Chapter V
The London Evidence


In recent years the regional approach adopted by several authors to the study of decorative plasterwork in England before 1700 has proved highly illuminating.[1] Although individual plasterers can rarely be connected with particular examples of decorative plasterwork, it has proved possible to identify the presence of different workshops within regions, primarily through the analytical technique of establishing the repeated use of the same moulds at different sites. The question therefore arises whether this kind of regional approach is appropriate to the study of decorative plasterwork produced in London in this period.

The regions which have been the subject of recent studies - Yorkshire, Somerset, Hertfordshire and Devon - have plentiful examples of surviving plasterwork, but very few documentary sources to provide information about the plasterers involved and the organisation of their trade. The City of London, by contrast, is rich in documentary records of this kind but has almost no surviving plasterwork in situ and very few building accounts to associate particular craftsmen with those examples which have been preserved or recorded.

To overcome this handicap, the area under investigation has been widened to include the whole of what is, now, Greater London. The justification for this geographical extension is based on the fact that, even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the jurisdiction of the Plasterers' Company extended beyond the twenty-six wards of the City into the suburbs, which were growing rapidly during this period. What is more, as wealthy men moved even further out of the City to areas which were then countryside, the likelihood would be that plasterers from London would continue to be employed by them, not least because there was no other obvious source of labour available.

The scope of the study has also been widened to include houses in counties even further afield, where the plasterwork is either known to have been the work of London plasterers - Edward Stanyon at Blickling Hall, for example - or of the royal Master Plasterer - Richard Dungan at Knole and James Leigh at Hatfield House.

Against this background, the investigation will then be broadened to encompass several houses where the plasterwork can be related to the examples of London plasterwork already identified.The discussion of this last group will include consideration of the criteria upon which such identifications can reasonably be made in the absence of documentary evidence.For example, Audley End, the most palatial courtier house of the early seventeenth century, with a large amount of surviving decorative plasterwork but no building accounts, will be included in this category.

The sites in Greater London are listed in Table 5 (full details will be supplied in the Gazetteer) and maps showing their locations are to be found below. On the basis of this material, the study of London plasterwork will be divided into two sections: first, the examples which would generally be categorised stylistically as Elizabethan and Jacobean will be examined; and in the final chapter the influence of Inigo Jones on London's plasterers will be assessed. There will, of necessity, be some overlap between these two groups. In both sections, consideration will be given to the type of patronage involved and the relationship which existed between court and City in the development of styles of decorative plasterwork in London.









Adelina Grove, Stepney (demol’d)

Middx/Tower Hamlets



Balmes House, Hackney (demol’d)




Bolingbroke House, Battersea (demol’d)




Boston Manor House, Brentford




Bow Manor House (demol’d)

Middx/Tower Hamlets



Bow, Admiral Drake’s house (in 1840) (demol’d)

Middx/Tower Hamlets



‘Old Palace’, Bromley-by-Bow (demol’d)

Middx/Tower Hamlets



Brooke House, Hackney (demol’d)




Bury Hall, Edmonton (demol’d)




Canonbury House, Islington




Charlton House, Greenwich








Cromwell House, Highgate




Crosby Hall Chambers, 25 Bishopsgate Within (demol’d)




Eagle House, Wimbledon




Eltham Palace (demol’d)




EnfieldPalace (demol’d)




Essex House, Putney (demol’d)




Fishmongers’ Hall (demol’d)




17, Fleet Street




Forty Hall, Enfield




Fowler’s House, Islington (demol’d)




Goldsmiths’ Hall (demol’d)




Goodman’s Yard, Minories (demol’d)




Gravel Lane, Houndsditch (demol’d)





Inn Lane
, Holborn (demol’d)




Great Campden House, Kensington (demol’d)


Kensington & Chelsea



Greenwich Palace (demol’d)




Hall Place
, Bexley




Ham House




Hampton Court Palace




Hart Street
, Crutched Friars aka Sharrington House,
Mark Lane




Holland House, Kensington (demol’d)

Middx/Kensington & Chelsea



Kew Palace




Lambert’s House, Woodford (demol’d)




Lambeth Butts, Swan Yard (demol’d)




Leathersellers’ Hall, Bishopsgate (demol’d)




Lumley Chapel, Cheam




Mildmay House, Newington Green (demol’d)




Sir John Miller’s house (Pied Bull Inn) (demol’d)




Nonsuch Palace (demol’d)




Oldbourn Hall,

Shoe Lane




Sir Paul Pindar’s house, Bishopsgate (demol’d)




Plasterers’ Hall,

Wood Street




151 High Street
, Poplar (demol’d)

Middx/Tower Hamlets



Queen’s Head PH,

Essex Road
, Islington




Reynardson’s house, Tottenham (demol’d)




St James’s Palace




St Katharine Cree Church, Aldgate




Salisbury House, Strand (demol’d)




Shrewsbury House, Coldharbour (demol’d)




Skinners’ Hall, Dowgate Hill (demol’d)




Somerset House, Strand (demol’d)




150-154 Borough High Street
, Southwark




Stone Hall, Wanstead




Swakeleys, Ickenham




Syon House, Brentford




Tiptoft’s Inn,

45-48 Lime Street




Tottenham Priory




Whitehall Palace (demol’d)




Whitecross Street
, a house (demol’d)




19 Widegate Street
, Bishopsgate (demol’d)




Wimbledon House (demol’d)




Winchester House,

Old Broad Street


Map 1. Sites with decorative plasterwork in the City of London and its immediate environs, 1550 -1660

Adapted from maps of 16th- and 17th-century London in H Clout (ed), The Times London History Atlas, London, 1991).

Map 2. Sites with decorative plasterwork within the counties around London, 1550 – 1660.

(Adapted from maps of 16th- and 17th-century London in H Clout (ed), The Times London History Atlas, London, 1991).

The examples of plasterwork which have been identified demonstrate the acceptability of plaster as a decorative medium in a wide variety of interiors created for Londoners during the period covered by this study. The range of building types encompasses domestic, corporate and ecclesiastical buildings, created for a broad spectrum of patrons, and a consideration of these aspects of the subject will serve as an introduction to the analysis which follows.

The majority of the buildings listed served primarily as residential accommodation for their owners. They ranged in scale from palatial aristocratic mansions to lesser courtier houses, and the dwellings of City men, whether merchants or professionals. As for the settings, they could be found in the City itself, the City of Westminster, the suburbs or the countryside around London.

In terms of surviving plasterwork, it is unlikely that these various kinds of patronage are represented at all equitably in this survey. Virtually nothing from the royal palaces remains; and the Great Fire of 1666 must have destroyed numerous examples which existed within the City walls.Map 1. indicates very clearly the area over which losses were sustained, with nothing left in the centre, the west or the south-west of the City, which might have been recorded before demolition was again threatened in the nineteenth century.

As a consequence, many of the examples of plasterwork produced for London patrons are drawn from the houses in the suburbs or countryside around London, which they built or redecorated. These are shown on Map 2. and can be grouped in several categories, according to the status of the patron and the function which the house fulfilled.

Aristocratic courtiers who possessed a great house on a country estate, would also require a town house close to the court, which could mean a house in the City, such as the Marquess of Winchester's house in Broad Street, or, increasingly in the seventeenth century, a house in Westminster, such as Robert Cecil's Salisbury House.

In addition, a secondary country house might be sited fairly close to London, such as the Earl of Northumberland's Syon House, Middlesex or Sir Thomas Cecil's Wimbledon House, Surrey. Houses in similar proximity to London might be built by lesser courtiers, but for patrons like them, the house would probably serve as a principal residence, as in the case of Sir Walter Cope's Holland House, Kensington, and Sir Adam Newton's Charlton House, Greenwich.

Some extremely wealthy City men, like Sir Paul Pindar, were content with a City mansion despite having connections with the court; but others followed the courtiers into the outlying suburbs and countryside, including Sir John Spencer at Canonbury House, Islington and Sir Baptist Hicks at Great Campden House, Kensington.[2] Hicks was sufficiently affluent and well-connected to aspire to a country estate in addition, but the reputation for magnificence of Campden Manor House, Gloucestershire, was almost all that survived its destruction during the Civil War.[3]

It was, however, very common for houses in the City to be rented or leased rather than owned freehold, and this means that it is not always a straightforward matter to identify the tenant who was in residence at the time that decorative plasterwork was introduced into the house, even when it is dated; for this reason, the patrons of the ceilings of the house in Hart Street (Map 1.32) and of Oldbourn Hall have remained anonymous. The owners of some of the suburban houses, such as Essex House, Putney and Bury Hall, Edmonton, have also remained elusive; and it has not proved possible to discover the patron of the plasterwork at even such a prominent suburban building as Bromley ‘Old Palace’.

Where the owner of a house did not aspire to a coat-of-arms, the shield of the London company to which he belonged might be displayed, which indicated his occupation, at least. This can now serve to identify the London origin of the owners of houses in suburban/rural settings such as Lambert, the grocer's, (demolished) house at Woodford, Essex; or the unknown house of a member of the Dyers' Company, whence the ceiling now at Stone Hall, Wanstead, Essex, was rescued.

Decorative plasterwork for institutions

Livery Company Halls

Although domestic interiors account for the vast majority of decorative plasterwork in London during this period, the halls of the London companies, symbolising the wealth and prestige of the members, also received appropriate decorative treatment.[4]Fretwork ceilings sometimes contributed to the opulent appearance of hall, parlour or court room but none of these has survived intact and drawings of only one company hall remain to suggest the appearance of such decoration.For the others, documentary evidence is all that is available to provide clues to the nature of the decorative plasterwork.

In 1596 the Skinners employed two plasterers, Richard Ratcliffe and Robert Gassett, working in partnership, to carry out 'Fretting' which involved 'crestinge the seeling in the newe parlore' of their Hall.[5] This sounds as though a display of heraldry was involved, probably the arms of the company and the City, in similar fashion to the early domestic examples which have already been mentioned.

The hall of the Leathersellers Company was completely re-roofed in 1608-09 and from December 1609-August 1610 Richard Ratcliffe, working on his own on this occasion, provided a decorative plaster ceiling and window soffits.[6] Fortunately, the results of Ratcliffe’s endeavours were recorded in drawings of the hall before its demolition (Fig. 59).[7]

Fig. 59. View of the hall ceiling and window soffits in the Leathersellers’ Company Hall, published by J P Malcolm in Londinium Redivivum, Vol 3, 1805, 562.

These drawings reveal a ceiling whose surface is broken by plaster 'stalactites' with terminal pendants, creating an effect almost of groin vaulting. These were provided by the carpenter, John Biddle [or Beadle], who received £10 in December 1609 'for the pendentes and halfe pendentes and the wormanshippe [sic] for the seelinge of our hall which he is nowe in hand with'. The rib design was embellished with floral sprays but of the badges which filled the fields, it is only possible to distinguish (in Malcolm's drawing) the shield of the City of London. An entry in the Court minutes for 22nd August 1610, however, provides evidence that the badges of the company were also included, since 'Richard Radcliff, plasterer, havinge finished the seelinge in the hall and delivered unto the wardens the mouldes of the companies armes, the bucke, the ramme and the goate then he to receave in full payment the some of fower poundes and soe to seale the Company a general release'.Presumably the Company had supplied Ratcliffe with the moulds of their badges and was not going to allow him to make use of them on plasterwork for other patrons.

Ratcliffe had been a member of the Plasterers' Company livery since 1585, was Master in 1607-08 and 1613-14, and survived until 1625.[8] In his long and successful working career he must have been responsible for other examples of decorative plasterwork in London, but with only drawings of his recorded work as evidence it is impossible to reconstruct an oeuvre for him.

One imagines that the Plasterers would have wanted a particularly sumptuous ceiling for their own hall when William Willingham fretted it in 1635, but sadly its appearance was never recorded.[9] Decorative plasterwork was also recorded in the garden gallery of the Fishmongers' Company in 1631, where a plain frieze of plaster of Paris above the wainscot panelling was to set off a lime and hair fret ceiling.[10] The new Hall built for the Goldsmiths' Company in the late 1630s also received decorative plaster ceilings but this example will be considered in relation to the influence of Inigo Jones in Chapter VII.


After the death of Thomas Sutton in 1611, his executors were charged with the conversion of the Charterhouse from a London mansion (whose plasterwork was discussed in Chapter IV) to a hospital and school, which necessitated some alterations, including the provision of a schoolhouse.

Although the work required was not extensive, the executors and Governors chose to call on the best talent available in London, including James Leigh, the royal Master Plasterer, for what was both a charitable and prestigious undertaking.Leigh's decoration of the schoolhouse in 1613-14 demonstrates the desire of the Governors to leave their mark on the new building for which they were responsible. It was their shields, together with the royal arms, which Leigh supplied to adorn the ceiling of the schoolhouse, in time for the opening of the new institution in 1614.[11]

It is less clear who was responsible for the interior decoration of the Master's House. This is unfortunate as it may have been one of the Masters who commissioned for himself the plaster overmantel of the Theological Virtues which has survived, but is no longer in situ (Fig. 104).This will be discussed further below, in the context of other hand-modelled plasterwork.

Ecclesiastical examples

In an ecclesiastical context, decorative plasterwork survives in only one chapel and one church.

Lumley Chapel, Cheam

Lord Lumley remodelled the roof of what had been the chancel of the medieval parish church at Cheam, to create a chapel which houses the tombs of himself and his two wives.[12] The flattened barrel vault would not look out of place in a long gallery, and there is nothing in the decoration of the ceiling or frieze to suggest that a chapel lies beneath (Fig. 60). The narrow ribs are laid out on the ceiling in a pattern based on the eight-pointed star with central pendant familiar from Hampton Court's Great Watching Chamber. More ribs produce a four-armed star in the spaces between, with a petal in each arm and a boss at the centre; and further bosses ornament the points where the large stars intersect. Although the space is quite small, the plasterer created additional variety by the use of different designs for the bosses and pendants running along the centre of the ceiling from those at the sides.One of the larger pendants dates the ceiling with its inscription, 'ANO DOMINE 1592'.

Fig. 60. Ceiling and frieze of the Lumley Chapel, Cheam, Surrey (1592).

The frieze is made up of panels of luscious clusters of assorted fruit, and the soffit of the triangular beam running laterally across the chapel is decorated with heart-shaped outlines placed end to end and filled with hops and more fruit (Fig. 61).[13] Despite his Roman Catholicism Lord Lumley provided a setting for his family monuments which would have caused no controversy with the ecclesiastical authorities in its total avoidance of any kind of religious imagery.

Fig. 61. Section of the beam soffit of the Lumley Chapel, Cheam, Surrey (1592).

Church of St Katharine Cree, Aldgate

The second ecclesiastical example occurs in the parish church of St Katharine Cree which was rebuilt in 1628 in an odd assortment of styles. The nave arcade is supported on Corinthian columns and the soffits of the round-headed arches decorated with rosettes in coffers, but the ceiling of nave and aisles is entirely Gothic in design.[14] The ribs of the vaults were presumably carried out in plaster as an economy measure and bear no relation to contemporary plaster ceiling design, except perhaps in the clusters of fruit and foliage flanking the heraldic badges (of the City of London and various livery companies) in their strapwork frames above the chancel (Fig. 62). As in the Lumley Chapel, there is a total avoidance of religious imagery and it is only the echo of medieval ecclesiastical vaulting which suggests that one is in a sacred and not a secular space.

Fig. 62. Chancel roof of Church of St Katharine Cree, with arms of City of London and Fishmongers’ Company (1628).

These varied examples demonstrate the extent to which plasterwork was regarded as an appropriate form of decoration for a wide range of interiors during this period. Plasterers were employed in both public and private buildings and, within those buildings, in spaces intended for ostentatious public display as well as in more intimate domestic settings.

Characteristics of Elizabethan and Jacobean plasterwork

The sample

Within the compass of present-day Greater London it has proved possible to locate sixty-four buildings where sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century decorative plasterwork can be identified with some certainty, as listed in the Gazetteer.[15] Despite the depredations of the Great Fire and subsequent redevelopment, these sites have yielded good visual evidence for the appearance of 80 ceilings, 18 friezes and 6 chimneypieces. A surprisingly high proportion of this plasterwork survives, either in situ, in a different building or in the form of casts taken from the originals. Drawings and photographs of plasterwork which was subsequently destroyed supplement this record, while verbal descriptions occasionally provide useful evidence for the appearance of lost plasterwork. Clearly, these three types of evidence for the visual appearance of plasterwork are not of equal value, and it would be impossible to recreate any plasterwork accurately on the basis of the written accounts alone; they have, however, been included, to increase the geographical coverage of the survey, the evidence of varied patronage and the number of dated examples.

It is clear that ceilings have survived in much greater numbers than other forms of plaster decoration, but it is difficult to assess how closely the proportion of ceilings in this sample reflects the original state of affairs. Lime plaster was the usual material chosen for decorative ceilings during this period, whereas chimneypieces continued to be carved in timber and stone as well as plaster, and friezes were as likely to be carved as part of the wainscot panelling as to be treated as an extension of the plaster ceiling. The preponderance of ceilings must also, to some extent, reflect the way in which subsequent generations have altered the wall decoration in a room while leaving the ceiling untouched. It is, moreover, probable that it was the very distinctiveness of decorative plaster ceilings of this period which assured their survival.

The earliest examples, from the Charterhouse (late 1560s) and Brooke House, Hackney (c1580), have already been discussed in Chapter IV, in the context of the emergence of decorative plasterwork at the highest levels of sixteenth-century society. From the 1590s to the late 1630s there is a fairly even distribution of examples from a wider range of building-types, whose owners represent a much broader spectrum of society. (Balmes House, Goldsmiths’ Hall, Ham House, Sir John Miller’s house, Swakeleys, and the Queen’s Bedchamber, Whitehall Palace, where the plasterwork is predominantly of a Jonesian character, will be discussed in Chapter VII.)

Flat ceilings and exposed beams

From the latter half of the sixteenth century it was usual for structural timbers to be completely covered by a flat ceiling, but in some small houses beams continued to interrupt the smooth surface of the ceiling; this was presumably because the ceiling would otherwise have been uncomfortably low. The soffits of the dividing beams were decorated with the same kind of patterns which also served for friezes. At Bury Hall, Middlesex, one design appears which was used as a frieze in at least three other houses (Fig. 63).[16]



Fig. 63. Above: Beam soffit, Bury Hall, Edmonton.

Below: Frieze, ‘Old Palace’, Bromley-by-Bow.

At Adelina Grove, Stepney, and in two of the rooms at Gravel Lane Houndsditch, the beams were used to provide the framework of the design, as they would have done in the early sixteenth century, quartering the ceiling and providing four smaller fields to be filled with decoration (Fig. 64).

Fig. 64. Ceiling divided by cross-beams, Adelina Grove, Stepney.

Ceiling ribs and status

The plasterwork decoration of a room was designed to reflect its status within the house in exactly the same way as the other interior furnishings. For this reason, although narrow-rib ceilings were superseded by enriched ribs from the later sixteenth century in the most important rooms, they continued to appear throughout the period in interiors where the need to impress was less overwhelming. At Knole, for example, the 1st Earl of Dorset’s great country house, the hall and staircase ceilings were given traditional narrow-rib decoration, so that the spectator was unprepared for the dazzling enriched-rib creations which the royal Master Plasterer, Richard Dungan, provided in the state rooms beyond (Figs. 65 & 66). It should never be assumed, therefore, that a narrow-rib ceiling in a house is of an earlier date than an enriched rib example.

Fig. 65. Hall ceiling, Knole, Kent (1607).

Fig. 66. Ceiling of great chamber (now the Ballroom), Knole, Kent (1607).

It would be equally unwise to assume that a house with narrow-rib ceilings is necessarily of sixteenth-century date. The style persisted well into the seventeenth century, and in smaller houses

it might have been all that the owner could afford or desired in the way of decorative plasterwork.The nine ceilings which were recorded at Tiptoft's Inn, Lime Street, all had narrow ribs dating from 1631,[17] while at Forty Hall, Enfield, there are two first-floor rooms with narrow-rib ceilings in a house which was built from 1629-32 (Figs. 67 & 68).

Fig. 67. Narrow-rib ceiling in 1st-floor North-East room, Forty Hall, Enfield (1629).

Fig. 68. Narrow-rib ceiling in 1st-floor South-East room, Forty Hall, Enfield (1629).

Flat ribs

In addition to the moulded narrow or enriched broad ribs of the sixteenth century, a third rib-type makes its appearance in the seventeenth century in the form of a broad flat rib with simple mouldings along its sides, usually ornamented with an assortment of small rosettes. These flat ribs may well have been inspired by Serlio’s simplified woodcut illustrations of timber ceiling designs (see Figs. 18-21 in Chapter IV). Less flamboyant than the enriched rib, it provided yet another alternative in the range of options which could be offered to the patron. At Forty Hall a flat-rib design was selected for the ground-floor withdrawing room by Sir Nicholas Raynton, a City merchant known for his Puritan sympathies (Fig. 69). For the modest suburban house of such a patron, the flat-rib was evidently preferable to the more ostentatiously extravagant enriched-rib.

Fig. 69. Flat-rib ceiling of the ground-floor withdrawing room, Forty Hall, Enfield (1629).

Rib designs

(i) Ceiling designs derived from native medieval traditions

Several trends can be discerned in the development of the rib designs themselves. The first is the enduring popularity of patterns already located in the royal palaces and courtier houses of the first three-quarters of the sixteenth century. As previously discussed, many of these were derived from English medieval tracery in its various forms and in London they provided the basis for the majority of narrow-rib ceilings. The ‘Wolsey star’ was the most popular, from Enfield Palace to the Lumley Chapel in 1592 (Fig. 60), Essex House (1596), Kew Palace (1629) and Tiptoft’s Inn (three ceilings) in 1631. Just as long-lived and almost as popular were variations on quatrefoils and quatrepetals but these survive or were recorded in almost equal numbers in enriched and narrow rib versions. The barbed quatrefoil (which Serlio illustrated - see Fig. 22 in Chapter IV) enjoyed a long-lived popularity as the basis for ceilings like those at Goodman’s Yard in the Minories of Elizabeth’s reign and at Oldbourn Hall, Shoe Lane of 1617 (Figs. 70 & 71).

Fig. 70. Ceiling from a house in Goodman’s Yard, Minories. A drawing of this ceiling by C J Richardson appeared in The Builder, September 23rd 1848.

Fig. 71. A ceiling from Oldbourn Hall,

Shoe Lane, Holborn illustrated in R Wilkinson, Londina Illustrata, Vol I (revised edition, 1834).

The enduring popularity of these designs means that they are of little assistance in the precise dating of ceilings such as those at the Manor House at Enfield (known locally as Enfield Palace) unless there are additional motifs to assist. This house contained three narrow-rib plaster ceilings, two of which belonged to groups referred to above - the Wolsey star and the quatrepetal varieties. The third is more unusual in its outline, consisting of circles and lozenges placed on a square grid, linked by straight ribs (Fig. 72). This design does not appear elsewhere in the sample but despite its extreme simplicity and the slightly naive quality of the design, it is this ceiling which is the most richly sprinkled with heraldic badges - Tudor roses, fleurs-de-lis and crowns. The three ceilings appear to be of the same date, as they are connected by the two distinctive patterns used for the leaves around the bosses and the repetition of the Tudor rose on two of the ceilings. Such a demonstration of loyalty may or may not be connected with a visit made by Queen Elizabeth to Enfield; but they provide a clear demonstration of the transmission of courtly fashions downwards to the suburban manor house of a gentleman with court connections.

Fig. 72. One of the ceilings from Enfield Manor House (1580s).

(ii) Serlio or not?

Given the popularity of Serlio as a source of designs and motifs for plasterers across the country it is surprising that there is not a single surviving London example of a ceiling which followed the pattern set by the long gallery at Brooke House (Fig. 42).The combination of octagons, circles and squares gave that design an antique or Renaissance flavour which does not seem to have been attractive to subsequent London patrons, although this may simply reflect the paucity of the evidence available.

Whether cultural nationalism played any part in the choices made by patrons is difficult to assess, but the preference for patterns reminiscent of Gothic ribbing and tracery can be seen as consistent with those elements in late-Elizabethan architecture which derived from the same native tradition.[18]It would appear that not even the publication of an English translation of Serlio in 1611 brought about any marked change in the style of ceiling design preferred by the majority of London patrons.

(iii) New fashions – increasing elaboration

By the end of the sixteenth century decorative plasterwork was by no means the prerogative of the very rich – whether courtiers or City merchants – and ornamented ceilings could be found in such modest houses as Essex House, Putney (Fig. 73)

Fig. 73. A narrow-rib quatrepetal design on the ground-floor ceiling at Essex House, Putney in a drawing of 1872 from the Dryden Collection, Northampton Central Library).

This must have provided a stimulus for wealthier patrons to reassert their social superiority by demanding a more extravagant display of plasterwork in their homes. The early decades of the seventeeth century witnessed the response of London’s plasterers to this desire for novelty and elaboration in several ways.

One new design proved outstandingly popular, both in London and across the rest of the country, but despite this its source has not so far been identified.[19] The pattern was made up with squares, circles and hexagons with distinctively concave ends. Its first dated appearance in 1599 at Canonbury House can be glimpsed at the end of Chapter IV in an enriched-rib version (Fig. 58). In this format it decorated ceilings at ‘Old Palace’, Bromley-by-Bow in 1606, Bow Manor, Admiral Drake’s house, Bow and the Queen’s Head, Islington. The flat-rib version of 1630 at Forty Hall is illustrated above (Fig. 69).

By the second decade of the century a stronger desire for innovation manifested itself in the introduction of patterns that cannot be easily categorized. Outlines of much greater elaboration reflected the continuing preference for the curvilinear, almost all of them in enriched-rib versions. These novel designs, frequently inspired by Gothic cusping, allowed the plasterers to demonstrate once again how a greater variety of designs could be created with their more flexible material than had been possible with wooden ribs.

The desire for originality was clearly of paramount importance and resulted in patterns on sixteen ceilings which are difficult to describe using the conventional terminology of architectural ornament. Some of them can be seen as elaborations of existing outlines, although in a highly eccentric fashion, such as the combined star and barbed quatrefoil of 17 Fleet Street (1611, Fig. 74), or the contorted quatrepetals at Crosby Hall Chambers (1633, Fig. 75).

Fig. 74. Ceiling at 17 Fleet Street drawn by Roland Paul, Vanishing London, 1894.

Fig. 75. Section of the ceiling at Crosby Hall Chambers, 25 Bishopsgate Within, drawn by Roland Paul, Vanishing London, 1894.

The intricacy of cusped Gothic tracery is similarly evoked by the scalloping of the flat ribs which make up the overlapping quatrefoils at Eagle House (1614, Fig. 76). Others took an oval or rectangle as the basic shape around which variations of endless diversity could be created. Concave and convex outlines, some with ogival terminations, some combined with ‘eared’ squares, continued popular until the late 1630s.

Fig. 76. Ceiling in the North-East room, 1st floor, Eagle House, Wimbledon (1614).

This general description covers such examples as two of the rib designs at Boston Manor, one of which also appears at Bury Hall. This latter outline could well have been inspired by Walter Gedde’s A Booke Of Svndry Dravghtes, London (1615). The subtitle claims that it is Principaly serving for Glasiers And not Impertinent for Plasterers, and Gardiners: be sides sundry other professions. (Fig. 77). Pattern books such as Gedde’s must have diffused a wide variety of designs throughout the artisanal workshops of London and this pattern is just one of several that plasterers seem to have utilized, as Gedde suggested they might. Gedde himself made the point in his author’s address that his pattern-book was primarlily designed to make the choice of pattern simpler for the builder, ‘knowing the expert maister is not vnfurnished of these vsuall draughts, though each workeman haue not all of them’.

Three further ceilings at Eagle House, one ceiling at Great Campden House and one at the Queen's Head, Islington fall within this same broad category, all in enriched ribs. A narrow-rib ceiling at Bury Hall, with the barbed quatrefoil given an ogival twist, and the flat rib ceiling of Winchester House complete the group.


Fig. 77. Above: Ceiling of the state bedchamber at Boston Manor House (1623).

Below: Walter Gedde, A Booke of Svndry Dravghtes, London, 1615, p. 35.

An alternative to the effect of cusping was to give the ribs a jagged outline, creating a sensation of restless movement to stimulate the interest of the spectator. At Holland House the flat ribs were treated in this way, adding interest to the design of overlapping squares with circles ballooning from the corners.[20] The great staircase at Audley End, Essex, was similarly designed to arouse the admiration of visitors as they began the ascent to the state apartments above (Fig. 78).

Fig. 78. The ceiling above the great staircase at Audley End, Essex (c.1610).

The final example of imaginative rib design comes from Cromwell House, Highgate, where in the late 1630s eight-petalled stars are placed within concave octagons of enriched ribs, combined with truncated quatrepetals (Fig. 79). This same layout had been used twenty years earlier in the great chamber at Blickling Hall, Norfolk, by the London plasterer, Edward Stanyon, whom we encountered as City Plasterer in Chapter III and whose career will be investigated further in Chapter VI.

Fig. 79. A first-floor ceiling from Cromwell House, Highgate (late 1630s).

The first two decades of the seventeenth century thus witnessed a dramatic expansion in the range of ribs and rib designs from which patrons could select patterns appropriate to the hierarchy of rooms within their houses. In the highest status rooms the plasterers made it possible to create an overwhelming impression of increasing complexity and elaboration, which was eagerly

adopted by wealthy patrons and gradually found its way from the court into the more modest houses of affluent Londoners.

(iv) Inspiration for change – a new Royal Master Plasterer

This shift in taste can perhaps be related to the change in personnel at the head of the profession. In December 1609 Richard Dungan died, to be succeeded in January 1610 by James Leigh. Both men worked for the Lord Treasurer of the day – Dungan for Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, at Knole and for Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, at Hatfield, where he was succeeded by Leigh. A comparison of the plasterwork at the houses of such powerful, wealthy and aristocratic courtiers provides visual evidence for the shift in taste that can perhaps be associated with the influence of James Leigh.

Knole and Hatfield

By the time that Knole’s state apartment came to be decorated in1605-7 both patron and plasterer were nearing the end of their careers. As one might expect, Dungan produced a wide range of designs for the nine ceilings which he undertook, their richness and originality reflecting the status of the various spaces. Narrow-rib ceilings were chosen for the screens passage, hall, staircase and the gallery over the hall while opulent enriched-rib designs adorned the great chamber (Ballroom), the withdrawing chamber (Reynolds Room) and the Cartoon Gallery. All these designs were based on variations on familiar shapes, combining quatrefoils, barbed quatrefoils, stars, Greek crosses, squares, circles and ogival outlines.[21] The state bedchamber (King’s Room) was the pièce de résistance where sixteen square compartments were created using very broad enriched ribs, with laurel garlands at their centres. This ceiling is reminiscent of Serlio’s designs for coffered timber ceilings and its potentially severe classicism is only moderated by the floral sprays within the garlands and at the corners of the squares. Perhaps the ‘compartments’ of the ceiling created by Dungan for the new Whitehall Banqueting House in 1607-09, described in Chaper II, were not dissimilar and attempts to follow classical models were being made before Inigo Jones arrived on the scene. Knole can, therefore, be seen as the culmination of the sixteenth-century style of plasterwork, the work of a London craftsman working within a well-established tradition but still capable of enormous originality.

Turning to James Leigh's least altered work at Hatfield House of 1610-11, two aspects of his decorative schemes immediately strike the eye. The design of the long gallery ceiling, based on pairs of overlapping circles, is not especially novel but the scalloped outlines of the flat ribs give it an entirely new flavour (Fig. 80).[22] Even more significant is the use of strapwork to fill the fields between the ribs; and strapwork was also used to ornament the soffits of the hall screen (Fig. 81). The popularity of complex rib designs in the early seventeenth century has already been outlined and the enthusiasm for strapwork will be discussed next. The delicacy of the strapwork on the long gallery is distinctive and reminiscent of the ceiling at Holland House; and given that Sir Walter Cope was a close friend of Robert Cecil it is possible that Leigh worked for both men. It is fortunate that, as none of Leigh’s ceilings for the royal palaces survives, these examples of his work exist to demonstrate his contribution to the continuing wave of new fashions emanating from the court and courtiers that set the latest trends in interior decoration.

Fig. 80. Section of the long gallery ceiling at Hatfield House, Herts (1610-11).


Fig. 81. Strapwork in one of the soffits of the hall screen at Hatfield House.

(v) Strapwork

Strapwork is the name now given to one element in the style of ornament that came to prominence following its introduction into the lime-plaster decoration of the Galerie François Ier at Fontainebleau in the 1530s by the Italian artists working there, Rosso and Primaticcio (Fig. 82). The scrolling terminations to the bands of plaster of the cartouches were thought to resemble leather straps and hence the name. This was to be the final component in the overall surface patterns devised for plaster ceilings and was particularly well-suited to the flexibility of the medium. The craze for strapwork decoration which permeated other decorative media in the latter half of the sixteenth century (whether in paint, stone or woodwork), does not make its appearance in surviving London plasterwork until the seventeenth century. This may have been because the Netherlandish engravings which popularized strapwork ornament throughout northern Europe did not supply ready-made designs for ceiling decoration, which had to be extracted and adapted by plasterers from sheets illustrating cartouches or other architectural ornament.[23]

Fig. 82. Details showing strapwork in the plaster decoration of the Galerie François Ier at Fontainebleau (1530s).

Strapwork was deployed in a variety of ways by the plasterers to increase the repertoire of designs which could be offered to patrons. Where several ceilings in a house were to be decorated, strapwork as an overall pattern offered an alternative to designs based on ribs. This would apply to the long gallery at Charlton House, Greenwich (Fig. 83), ceilings at Bury Hall and Blickling Hall and the staircase ceiling at Forty Hall. The ‘straps’ were usually liberally scattered with small ‘jewel’ ornaments of astonishing variety.

Fig. 83. A section of the ceiling of the long gallery at Charlton House, Greenwich (1610-12).

Strapwork as the surround to a central field, which may or may not have been decorated, was used to decorate a ceiling at Sir Paul Pindar's House (Fig. 84), three ceilings at Bolingbroke House, Battersea, the closet in the South West turret at Blickling and the ceiling above the staircase at Forty Hall. At Gravel Lane Houndsditch, one of the ceilings was quartered by wide beams, with a different strapwork surround to each of the four ovals containing the Four Seasons. This would seem to imply a close adherence to an engraved model, since many strapwork patterns surrounded central figurative panels in the original engravings; but Anthony Wells-Cole has demonstrated the lengths to which plasterers went in adapting their sources, and synthesising elements from different engravings. The strapwork surrounds at Bolingbroke House and the strapwork motif around the central pendant in the hall ceiling at Charlton House (Fig. 85) must have been derived from the same kind of engraved design which was followed so frequently in the production of cresting for houses and tombs of the period

Fig. 84. A ceiling from Sir Paul Pindar’s House, Bishopsgate, with strapwork surrounding a roundel depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac.

Fig. 85. Strapwork at the centre of the hall ceiling at Charlton House, Greenwich (1610-12).

Rather more frequent than the use of strapwork alone on a ceiling was the practice of combining it with an overall ribbed design, to produce an effect of the utmost richness. In the earliest London example of the use of strapwork in the hall at Holland House, strapwork motifs were used to decorate individual fields between the ribs, and they were still being deployed in this way in the beamed ceiling of the great chamber at Cromwell House in the late 1630s. Yet greater complexity could be achieved by treating the strapwork as if it were an overall design, which underlay the enriched ribs. The long gallery at Hatfield would appear to be the earliest example of this development, which was to prove highly influential (Fig. 80). In the great chambers of Charlton House, Great Campden House and Eagle House - in the room where display was all-important - intricate but repetitive strapwork patterns were used in this way. Slightly later, at Blickling, Bury Hall and Boston Manor House, further variety was introduced into the strapwork itself, both within the main fields and in the elaborate cartouches (Fig. 86). Such inventive elaboration represented the pinnacle of the achievement of the Jacobean plasterer working within his native tradition.

Fig. 86. Section of the great chamber ceiling at Boston Manor House, Brentford (1623).

(vi) Influence of courtier houses in the early seventeenth century

All these inventive variations seem to reflect a desire for greater elaboration of the surface of the ceiling itself, with patterning filling a much higher proportion of the available space than had been the case in the sixteenth century. There are, moreover, sufficient surviving examples of the early use of strapwork to allow for a tentative reconstruction of the pattern of influence which obtained between court and City in the first two decades of the seventeenth century.

If one compares the complete absence of strapwork from the extensive surviving plasterwork at Knole, created by the royal Master Plasterer, Richard Dungan (1607), with its use by his successor, James Leigh, at Hatfield House (1610-11), it seems highly likely that the change of Master Plasterer in 1610 was of significance in this connection as in the new rib designs. Experiments in the creation of strapwork in plaster were presumably taking place outside the Royal Works before this date; and James Leigh was probably working in this new mode for a patron of some influence at court, who was in a position to help him to obtain the post of royal Master Plasterer in preference to Dungan's heir-apparent, Richard Talbott. It was argued above that Sir Walter Cope, a man of great wealth, a close associate of Robert Cecil and a royal favourite, may have fulfilled that role. Circumstantial evidence and a stylistic connection between houses where very little original plasterwork survives may be thought to provide rather insubstantial foundations on which to build an argument of this kind; but if Cope was not responsible for Leigh's promotion, then someone similarly well-connected at court almost certainly was.

It has to be borne in mind that other important courtier houses were being decorated at about this date, where similar experiments with strapwork and more exotic rib designs may have been taking place. For example, the long gallery at Powis Castle was decorated for Sir Edward Herbert in 1593 and survives to demonstrate the astonishing ability of the unknown plasterer who may or may not have been a Londoner. Some important sites, such as Syon House, Middlesex (1605) and Northampton House (c.1605, and subsequently known as Suffolk House and then as Northumberland House), have not survived to provide evidence which would either confirm or refute the suggestion that their patrons were experimenting with plasterwork. Others still stand but without any documentary evidence to identify the plasterer or provide a precise date for the plasterwork. The most significant houses in this group are undoubtedly the two where the plaster decoration was undertaken for the Earl and Countess of Suffolk - Charlton Park, Wiltshire and Audley End, Essex (completed c.1614). The former was built on the Countess's family estate and a date c.1607 is usually accepted for its erection, which would certainly suit the style of the plasterwork. Only the long gallery survived the remodelling of the eighteenth century when the magnificent ceiling and frieze of that room were allowed to remain untouched.

The long gallery ceiling is decorated entirely with strapwork, executed in fairly broad bands, finishing in conical swirls, enlivening the surface as they are thrown into relief by the windows along one side of the gallery. A few very finely-detailed pendants are placed down the centre of the gallery to provide additional interest. Some of the strapwork and grotesquerie of the frieze is repetitive but the wonderful menagerie of animals cavorting among the straps is entirely hand-modelled, with homely dogs, rabbits, insects and birds nestling alongside mythical winged beasts and monsters (Fig. 87).

Audley End

On the basis of the frieze at Charlton Park there can be little doubt that the Earl and Countess employed the same plasterer at Audley End, as was to be expected. At Audley End the Earl, another Lord Treasurer, and Countess indulged in such lavish spending that the house was

Fig. 87. View and detail of the plasterwork in the long gallery at Charlton Park, Wilts (c.1607).

closer to a palace than any other courtier house of the period. The wonderful array of surviving Jacobean plasterwork in the state apartments intended for royal occupation probably provides the best impression of the nature of the contribution made by plasterwork to the lost royal palace interiors of Somerset House and Greenwich, created for Queen Anne between 1610 and 1616.

Audley End's plasterwork is astonishing for its variety and invention, exemplifying most of the developments in early seventeenth-century plasterwork which have been identified in this section.Strapwork of a robust nature is deployed extensively on its own in the king's bedchamber; flat ribs decorated with rosettes and cusped rib outlines make their appearance in the queen's great chamber; the queen's withdrawing chamber boasts an elaborated rib design; and on the staircase ceiling the enriched ribs themselves are given a jagged outline (Fig. 78). What is missing from this list is an example of the combination of strapwork with a rib design; but this may have been lost with the demolition of the long gallery or changes to other rooms in the house. What have survived are the ceiling and frieze of the king's withdrawing chamber (Fig. 88) and the ceiling (but not the frieze) of the king's great chamber (Fig. 89-91), each a unique creation without close parallels in other surviving plasterwork, not even on the queen's side at Audley End. A variegated assortment of foliage twines its way around the wide bands, decorated with rosettes, of the strapwork of the withdrawing chamber; interspersed are bunches of fruit and small grotesque figures. The thirty-two panels of the great chamber, each decorated with a different marine subject (perhaps in allusion to Thomas Howard's successful participation in naval engagements with the Spanish Armada) are separated by deep pendants, linked by ribs, cusped and smothered with delicate floral ornament. Taken together, these ceilings are a testimony to the demand for originality made of their craftsmen by the topmost ranks of society.

Fig. 88. Section of the ceiling of the King’s Withdrawing Chamber, Audley End, Essex (c.1610).

Fig. 89. View of the King’s Great Chamber, Audley End.

Fig. 90. Detail of the rib enrichment in the King’s Great Chamber, Audley End.

Fig. 91. The mermaid panel from the ceiling of the King’s Great Chamber, Audley End.

On a somewhat less lavish scale there is evidence of the rapid dissemination of the new styles of plasterwork in the houses of men who were either courtiers or had close connections with the court.Among the earliest of these was Charlton House, Greenwich, the home of Sir Adam Newton, tutor to Prince Henry. Four ceilings, seven friezes and two overmantels survive to bear witness to the speed with which the new fashions were taken up in court circles (Figs. 83 & 85). Strapwork is much in evidence and although all the friezes are repetitive and cast from moulds, there is evidence of hand-modelling in the two overmantels. These will be discussed in the context of other such examples below.

Nearly contemporary with Newton's house was the remodelling of Great Campden House, Kensington, by Sir Baptist Hicks, a merchant of enormous wealth, prominent in both court circles and the City.[24] Only two ceilings were recorded by C J Richardson before fire destroyed the house and its remaining Jacobean interior features in 1862. The great chamber ceiling was clearly in the forefront of fashion, with an elaborate strapwork design overlaid by an even more complex enriched-rib design. A less magnificent ceiling was also recorded by Richardson, showing a version of the pattern of overlapping quatrefoils with central circles, which was to prove of enduring popularity in several London houses over the following three decades.[25]

Decorative plasterwork in this newly-fashionable style made its appearance in the suburban house of Robert Bell, a successful City merchant and youngest son of a gentry family. Although Eagle House and its decoration are more modest in scale than the courtier houses just discussed, the four surviving ceilings demonstrate that the owner and the plasterer he employed were completely familiar with the latest trends emanating from court circles. Flat ribs ornamented with rosettes and enriched ribs are all arranged in patterns of elaborate outline and in two rooms these are combined with strapwork designs, the most complex being reserved for the great chamber (Figs. 76 & 92).

Fig. 92. View of the great chamber ceiling at Eagle House, Wimbledon (1614).

In the City and its immediate environs, there is little evidence from the recorded and surviving plasterwork of the first two decades of the century to suggest such an immediate response to the fashions of the court. This may reflect the tastes of patrons, as well as the time it would take sufficient London plasterers to become adept in the new styles to meet demand. It is hardly surprising that a body of successful older citizens such as Assistants of the Leathersellers' Company would choose a very traditional style of decorative plasterwork for their company hall. The owner of the house in Hart Street (which was decorated with two ceilings in 1609, the appearance of only one of which is recorded), was just as conservative in his choice of a traditional narrow-rib design which was, nevertheless, well-adapted to the relatively small interior of his best room. Eight years later, in 1617, the great chamber of Oldbourn Hall was decorated with a ceiling of a type familiar in London houses from at least 1600 onwards. More up-to-date was the complex outline ofthe enriched ribs of the ceiling at 17 Fleet Street of 1610. It is noticeable that strapwork is absent from all these examples, although it has to be borne in mind that the non-appearance of this fashionable element in ceiling decoration in any modest London house may simply be a result of the loss of so many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses in the City.

In the plasterwork of Edward Stanyon at Blickling and in suburban London houses such as Boston Manor House and Bury Hall, the full-blown Jacobean style reached its maturity in the 1620s. City patrons embraced the developments which had originated in courtier houses during the first decades of the seventeenth century and this style of decorative plasterwork continued to be popular with such patrons in the two decades before the Civil War, as testified by such examples as Crosby Hall Chambers and Cromwell House.

Bosses and pendants

Bosses and pendants are usually inextricably linked with our ideas of what constitutes a Jacobean plaster ceiling but even in great houses pendants were primarily used to increase the visual impact of ceilings in the rooms intended to make the most impressive display, such as the great chamber, and were never found in every room. Not surprisingly, one of the grandest surviving statements of this kind is to be found in the king's great chamber at Audley End (Fig. 89). That pendants were reserved for exceptional display is also suggested by the accounts for Richard Dungan's decoration of the Whitehall Banqueting House ceiling in 1607-09, where attention is, unusually, drawn to the appearance of the pendants by the clerk's description of them as 'deepe pendaunts'.[26]Pendants feature relatively rarely in this survey, appearing on only thirteen London ceilings.

The area above a great staircase provided sufficient space in which a highly ornamented pendant could provide a central feature, with plenty of space beneath it to allow for a tapering ceiling, as at Hatfield or Blickling. In both these cases, however, the pendant had to be carved in timber as it would have been too unwieldy in plaster.

In the London sample, it is only at Leathersellers' Hall that one finds the ceiling surface itself tapering downwards in a dramatic fashion, to terminate in pendants. This kind of display required a room of considerable height, which was not necessarily available in the domestic context of London town houses. In two courtier houses built in the countryside on the outskirts of London - Charlton House, Greenwich, and Wimbledon Manor House - it was possible for rooms of sufficient height to be constructed in which pendants could feature prominently. Both the lower parlour and the balcony room at Wimbledon had ceilings which were groin vaulted, 'in the midle whereof is one pinacle or perpendicular piramid of greate ornament to the whole roome'.[27] At Charlton House, Greenwich (Fig. 85), a single tapering pendant provided the central decorative feature in the hall, but the surrounding ceiling was completely flat; and the same held true in the great chamber, where the enriched ribs taper downwards only slightly before terminating in pendants, with a larger and more ornate version at the centre.

The fashion for tapering ceilings with pendants of this kind persisted longer outside London but within the capital the preference for flat ceilings becomes even more pronounced after about 1615.It had been quite common, even in the largest and most prestigious houses, for pendants to punctuate perfectly flat ceilings from as early as c.1565 (at the Charterhouse). Later examples include the ceilings on the ground floor at Canonbury House (1599), the great chamber of Sir Paul Pindar's House (1600) and the hall at Holland House (c.1607). The large expanse of the flat long gallery ceiling of a great house could be enlivened by the addition of pendants, even when the ceiling was itself already highly decorated, as at Hatfield and Blickling. After 1615, pendants appeared on only two London ceilings (at Boston Manor House and Cromwell House), both of which were flat, as one would expect of smaller suburban houses.

It would seem that although pendants continued to feature on a few seventeenth-century domestic London ceilings, they became daintier and played a less prominent role, subordinated to the overall design, which was becoming increasingly rich over the whole surface of the ceiling and, as a result, less in need of the accentuation provided by pendants.

Additional decoration

The ornamentation of plaster ceilings was not confined to the rib design; the spaces between the ribs were regarded as an opportunity for further decoration and considerable ingenuity was expended in finding motifs to fill some of the oddly shaped spaces available, especially before the adoption of strapwork.

(i) Heraldry

Throughout the period covered by this study heraldry remained one of the most popular items to be included on ceilings and appears on nineteen of the examples from this survey. The display of heraldic badges and coats-of-arms was, of course, not limited to ceilings and overmantels and hall screens frequently bore testimony to the gentility or nobility of the owner of the house and his family connections. It is quite possible that in those houses where heraldry might have been expected to play a part in the plaster decoration, it was displayed elsewhere, in another medium, or on a ceiling that has been demolished.

Two aristocrats - Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and Henry Cary, Lord Hunsdon - introduced decorative plasterwork into houses they occupied only briefly. The ceilings of the great chamber at the Charterhouse and of the long gallery at Brooke House, Hackney, were smothered with the coats-of-arms, crests, badges and mottoes of the Howard and Cary families respectively, as noted in Chapter IV. The royal arms may have appeared elsewhere in their houses but these particular ceilings were concerned only with dynastic display. The pedigree of the Howards was indeed of long-standing but Lord Hunsdon was making a brave show typical of the recently ennobled. At Knole the leopard badge of the Sackville family was prominently displayed in plaster and paint in several rooms, whereas at Audley End the heraldic pedigrees of the Earl and Countess of Suffolk only survive in the decoration of the roof of the hall.

Royal coats-of-arms were frequently chosen as the centre-piece for London ceilings, as at Canonbury House. At Essex House and Goodman's Yard Elizabeth's royal arms were surrounded by other regal motifs including the Tudor rose, fleur-de-lys, Welsh harp and Boleyn falcon. A display of this kind does not necessarily denote any close connection with royalty (although it has often been taken to do so), but was an expression of loyalty on the part of dutiful citizens.

Although James I is usually described as a less popular monarch than Elizabeth the royal arms continued to provide a central motif in ceiling decoration until at least the second decade of his reign and were combined with those of his queen and Prince Charles at Oldbourn Hall in 1617 (Fig. 71). The arms of the well-loved Prince Henry appear alone at >17 Fleet Street (Fig. 74), and were paired with those of his father at either end of the great chamber of Charlton House, the home of his tutor, Sir Adam Newton.

From the 1620s onwards no royal arms appear on surviving ceilings. The shields of arms-bearing citizens, however, continue to feature, from Sir Paul Pindar's shield in 1600, until the end of the period under study, with the arms of Richard Sprignell placed at the centre of the most impressive ceiling at Cromwell House in c.1639. Decorum dictated a more modest display than was appropriate to a lord; and it is interesting that many successful City gentlemen and knights were also proud to display the badge of their own London companies, despite their social elevation. The fabulously wealthy Sir John Spencer included the badge of the Levant Company at Canonbury House (Fig. 93),[28] while the Vintners' Company badge appears at17 Fleet Street (Fig. 74) and Gravel Lane, and that of the Dyers' Company was included on the ceiling now at Stone Hall, Wanstead.

If a house owner was not justified in a display of arms, then his own personal 'impresa' might serve just as well. The barrel bearing the name of Joseph Fenton (a pun on 'tun') at Tottenham Priory is an example of such a device (Fig. 93). It is unusual in that the rib-design of the ceiling did not lend itself to such a display and one section of the rib repeat had to be omitted to make way for the device. This is in contrast to the more usual practice, as on the Stone Hall ceiling, where coats-of-arms were placed in plain fields as an alternative to some other motif.

Whereas the royal arms may have been cast from standard moulds, the arms of individuals would each have required a separate mould, which would have demonstrated the affluence, as well as the prestige, of the patron. The huge variety of badges in the hall ceiling at Audley End is one of the most impressive displays of this kind. The long gallery at Blickling, however, makes a brave show of the arms of Sir Henry Hobart, with helmet, crest, mantling and motto surrounding the shield, but it is the same shield which is repeated no less than five times along the length of the gallery. At Forty Hall Nicholas Rainton did not indulge in such ostentatious display, and the single shield at the centre of the ground-floor ceiling was left plain, perhaps for his arms to be painted in later.

It has been assumed that heraldic motifs were appropriately tinctured as they were elsewhere in the interior but there is little evidence to support or refute this supposition. Whether other motifs were painted or gilded remains a matter for conjecture but there is no hard evidence that this practice extended beyond the Royal Works, and even there it was a rare occurrence.

Fig. 93. Left: Badge of the Levant Company, with garbled motto, Canonbury House (1599).

Right: The ‘tun’ rebus of Joseph Fenton, Tottenham Priory (1620).

(ii) Floral motifs

In the houses which were decorated before strapwork made its appearance on the London plasterwork scene, floral sprays were the most popular of the decorative motifs applied to the fields created by the ceiling ribs. They varied in size and complexity from simple sprigs to large plants in which birds could perch. Apart from two rather ungainly examples from Canonbury House, sprays were symmetrical and usually blossomed from the points of ribs or in fours around circles.

Among the wide variety of floral sprays, there are two distinct groups which seem to share stylistic similarities, which may reflect the characteristic hand of the London carvers supplying the moulds or, given the decades over which they persisted, the use of common pattern-books. The first group can be identified by the prominence of rows of small beads in their composition, which can be found at Canonbury House, Bromley-by-Bow, Eagle House (Fig. 94 supplies a typical example), Boston Manor House, Forty Hall and Cromwell House, thus ranging in date from 1599-1639. The second, smaller, group is typified by very slender scrolling and interlaced stems, with small ovate leaves, found at Essex House, Canonbury House, Bury Hall, Tottenham Priory (Fig. 95), Stone Hall and Forty Hall, over the slightly shorter time-span, 1596-1630.

At Holland House a highly formalised spray and strapwork appear together on the same ceiling but this was to prove exceptional and floral sprays are only found subsequently on those ceilings which eschewed strapwork.[29] The only other exception to this generalisation was the great chamber of Cromwell House but this ceiling will be discussed further in the context of the influence of Inigo Jones on ceiling design in Chapter VII. Floral sprays are absent from the ceilings of Hatfield

and Audley End, suggesting that they had largely been superseded by strapwork in the great houses of the seventeenth century.

Fig. 94. Floral spray with ‘beads’, Eagle House, Wimbledon, 1st-floor North-East room.

Fig. 95. Distinctive floral sprays at Tottenham Priory, Middlesex.

It has been suggested in the past that the publication in England of numerous herbals during this period provided a source for the floral designs scattered across the plaster ceilings of the time.[30]The formalised nature of the flowers and plants seems, however, to have more in common with the embroidered flowers of contemporary textiles than with the naturalistic illustrations of herbals.[31] Embroiderers, like other artisans, relied on pattern-books such as J Le Moyne de Morgues' La Clef des Champs (1586), a small volume containing woodcuts of animals, birds and flowers. Here, the flower heads are far more prominent than in the scholarly herbals and a much more likely source for the stylised flora of the plasterers, who were quite capable of combining different flower-heads on a single plant.[32] In devising the enrichment for broad ribs the plasterers were frequently even more cavalier in the assortment of flower heads which they linked with scrolling stems, sometimes introducing birds, animals or insects which are completely out-of-scale.

The one house in which relatively naturalistic plants appear in plaster is Knole. Recognisable varieties are allowed to flourish asymmetrically like growing plants as the only, and highly distinctive, decoration in the fields between the ribs of the great chamber and Cartoon Gallery (Figs. 96).

Fig. 96. Flowering pinks on the ceiling of the Cartoon Gallery, Knole

Such exceptional decoration is what one might expect in the house of a Lord Treasurer like the Earl of Dorset, a man of great wealth as well as power and status. But even here different flower heads blossom on the same plant on occasion and the out-of-scale oak tree is bearing enormous acorns (Figs. 97-8).

Fig. 97. Plant bearing marigold and roses on the ceiling of the great chamber, Knole.

Fig. 98. Oak tree with acorns on the ceiling of the great chamber, Knole.

It is clear from the illustration of the oak tree that it was cast in a mould that was then set into the ceiling plaster. The use of motifs cast from moulds makes the process sound rather mechanical. In practice, both floral sprays and other motifs were often skilfully built up from smaller, cast components to fit the space available. This contributed to the enormous variety of patterns which could be achieved without increasing the expense incurred by the production of completely different moulds. Within the same house, and even on the same ceiling, variations of this kind can be observed. For example, at Forty Hall small elements are combined and re-combined to produce new variants, at minimal cost to the patron (Fig. 99).


Fig. 99. Cast motifs showing repetitions and recombinations of elements on the ceilings of the 1st-floor S E room and the ground-floor room at Forty Hall, Enfield.

(iii) ‘Grotesques’

‘Grotesque’ decoration emerged in the second decade of the sixteenth century in Rome. Inspired by excavations that revealed classical Roman painted and plastered interiors, Raphael and his collaborators decorated some of the apartments in the Vatican in imitation of what they had seen. Because the ancient rooms were underground – in ‘grottoes’ – the style of decoration was typified as ‘grotteschi’ in Italian, ‘grotesque’ in English. Like strapwork, it was soon popularized through the medium of ornament prints, especially by Netherlandish designers.

Although the London plasterers were slow to plunder the available sheets of engraved ornament for strapwork designs, some of the 'grotesque' elements which accompanied this style of ornament were easier to adapt to their purposes and consequently appear on ceilings some years before strapwork. Grotesque masks, lion masks and cartouches were well-suited to fill fields, as can be seen on the ceilings at Goodman's Yard (Fig. 70) or among the highly varied motifs of the first-floor East ceiling at Canonbury House (Fig. 100).

Fig. 100. Grotesque masks from the ceiling of the first-floor East room at Canonbury House.

Small masks could also sometimes replace traditional bosses at rib intersections, as on one of the lost ceilings from Bromley-by-Bow.

The popularity of such grotesque motifs is perhaps not surprising, when one thinks of native medieval wood-carving which frequently incorporated whimsical and sometimes grotesque elements. The frieze of the long gallery at Charlton Park (Fig. 87) would seem to follow directly in that tradition. Grotesques continued to be popular and remained part of the plasterer’s repertoire to the end of the period, even appearing on the great chamber ceiling at Cromwell House, alongside the most up-to-date guilloche ornament.

(iv) Medallion heads

Most of the decorative motifs employed by London plasterers so far discussed, had their parallels in plasterwork in other parts of the country. This does not seem to have been the case with the fashion for medallion heads which had emerged in London by the 1590s before spreading further afield.

Mythical and historical figures featured in profile or full-face, drawn largely from classical sources but including also, in one house, some of the non-classical Nine Worthies. These popular heroes of the Middle Ages were grouped to represent Classical Antiquity (Hector, Alexander, Julius Caesar), the Old Testament Bible (Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabaeus) and Christianity (King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Boulogne).

The earliest recorded examples may have been the profile heads of Alexander and Augustus, rescued from a house in Woodford, Essex, built by John Lambert in 1580.[33] Lambert was Master of the Grocers' Company in 1579 and the arms of his company and of the Merchant Adventurers were also recorded. A verbal description is all that survives to record a ceiling on the first floor of the house of Sir Thomas Fowler, Islington, which carried the date 1595, which 'was decorated with fleur de lis, medallions, &c. in the same style as the ceilings at Canonbury-house'.[34] It is tempting to assume that these medallions contained heads of the same kind as Canonbury but the description is too vague to allow for certainty on that point.

In the following year, however, both the ceilings of Essex House, Putney, included heads of ancient Romans (Fig. 73). The drawings of the profile heads do not record the inscriptions very clearly but they seem to include two profile pairs - Tarquinia Prisca and Servius, Tulia Superba and Tarquinius - together with a profile head of Julius Caesar and a full-face version of Aegeria.[35]Canonbury House followed suit in 1599, with an assortment of characters from classical Greece and Rome, both historical and mythological, in profile and full-face versions. The assortment of surrounds to the roundels, the fact that Alexander appears both as ‘Alesander Magnas’ and as ‘Alexander the Great’ and the lack of coherence in their arrangement on the ceiling suggests that they were not part of a single set (Fig. 101).

Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were among the most popular of these medallion heads, appearing either in the context of classical history or as two of the Nine Worthies. At Bromley, Alexander was joined by Joshua and Hector on the grandest ceiling of the house, all three portraits appearing twice. Perhaps these were the Worthies in whom the patron felt most interest, or this

Fig. 101. Medallion heads from Canonbury House, 1st-floor ceiling, each in a different surround.

Above: Full-face head of Julius Caesar.

Below: Variant profile heads of Alexander the Great.

could simply be an instance of the randomness which frequently seems to be a feature in the selection of motifs for ceilings.

The ceiling of a room adjoining the principal chamber of a house in Hart Street was described as containing a ceiling of 1609, decorated with 'several heads of the Caesars' in medallions,[36] and Robert Cecil's choice of profile emperor heads for the ceiling of the hall at Hatfield indicates that the fashion was still current in 1610-11 (Fig. 5 in Chapter I).

These medallion heads would have been copied from sets of engravings issued in sheets by artists such as Nicholas de Bruyn. In addition to the Nine Worthies, which were published in 1594, he produced sets of Twelve Roman Emperors, Four Virtues and the Four Elements.[37] Despite the availability of such coherent sets of source material, patrons appear to have been willing to accept medallion heads from a variety of different sources on a single ceiling. The Greek and Roman heads at Canonbury House are depictions of Roman kings and emperors, and wives of kings and emperors, together with the Greek emperor, Alexander. The heads have been arranged with perfect symmetry but with no apparent rationale. The interest in classical history on the part of the patron, which might have been indicated by the choice of subject, is belied by the selection of Roman wives whose consorts do not appear on the ceiling and by the appearance of Alexander in two versions on one ceiling (Fig. 101) and again as 'Alekander Mangnus der Gros' (in the same version as at Lambert's House) on the other first-floor ceiling. There he seems to be just one among a varied assortment of motifs, including small versions of Tarquin and Lucretia. In the same way, but on a more modest scale, the single medallion heads on ceilings at Goodman's Yard and the Queen's Head, Islington, are part of a miscellaneous collection of motifs; and at Oldbourn Hall (1617), the latest dated example in London, roundels of Lucretia and Romulus make an odd pairing.

It would seem that for the majority of London patrons, therefore, the choice of subjects from classical antiquity was intended to convey a greater familiarity with humanist classical education than they actually possessed; it is unlikely that the emperors on the hall ceiling at Hatfield were selected on such an apparently random basis as most London examples exhibit. A desire to keep up with a current fashion seems to underlie the choice of most of these medallion heads, rather than the wish to express a personal philosophy through a coherent decorative scheme.

Hand-modelled plasterwork

The decorative motifs found in London plasterwork that have so far been discussed all involved the application of ornament cast from moulds. This was by far the commonest method for producing friezes and ceiling motifs of all kinds, whether it was for the enrichment of the broad ribs, the corner sprays or the larger motifs which filled the major fields. By contrast, only a small amount of hand-modelled plasterwork seems to have been produced. Some of the reasons for this will now be considered, before the iconography of the figurative work itself is examined.

There is evidence for only five plaster overmantels in London, dating from 1600 to the 1620s. This is less remarkable than it might, at first, seem when it is borne in mind that the stone or timber chimneypieces of the period frequently featured figures, in the form of caryatids, and that plasterers received no artistic training in skills such as drawing, which would have developed their capacity to produce figurative work. In London, this had remained the province of the masons, sculptors and carvers, working in stone and timber.

Furthermore, it has to be remembered that the company system which operated in London encouraged the maintenance of traditional craft skills and positively discouraged any cross-over between the crafts. As a result, the plasterers were expected to be able to produce a smooth plaster finish to walls and ceilings and apply decoration to them but nothing in their training would have equipped them to model plaster in a more sculptural way. On ceilings, it was the bosses and pendants which provided most of the projections in high relief which broke up the flat surface and even these elements were frequently carved in wood. Plasterwork only came to the fore as a decorative medium in England in the latter half of the sixteenth century and in many respects the plasterers were following where others (notably the joiners) had led. Despite the example of Nonsuch, plaster was not widely regarded as a sculptural medium and it took several decades for the more adventurous plasterers to discover and exploit the plastic potential of their material.

Even when a patron found a plasterer who could model rather than mould his material, an underlying snobbery seems to have pervaded attitudes to such work. Plaster, however skilfully handled, seems to have been regarded as "second-best" for chimneypieces, in the sense that, if the patron was in a position to afford carved stone or timber for his great chamber or state bedchamber, plaster would be relegated to rooms of secondary importance. This seems to have been the case at Charlton House, where the great chamber chimneypiece is of alabaster, but plaster overmantels were supplied for lower status rooms.[38] The cheapness of plaster as a material meant that it was rarely selected if the patron could demonstrate his wealth by choosing timber, stone or, better still, alabaster or marble.

The small body of hand-modelled work in London

Records of demolished work

Drawings are the only record of figurative plasterwork, now destroyed, from Paul Pindar's House (overmantel of 1600, Fig. 102 and ceiling, Fig. 84) and on ceilings of houses in Gravel Lane (Fig. 106) and Whitecross Street.  A photograph of a ceiling in Adelina Grove indicates that four figures featured on the ceiling but does not permit positive identification of them (Fig. 64). The difficulty of attributing work to particular craftsmen on the basis of drawings is exemplified by the watercolours of the ceiling at Whitecross Street made by two artists – C J Richardson and J W C Williams.[39] It is salutary to compare them, as a reminder of how much one is at the mercy of topographical artists when drawings are the only record available of demolished plasterwork. Five female three-quarter figures, in five different cartouches, featured on the ceiling but their relative positions are shown differently in the two versions. The figures are drawn in each artist’s individual style, disguising the manner of the original plasterer, and there is insufficient detail to identify them with certainty, although the Five Senses are the most likely candidates.

Fig. 102. The stone chimneypiece with plaster overmantel of Hercules and Atlas from the first-floor room in Sir Paul Pindar’s House, Bishopsgate (1600).[40]

(ii) Surviving examples of figurative work

Hand-modelled figurative plasterwork by London plasterers survives in two overmantels at Charlton House (1610-12), on two ceilings at Blickling Hall (1620), on an overmantel and two ceilings at Boston Manor (1623), on an overmantel from the Charterhouse (later 1620s) and on a ceiling at Kew Palace (1630).The striking feature which these ceilings and overmantels share is their total dependence on published images (in the form of engravings or woodcuts) for their subject-matter.[41] Questions which arise in response to this finding concern the involvement of the patron in the choice of subjects, the ownership of the engravings, and the possibility of attribution of work to specific plasterers. These questions will be considered in turn.

(iii) Iconography


It is noteworthy that only one biblical scene features among the subjects selected - on the overmantel at Boston Manor (Fig. 103) and the chapel ceiling of Paul Pindar's House (Fig. 84) - and that was the popular image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, versions of which were produced in many different media throughout the country. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son was regarded as the anti-type of God’s sacrifice of Christ. At a time when depictions of the Crucifixion were widely unacceptable, this allowed the Old Testament scene to stand in for its New Testament counterpart. The scarcity of religious imagery in London is in marked contrast to some areas of England, especially the West Country, where plaster overmantels and ceilings of the 1620s and 1630s frequently featured biblical, and even New Testament, scenes. This may simply reflect the small number of London examples, especially as current research is demonstrating that religious imagery was more acceptable in later sixteenth-century domestic contexts than has hitherto been thought.[42] On the other hand, the debate about the role of images was still hotly contested in the early seventeenth century, especially in London, and in a period of continuing uncertainty about the acceptability of such images, it could be that London patrons were more wary of committing themselves to biblical scenes in so permanent a form as plasterwork.[43]

Fig. 103. The central cartouche of the overmantel in the great chamber of Boston Manor House, with a scene of The Sacrifice of Isaac (1623).


The figurative subjects which were employed as alternatives to biblical scenes were not simply decorative but convey an interest in moral exempla which was entirely typical of the religious thinking of the period. Personifications of the three Theological Virtues fall very obviously into this category, whether on the ceilings at Boston Manor House or the overmantel of the Charterhouse, reminding the spectator very directly of the teachings of the New Testament (Fig. 104)

Fig. 104. Overmantel from the Charterhouse, ex situ, with the Theological Virtues (1620s).

Personifications of the Elements, the Seasons and the Senses would all have been glossed as aspects of God's creation which provided suitable subjects for contemplation. A great variety of such figures is included on the ceiling of Boston Manor House, so that the viewer could ponder the journey of life as he passed beneath the Four Elements and Five Senses towards the Theological Virtues.[44] He/she was accompanied along the way by Love and Time, Peace and War, Peace and Plenty and a plethora of birds and animals. This sense of a spiritual progression may explain why the different groups are not laid out as symmetrically as one might have expected.


Even pagan mythology could provide examples of heroic action which were intended to stimulate the onlooker to emulation of their virtues, with Hercules fulfilling this role on the overmantel at Paul Pindar's House (Fig. 102). Two scenes from the life of the hero Perseus provide similar spurs to heroic action in the central carouches on overmantels at Charlton House: the conception of Perseus, when Danaë was visited by Zeus in a shower of gold, and the beheading of Medusa, with Pegasus looking on (Fig. 105).[45]

Fig. 105. Scene of Perseus slaying Medusa on the overmantel of the White Drawing Room, Charlton House, Kent (1610-12).


A more literary source of such thought-provoking exempla was Henry Peacham's emblem book Minerva Britanna (1612), which provided emblems for ceilings in the house in Gravel Lane (on the ground and first floors, Fig. 106) and at Blickling Hall (the long gallery). In his dedication of Minerva Britanna to Henry, Prince of Wales, Peacham declared that the aim of the emblems in the book was 'the fashioning of a vertuous minde' and it is likely that this was the predominant reason for their appearance on ceilings.

It may be that Sir Henry Hobart, a baronet and Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, wished his gallery to fulfil the same purpose, and perhaps it was always intended that the spectator should take his exercise in the gallery armed with a copy of Peacham's book, to provide moral and spiritual, as well as physical, exercise.[46] Sir Henry's motto, 'Quae supra', which he adopted from St Paul's advice to 'Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth' could even be seen as a punning reference to the 'things' (ie the emblems) on the ceiling above the spectator's head. The layout of the long gallery ceiling at Blickling certainly implies a programme behind the design, with the Five Senses lined up along the centre according to the classical hierarchy, ascending from Touch to Sight (Fig. 107).[47] The placing of Doctrina, or Learning - sitting at the head of the line - can then be seen as a gloss on Aristotle's dictum, 'Nihil est in intellectu, quod non prius fuit in sensu', the whole sequence giving visual expression to the concept that learning can only be achieved through the senses.[48] The motto which Peacham appended to his illustration and explanatory verse - 'Via ad Deum est Scientia quae ad institutionem recte et honeste vivendi pertinet' - makes it clear that learning was not to be admired simply for its own sake but as the means of approaching God by living a good life, a wholly Protestant concept.[49]

Fig. 106. Drawing by C J Richardson of the ground-floor ceiling of a house in Gravel Lane, Houndsditch, bound into a copy of Architectural Remains of the Reigns of Elizabeth and James I, London, 1840.

Such high-mindedness was, however, tempered by the presence on the ceiling of the Hobart arms, with exuberant mantling, helm, crest and motto, alternating with the other motifs along the centre. The onlooker would be left in no doubt as to thon. Eight e wealth and status of the patron who was responsible for the splendid decoratiof Peacham's emblems can be identified on two of the ceilings at Gravel Lane but, again, it is not obvious why the patron selected particular emblems in preference to the others available

Fig.107. Section of the long gallery ceiling at Blickling Hall, Norfolk (1620).


One of the ceilings at Blickling was entirely hand-modelled but is much more frivolous in its decoration than the moralizing examples so far discussed. In the closet in the north-east turret, which leads off the long gallery, elements of grotesque ornament have been taken from the surrounds of several of Nicolaes de Bruyn's set of Perseus engravings and recombined to produce a design which does not appear to have any purpose beyond light-hearted amusement (Fig. 108).It does, moreover, demonstrate very clearly that although the plasterer followed engravings very closely when the human figure was involved, he was more selective in his plundering of them to produce such purely ornamental work. The window soffits of the gallery at Blickling demonstrate exactly the same creative use of de Bruyn's engravings but, as with the closet ceiling, one set did not supply models for all the grotesque motifs employed.

Fig. 108. Ceiling in the closet in the North East Turret off the long gallery, Blickling Hall.

(iv) Engraved sources and their ownership

Some indication of the enormous variety of engraved sources available to patrons and plasterers is demonstrated by the fact that the three surviving examples of the Five Senses (at Blickling,[50] Boston Manor House and Kew Palace) and the two representations of the Theological Virtues (at Boston Manor House and the Charterhouse), are all quite clearly based on different models. What is not clear is whether it was the patron or the plasterer who provided the engravings from which they were derived.

Many of these engravings were available as single sheets so that a plasterer might purchase some of them but not be able to afford the complete set. This might account for the presence of only three of the Nine Worthies at Bromley-by-Bow and the motley assortment of motifs at Canonbury House. But prints were also collected by patrons for their aesthetic appeal and moral/educational value and in the case of books, like Minerva Britanna, it is more likely that they belonged to patrons than to artisans.

It would seem that some patrons took a close interest in the plasterwork of their houses, as evidenced by a letter written to Lord Cobham by his steward when the decoration of Cobham Hall, Kent, was under discussion in 1600, suggesting that the plasterer should ‘be sent for to come to bring to your Lordship models or paterns of the maner of the sealing that your Lordship maie make your choise of that kind of work that shall best like you, …’.[51]

There is some documentary evidence from Blickling, in the form of the contract between Sir Henry Hobart and Edward Stanyon, but it is not conclusive. It suggests that the surveyor, Robert Lyming, was to supervise the plasterer who was to work 'according to such plottes & workemanship as now are or herafter shalbe directed [altered from 'drawne'] by Mr Robert Lyming'.[52] Stanyon was presumably able to draw his own 'plottes', but the choice of subject-matter on this occasion must surely have been the patron's. It seems likely that Hobart owned a copy of Peacham's book and stipulated which emblems were to be used; and it may have been the patron, too, who owned the copy of Architectura by Hans and Paul Vredeman de Vries, which supplied the models for the Five Senses. Although it is difficult to discern a pattern underlying the choice of emblems which flank the central figures, there was clearly some kind of intervention between the published woodcuts and the plasterwork. The reversed lettering of some of the mottoes from the book has been corrected on the ceiling, as in the inscription 'SED ADHVC MEA MESSIS IN HERBA EST' (which appears on p.150 of the book), which was printed with the letter 'S' reversed. This suggests that someone other than the plasterer was responsible for the choice of mottoes and supervised their transference to the ceiling, making corrections along the way.

The selection of a set of personifications may also have been made in the light of purely practical considerations, such as the shape or layout of the ceiling. Where a ceiling was divided into four by beams, as at Adelina Grove or Gravel Lane, one of the groups comprising four figures was an obvious choice.

Is it then possible that the use of a recognizable source at different sites can be taken to indicate the presence of the same plasterer? It seems unlikely that there can be any certain answer to this question, given the wide availability of the engravings. Moreover, the Abbott notebooks suggest that the question itself is an over-simplification of the problem. The notebooks are a unique survival in which, amongst other exercises, members of a family of Devon plasterers recorded motifs and designs which they had not themselves executed.[53] This suggests an additional mode of operation on the part of plasterers of the time whereby drawings were made in similar sketchbooks, from engravings or books which they did not themselves own, or from executed plasterwork projects on which they worked, either as the contracted plasterer or as one of his journeymen or apprentices. This would help to explain the way in which ornamental motifs from different engraved sources were combined and re-combined on several occasions. If one examines the use made of the surrounds of Nicolaes de Bruyn's set of engravings of scenes from the life of Perseus at Charlton House, Blickling Hall, Boston Manor House and Paul Pindar's House, to which Anthony Wells-Cole draws attention, it is evident that the degree of 'mix-and-match' varied considerably between the various ceilings and overmantels.[54] None of the four relied totally on the Andromeda surround; even at Boston Manor House, which is very close to the original engraving, a cherub head from Danaë and a female mask from an unidentified source are introduced (Fig. 109).

Fig. 109. Overmantel in the great chamber, Boston Manor House (1623).

In the Danaë overmantel at Charlton House (Fig. 110), the central cartouche is surrounded by elements selected from four of the set – not just Danaë but also Andromeda, Medusa and Atlas. And the surround of the Perseus engraving from the same set was the source for elements in both the ceiling and frieze in the long gallery. On the ceiling it was a double-winged grotesque figure that filled one of the lozenge-shaped panels, while in the frieze it was the scrolling, floral detail which provided the basis of the design. This suggests that the plasterer at Charlton House either had access to or owned the complete suite of engravings.

Fig. 110. The Danaë overmantel in the Newton Room, Charlton House (1610-12).

Much less reliance on de Bruyn's engravings is visible in the Blickling ceiling (Fig. 108) and soffits, and even less in the Paul Pindar ceiling (Fig. 84), where only a cherub head (from Danaë), a caryatid scroll (from Andromeda) and a strapwork motif (from Phineus) seem dependent on this source. Given that the caryatid scroll is the only one of these motifs shared by the ceilings at Blickling and Paul Pindar’s house, Anthony Wells-Cole's conclusion that it seems highly likely that Edward Stanyon, the plasterer at Blickling, 'was also responsible for the ceiling in Sir Paul Pindar's chapel' is somewhat over-optimistic.

Where motifs or scenes were quarried from the same set of engravings on more than one occasion, one might hope that it would be possible to compare the way in which such source material was handled by different plasterers. This can only really be practicable in the case of surviving examples; the intervention of another artist in the case of record drawings makes it impossible to detect any personal style in the execution of the original plasterwork. For this reason, no comparison is feasible between the versions of three Peacham emblems at Blickling and Gravel Lane, or between the Sacrifice of Isaac scene at Paul Pindar's House and Boston Manor House.

One is then left with very little surviving plasterwork which can provide an acceptable basis for stylistic comparisons of the handling of the same elements. The only repeated motifs are the climbing figures holding palm fronds on the overmantels from Charlton House and Boston Manor House, and the caryatid scroll at Blickling and Boston Manor House- all copied from the surround to de Bruyn's Andromeda.

The Danaë overmantel at Charlton House (Fig.110) is clearly the work of a plasterer who was quite confident of his ability to model the human figure. In the interests of symmetry he has reversed the relative positions of the legs and arms of one of the climbing figures and made them both female.(This also applies to the mermaid figures in the bottom corners of the overmantel, taken from the Atlas engraving.) Their heads are turned to look jauntily towards the spectator, as they gracefully stretch out across their strapwork footholds, clutching ribands rather than the winged snails of the original. At Boston Manor House (Fig. 109) the plasterer felt unable to abandon his source to any extent; and where he has failed to follow his model, in the placing of the right foot of the left-hand figure, the result is awkward and less satisfactory than the original. The same confident handling of figures is apparent in the depiction of Perseus and Pegasus in the cartouche of the Perseusovermantel at Charlton House (Fig. 105). There can be no question that it was two separate plasterers who were making use of the same engraved sources at these two houses.

A comparison of the caryatid scrolls at Blickling (Fig.108) and Boston Manor House (Fig. 109) suggests that the same conclusion can be drawn, since there are differences in the treatment of the profile heads, of the decoration of the scrolls, the detailing of the lower half of the caryatids, and the overall depth of modelling. This last characteristic is consistent with the generally low relief of all the hand-modelled work at Blickling, in marked contrast to the high-relief of the figures on both ceiling and overmantel at Boston Manor House.

In general, one might have expected overmantels to be particularly indebted to sheets of engraved ornament, simply because no major adaptation was required to transfer the model to the available space. In terms of surrounds, the Charlton House overmantels have undermined such expectations; and in terms of figurative subjects, the overmantel from the Master's Lodging in the Charterhouse exhibits the same kind of freedom in the treatment of the source material.

Of all the figurative plasterwork in London, the Theological Virtues of the latter overmantel, executed in high relief, are easily the most sophisticated in their treatment of the female form (Fig. 104). Although the plasterer stuck closely to his source for the basic design and iconography, the subtle differences which he introduced testify to a highly-developed aesthetic sense.[55]The figure of Faith has been turned a full forty-five degrees so that she now provides a symmetrical counterpart to Hope. Hope's rather ungainly pose in the engraving has been adjusted by uncrossing the right leg resting on her left knee and tucking it more demurely behind her left calf. All this necessitated considerable readjustment of the drapery around the legs of both figures, which was well within the competence of the plasterer, showing a much more thorough grasp of the bodies beneath the drapery than was usually the case in plasterwork of this period. The humorous detail of the snail emerging from his shell in the right foreground would appear to be the plasterer's own invention. Although there are some building accounts from the 1620s and 1630s (the most likely date for the overmantel), they contain no reference to the overmantel or the plasterer who created it.

Where there is evidence of several engraved sources being used at a single house, as at Blickling and Boston Manor House, it is clear that plasterers developed a recognizable individual style which was not dependant on the sources they were using. The overall flatness of the low-relief modelling at Blickling, where the figures have rather chunky limbs and vacant expressions, does not vary between the vignettes from Peacham and those of the Five Senses. It is in marked contrast to the (mainly) female figures which inhabit the Boston Manor ceiling (Fig.111).

Fig. 111. The figure of Visus (Sight) from the great chamber ceiling, Boston Manor House (1623).

Although their limbs are much more elegant they are combined with over-large heads, receding chins and protruding eyes and noses, whether they are based on engravings by Cornelis Cort (the Five Senses) or Marcus Gheeraerts (the Four Elements).[56] One would therefore be tempted to look for similar stylistic treatment in the other examples of modelled work, to expand the oeuvre of these plasterers, but it is difficult to detect any striking similarities of handling among the few extant examples.

It might be argued that in the ten years which elapsed between the decoration of Blickling and Kew Palace, Edward Stanyon's handling of the female figure could have undergone some improvement, and that he could have been responsible for the Five Senses at Kew (Fig. 112). The latter are derived from the same engravings by Cornelis Cort as their sisters at Boston Manor House but they are handled with much greater flair and sophistication. The modelling of the figures is less flattened than at Blickling and more elegant than at Boston Manor House; but the limbs are still rather thick and the facial expressions vapid, with a much poorer grasp of human anatomy than on the Charterhouse overmantel.

Fig. 112. The figure of Sight from the ceiling of Kew Palace (1630).

Just as at Boston Manor House, the Senses and their attributes have been cleverly rearranged by the plasterer to fit within the circular ribs of the ceiling. The tendency to protruding noses and receding chins persists at Kew and it is possible that the same plasterer was responsible for both, his overall command of figurative work having improved in the intervening seven years. Without documentation such a connection must remain entirely speculative and it is just as likely that the ceiling at Kew was the work of another plasterer entirely.

Plasterers of modelled work – James Avis, William Blackshaw

The desire to attach surviving plasterwork to the names of plasterers known to have been responsible for such work is, of course, greatly tempting. In this connection it must be noted that two London plasterers who are known to have executed modelled plasterwork, which has not survived, have not yet been mentioned. The first of these is James Avis, who was responsible for 'makinge and finishinge' a statue of Hector for the hall at Blickling in 1627. When the hall was altered in the eighteenth century, reference was made to the rest of the Nine Worthies and to the fact that Hector stood in a niche.[57] From these references it would appear that Avis was contributing to a decorative scheme probably similar to the frieze of the great chamber at Aston Hall, Warwickshire.

It is not known when James Avis began his apprenticeship but he was made free of his master, Edward Stanyon, and paid his 'abling' fee in 1619.[58]It is most probable, therefore, that he accompanied Stanyon to Blickling as his journeyman in 1620 and could have spent some years working for his old master. Avis did not take an apprentice on his own behalf until 1629, so he may not have started to work for himself much before that date. His appearance at Blickling in 1627 therefore suggests that he was still associated with Stanyon, perhaps working in partnership with him rather than as a journeyman, and that he was a skilful modeller in plaster. Stanyon was appointed City Plasterer in 1627 and may have felt reluctant to leave London for Norfolk at that juncture, delegating the work to a colleague in whose abilities he had confidence. An alternative possibility is that Avis's sculptural skills were more pronounced than those of his ex-master and that Avis was employed in preference to Stanyon for the decoration of the hall. It is unfortunate that there is a gap in the building accounts between 1622 and 1627 so it is not clear whether any plasterers were on site during that period. As the hall plasterwork was totally destroyed in the eighteenth century and it is the only plasterwork which has so far been connected with James Avis, we have no means of assessing his talents and perhaps of associating other work with his name. James Avis had died by 1639 and although his widow continued to pay quarterage, their son, Roger, was apprenticed to another London company member.[59]

The second plasterer about whose work almost nothing is known, beyond the fact that he was capable of producing modelled plasterwork, is William Blackshaw. Blackshaw had also been apprenticed to a leading plasterer, in his case James Leigh, the royal Master Plasterer. Although he was not officially entitled to membership of the London Plasterers' Company (as Leigh had not been a freeman), in 1646 he was admitted on generous terms. To demonstrate his skill he 'made a tryall of his arte in setting up and makeing the kings stature in the Hall', which so impressed the Court of Assistants that it was decided 'in respecte of his poverty to accepte of the same in lew and full discharge of his fine'.[60] Whether the 'stature' was a relief, a bust or a full-length statue, Blackshaw must have been capable of producing a reasonable likeness of the king to convince his audience.

The cases of Avis and Blackshaw have been included to serve as a reminder that there were probably a great many other plasterers who trained with leading practitioners and went on to become capable of producing hand-modelled plasterwork of a high standard. The temptation to assign such plasterwork only to the names of men documented as having produced work of this kind is one which must therefore be resisted.


From this survey of London decorative plasterwork it has become clear that several significant developments took place during this period in the kind of decoration which patrons demanded of plasterers and in the technical skills of the plasterers themselves.

The introduction of enriched ribs in the later sixteenth century began a move towards much greater coverage of the surface of the ceiling with ornament. This was greatly facilitated by the use of strapwork, which probably contributed more than any other factor to change the overall appearance of Jacobean ceilings.

Since the royal Master Plasterer, Richard Dungan, who was in place at the turn of the century, was an older, well-established but probably rather conservative craftsman, it is unlikely that he was the source of experiments in decorative plasterwork; but this supposition has to be based solely on the appearance of the plasterwork at Knole, since there is no surviving royal plasterwork with which comparison can be made.

The impetus for experimentation would, therefore, seem to have been first felt in the houses of leading courtiers, such as Sir Walter Cope, Robert Cecil or the Suffolks. By the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century, with the development of complex rib designs and the incorporation of strapwork, a new style of plasterwork had been established. Since leading courtiers made use of the workforce which supplied the Royal Works, and since these men were predominantly members of the London Plasterers' Company, a channel was established whereby courtly influence could reach less socially-elevated London citizens.

The effect on London plasterwork would not have been felt instantaneously, since the plasterers themselves would have had to learn to adapt their techniques to the new styles. In smaller houses especially, plasterwork which was old-fashioned by courtly standards continued to appear into the 1630s. Nevertheless, houses like Boston Manor House and Bury Hall demonstrate that by the early 1620s the full-blown courtier style of plasterwork was available to members of the City élite who had the wealth to commission it

[1]The most significant contributions have been made by D Bostwick, ‘Decorative Plasterwork of the Yorkshire Region 1570-1670’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1993; M Puloy, ‘Decorative Plasterwork in Hertfordshire’, Hertfordshire Archaeology, 8, 1980-82, 144-99; J & J Penoyre, Decorative Plasterwork in the Houses of Somerset1500-1700, Somerset County Council, 1994; J Thorp, ‘Wall Painting and Lime-Plaster Decoration’ in P Beacham (ed), Devon Building, Exeter, 1990, 129-49.

[2]For an interesting discussion of the ownership of country estates by City merchants see R G Lang, ‘Social Origins and Social Aspirations of Jacobean London Merchants’, Economic History Review, Series 2, 27, 1974, 28-47.

[3]N Kingsley, The Country Houses of Gloucestershire, Volume One 1500-1660, Cheltenham, 1989, 68-72.

[4]The variety of these decorative treatments is described in R Scourfield, ‘The Livery Company Hall 1536-1666’, Unpublished MA Report, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1993, Chapter 8.

[5]GL MS 30727/4: Skinners’ Company – Receipts and Payments 1564-96. Payments are recorded at ff 305, 306 and 309.

[6]The Leathersellers’ Company does not permit direct access to its records and I am therefore indebted to Wendy Darke, Temporary Archivist to the Company, for her transcription of the entries from the Wardens’ Accounts and Court Minutes relating to the hall ceiling.

[7] A slightly different view of the hall, including the undercroft and dated 1817, was published by R Wilkinson, Londina Illustrata, Vol I, London, 1819, Plate 30.

[8]GL MSS 6122/1: 10th September 1585, 8th November 1613; & 6127/1.

[9]GL MS 6122/2: 10th December 1635.

[10]P Metcalf, The Halls of the Fishmongers’ Company, London, 1977, 41.

[11]Leigh’s work at the Charterhouse was described in Chapter II, in the section devoted to James Leigh’s career.

[12] An account of the monuments is to be found in N Llewellyn & C Gapper, ‘Chapter Four. The Drawings. I. The Funeral Monuments’, in M Evans (ed), The Lumley Inventory and Pedigree, The Roxburghe Club, 2010, 35-8.

[13]The sloping sides of the triangular beam are also decorated but they could not be seen clearly; and on photographs it is impossible to make out any more than pairs of winged cherubs apparently carrying large containers.

[14]The interior of the church is illustrated in RCHME, London, Vol IV, The City, London, 1929, Plate 57.

[15]Examples of pargetting have been excluded as none has survived intact; and the number or recorded examples is not only very small but also appears to date, for the most part, from after 1650.

[16]In chronological order, at Lynsted Park, Kent (1599), Bromley-by-Bow (1606) and Mapledurham House, Oxon (c 1612).

[17]According to P Metcalf, The Halls of the Fishmongers’ Company, London, 1977, 40, Thomas Laughton or Langton leased and rebuilt the medieval mansion known as Tiptoft’s Inn from the Fishmongers’ Company at that date. Drawings of the ceiling designs were made by G H Birch and R P Spiers and published in 1875; a copy is held in the NMR, City,

Lime Street

[18]M Girouard, ‘Elizabethan Architecture and the Gothic Tradition’, Architectural History, 6, 23-39.

[19]An early design for a ceiling by the German, Daniel Hopfer I (c.1530), based on similar round-cornered squares, is illustrated in S Jervis, Printed Furniture Designs before 1650, Furniture History Society, 1974, Plate 6.

[20]It seems more likely that the ceiling of the original entrance hall of Holland House (originally known as Cope Castle)was decorated by Sir Walter Cope, c.1607, than by the Earl of Holland after 1624. Holland was very close to the court and there are strong indications that he was influenced by Inigo Jones in his decoration of the house, for which he did not employ a plasterer. Holland’s monogram and earl’s coronet could easily have been painted onto the pre-existing ceiling of Walter Cope’s house.

[21]It is noted in A Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England – The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, 127, that four of the ceiling rib designs at Knole are repeated in Walter Gedde’s pattern book of 1615 (see Fig. 77). In fact, three of the designs had all appeared on London ceilings before the end of the sixteenth century and were not original to Knole.

[22]The ceiling was originally painted white; the gilding and painted heraldry were added in the nineteenth century.

[23]Examples of the ingenuity with which these engravings were employed are illustrated in A Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England – The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, Chapter 5.

[24]The date of the house is accepted as 1612 (on the basis of Lysons’ Environs) in Survey of London, Vol. XXXVII, Northern Kensington, London, 1973, 55. It is suggested there that Hicks may have been enlarging and remodelling the house which had been built on the site for Sir Walter Cope in the late sixteenth century.

[25]Richardson’s unpublished watercolour is held in the Local Studies Library of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

[26]TNA E 351/3243, Whitehall, Task-work: Richard Dungan.

[27]From the transcript of the Parliamentary Survey of Wimbledon in Surrey Archaeological Collections, Vol V, 1871, 108.

[28]The identification of this badge is made in the typescript by J E D Touche, ‘The Worthies and the Regalia’, 1973, which is in the possession of RCAHMS, Edinburgh. I am indebted to Ian Gow for providing me with a photocopy of the typescript.

[29]From the photographs it looks as though the stems of the flowers are incorporated within curling paired ‘C’s, for Walter Cope.

[30] A list of herbals published in England between 1550 and 1618 is given in G W Digby, Elizabethan Embroidery, London (1963), p 44. The National Botany Library has a large holding of herbals from this period, both English and imported, in which the verbal descriptions are as important as the illustrations, which are intended to be scientifically accurate and therefore show the complete plant, not just the flower.

[31]In this connection, see M Snodin & M Howard, Ornament: A Social History from 1450, New Haven & London, 1996, 119.

[32] Further research is required in this area to identify specific examples of floral motifs derived from these pattern-books.

[33]RCHME, Essex II, Central and South West Essex, London, 1921, 269.

[34]S Lewis, History & Topography of the Parish of Saint Mary, Islington, London, 1842, 164-5.

[35]Northampton Central Library: Dryden Collection, 1872.

[36]Gentleman’s Magazine, 1796, Part II, 545.

[37]V&A, Dept of Prints & Drawings: EO 11.

[38]The same situation prevailed at Hardwick New Hall in the 1590s. No less than seventeen hand-modelled plaster overmantels survive but the chimneypieces in the High Great Chamber, the long gallery and the state bedchamber are all of carved alabaster.

[39]Both versions are held by the LMA.

[40]I am grateful to Dr Leon Lock for identifying one of Cornelis Cort’s engravings of the Labours of Hercules as the source for the scene in the overmantel.

[41]Many of these connections have been made and illustrated in M Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance 1500-1650, London, 1924, 26, 29 and English Decorative Plasterwork of the Renaissance, London, 1927, 14-16, 18; and in A Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England- The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, 91-3, 102, 122, 164-6.

[42] R L Williams, ‘Religious Pictures and Sculpture in Elizabethan England: Censure, Appreciation and Devotion’, Unpublished Ph D thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 2001.

[43]The most comprehensive discussion of this topic is provided by Tara Hamling, Decorating the Godly Household, New Haven & London, 2011.

[44]I owe this reading of the ceiling to Tara Hamling, Decorating the Godly Household, New Haven & London, 2011, 149-51.

[45]The chimneypiece is currently painted in imitation of marble and is less clear in this photograph than in the illustration in M Jourdain, English Decoration and Furniture of the Early Renaissance 1500-1650, London, 1924, 148, although the image there (Fig. 207) is reversed.

[46]For a further discussion of this point see John Newman’s contribution to the National Trust guidebook, Blickling Hall, 1987, 20-22.

[47]For useful discussions of engravings of the Five Senses, see two contributions by C Nordenfalk: ‘The Five Senses in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, JWCI, 48, 1985, 1-22; and ‘The Five Senses in Flemish art before 1600’, Netherlandish Mannerism, Nationalmusei Skriftserie, N.S.4, Stockholm, 1985, 135-54.

[48]M Bath, Speaking Pictures, London, 1994, 41.

[49]Peacham’s indebtedness to Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1603 edn) for his figure of Doctrina is discussed in M Corbett and R Lightbown, The Comely Frontispiece, London, 1979, 168-9.

[50]I am indebted to Nicolas Barker for the source of the Blickling Five Senses, which are taken from plates illustrating the Five Orders with the Five Senses in Architectura by Hans and Paul Vredeman de Vries, 1606-7.They are illustrated in P Fuhring & G Luitjen (eds), Hollstein’s Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts 1450-1700, Vol XLVIII, Vredeman de Vries, Part II, 1572-1630, Rotterdam, 1997, Plates 615-19. The plasterer at Blickling has made minor alterations but the source was responsible for the unusual juxtaposition of classical drapery for three of the Senses and contemporary dress for the other two. The labels above the figures at Blickling follow exactly the spelling in the engravings.

[51]I am indebted to John Newman for the transcription of this passage from TNA SP 12/276/37.

[52]This contract is printed as Appendix A in C Stanley-Millson & J Newman, ‘Blickling Hall: The building of a Jacobean mansion’, Architectural History, 29, 1986, 17.

[53]The Abbott notebooks (Devon Record Office: 404 M/B1; photocopy available at NAL: 86.W.1-2) are a compilation of many different kinds of material over many years, whose status is still a subject of debate. The most useful assessments so far published are those by John Thorp (in P Beacham (ed), Devon Building, Devon Books, Exeter, 1990, 139-42); Michael Bath, ‘The sources of John Abbott’s Pattern Book, Architectural History, 41, 1998, 49-66; and Tara Hamling, Decorating the Godly Household, New Haven & London, 2011, 17-18. An excellent blog on the subject, compiled by Jenny Saunt, is available at:

[54]Anthony Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England- The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, 91-3.

[55]The engraving is illustrated in A Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England- The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, 166.

[56] For illustrations of the engravings alongside the Boston Manor plasterwork see A Wells-Cole, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England- The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625, New Haven & London, 1997, 102 and 91 respectively.

[57]C Stanley-Millson & J Newman, ‘Blickling Hall: The building of a Jacobean mansion’, Architectural History, 29, 1986, 10.

[58]GL MS 6122/1: 23rd May 1619. It would appear that James Avis came from a village close to Stanyon’s own Northamptonshire birthplace, since he took as his second apprentice Thomas Avis, son of Robert Avis, a yeoman of Stibbington, Northamptonshire, on 21st March 1631/2.

[59]GL MS 6122/2: 7th November 1639 and 24th June 1647.

[60]GL MS 6122/2: 26th June 1646.