and squares infilled with a prodigious display of foliage and fleur-de-lis. Instead of removing it in sections the ceiling was hacked down in 1972 on the orders of the local authority and small fragments found their way into the local museum.

By 1972 the ceiling at No. 38 North Street was the best of its type left in the city, even in its truncated condition. In fact, given the demolitions of the 1930s and the destruction of World War Two, it was one of the very few that were left of any type. Today the only decorated Elizabethan/Jacobean plasterwork ceilings left in Exeter are the ones at the Priory and South Street, both mentioned by Bankart, a relatively complex ceiling at No. 144 Fore Street featuring a camel, monkey and lion, along with other exotic creatures, two at No. 7 Cathedral Close, and a relatively simple, geometric, narrow-ribbed ceiling at No. 1 Cathedral Close but which has none of the lavish adornments that made Jacobean ceilings such works of art. There are none that exhibit the highly ornate Jacobean strapwork once found in Bampfylde House, No. 80 Fore Street or No. 171 Fore Street. There are none that display the abundance of flowers and animals found at No. 38 North Street or the Courtenay Arms.

But there were other ceilings not mentioned by Bankart. In 1915 a group of local antiquarians toured Exeter during their annual meeting. A part of their itinerary included a walk down Paul Street, during which they noted that the north side "is in process of demolition - several ancient houses, including Oriental plastered ceilings and half-timbered fronts, already having been pulled down." The 'Oriental' ceilings were either Elizabethan or Jacobean. An amateur artist recorded one of the Paul Street ceilings in 1915, just prior to its destruction, above © Devon County Council. Her illustration shows an exceptional coved ceiling from the early 17th century complete with the now-familiar enriched Jacobean strapwork and geometric design. No-one kept a record of the demolition of the medieval and Tudor buildings in Paul Street so it's impossible to say what else came tumbling to the ground.

And there was another large ceiling in King Street, probably located in a late-Tudor building that actually stood on Stepcote Hill. It too was recorded by the same amateur artist, in 1912, and whose plan (above © Devon County Council) shows yet another geometric design picked out in narrow plaster ribs with sprays of foliage and a single Tudor rose, the four panels separated by wide plaster beams. This ceiling almost certainly survived until the 1930s at which point, along with almost every other historic feature in the West Quarter, it was demolished as part of the slum clearances. Again, no records were made of the demolition so the historic and architectural losses can only be a matter of conjecture.

And there were others, from the late-17th century, including the ceilings at the Half Moon Inn (demolished in 1912) and the 'Apollo' ceiling at the New Inn (destroyed in 1942).

In 1909 'The Connoisseur' wrote that "Exeter has indeed has much to be proud of - in her possessions, her history, her cathedral and many beautiful buildings, shops, streets and gardens, and her surroundings. Those who once visit this ancient and loyal city will assuredly not fail to retrace their steps again and yet again to this fascinating spot". Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, the fabric of the historic city that survived even as recently as 1909 has almost completely ceased to exist.

Part one of this post can be found here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

3138yes interesting very similar to ceilings (some still extant) in Barnstaple and Totnes. One beautiful example was in the High St Barnstaple which was demolished to make way for Woolworths who themselves are now extinct.

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