Claire Gapper - Court or Country? The emergence of decorative plasterwork in sixteenth-century England

seminar report

During the sixteenth century, decorative plasterwork became an almost universal feature of interior design in royal palaces as well as in the houses of courtiers and rich Londoners. Beginning in royal residences, the enthusiasm for such decoration spread outward, imitated by courtly and merchant and professional groups. Both quick-setting gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris) — widely used still today on walls and ceilings — and lime plaster were used. The latter, because of its various qualities, became the ideal medium for all sorts of decorative work until the eighteenth century, though both types were used in very different ways to produce varied effects of texture, colour, durability and so on. While at first plaster ranked low in the hierarchy of coveted decorative materials — marble, for example, ranked much higher — it came to be used in the sixteenth century to decorate grand chimneypieces and ceilings. On ceilings it was often combined with elaborate, costly wooden fretwork sometimes reflecting Hispano-Moorish artesonado style. With greater experimentation from the later fifteenth century into the sixteenth, plasterwork became more widely appreciated. Henry VII’s ‘Beauty Room’ at Windsor Castle; Cardinal Wolsey’s ‘Star Ceiling’ at Hampton Court; and Henry VIII’s ‘Holy Day Closet’, also at Hampton Court, and other works suggest the ways both taste and plastering skills were transformed over the period, partly reflecting the influence of Italian renaissance models. Serlian taste spread quite widely, inspired first by examples in royal palaces and the circulation of pattern-books. Nonsuch Palace, whose influence on decoration has probably been exaggerated, nonetheless helped popularise plasterwork decoration, as seen in The Sun Inn in Saffron Waldon. Other houses, like Sir Anthony Browne’s West Horsley Place, show how changing royal taste was carried into the countryside from the 1540s at least through the 1590s and later. Although courtier patrons often happily experimented with new effects, monarchs and their consorts, including Anne of Denmark at Somerset House, continued to dominate the most fashionable patronage of plasterwork decoration. CCN