Parlington Hall :: Example of Fibrous Plaster Cornice

Lime Plaster Cornice

Amongst the debris of the former wine cellars, which were located at the rear of the Drawing Room, is as detailed in the header picture a large piece of plaster cornice which I have re-created in Google Sketchup. The moulding is around 5" by 7" high. The actual piece I am re-constructing and will photograph it after completion, [Time and tide wait for no man: so here it is, originally three pieces, slowwwwly being re-constructed! More to do yet, but its looking a lot more like the how it should be than when I pulled it from the ground.] is around 12" in length, as seen below; click on the image for a larger version.

Partly Reconstructed Cornice

A Note on Classical Plasterwork

Decorative plasterwork in buildings from the middle ages onward would be either; the best created by burning gypsum, a mineral form of calcium sulphate; or the more abundant, but inferior, lime plaster, calcium oxide.

Perhaps the most well known source of early gypsum plaster is from France, where large deposits under Montmarte, are know as Plaster of Paris. French plaster was sent to England as early as the thirteenth century, later with regard to its significance in building, extensive deposits were mined from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Lime plaster is too caustic to be used directly for plastering and must be slaked, that is combined with a quantity of water in order to reduce the caustic properties. Without slaking the lime blisters and bubbles, creating an unsightly finish. Seemingly the Roman's had a law forbidding the use of lime unless it had been kept for three years, during that period sufficient moisture would be taken up to have effectively slaked the lime.

Wall finishes in plaster were applied in coats, being a mixture of slaked lime, washed or clean sand and a binding agent such as horse hair. Sometimes the finishing coat was was in finer gypsum plaster, although this would be reserved for quality projects, such as country houses like Parlington.

Not only was horse hair used for binding but the gelatine obtained from boiling horses hooves provided a useful plasticiser, a mechanism for aiding the workability of the wet plaster. Other animals were not exempt from being added to the mix, cows and bullocks hair was common, but for very fine work goat hair provided the best solution.

Plaster has a close cousin, termed stucco and I have never been quite clear as to the distinction, however an eminent Italian architect and painter of the sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari, described the basic difference between plaster and stucco. Namely the additon of slaked lime of marble dust in lieu of sand and hair, this would account for the ability to create a polished surface to such decorations, giving a fine sheen with lasting durability. I have seen it stated that stucco is for external usage, whilst this is so, it does not follow that it would not also be used for internal decoration.

Cornice Style

The cornice at the head of the page, is probably late Georgian, if it has come from the Drawing Room section, certainly not the Baroque style that might have been undertakien by Vassali in the Dining Room and associated rooms built for Sir Edward Gascoigne.

The Georgian style takes from the classic period and the following sketches are based on three principal geometric styles used by classical designers.

Cyma Recta

Cyma Reversa

Cavetto

West Wing Cornice

Mouldings take the form of combinations of these basic shapes and although many are similar, there are no fixed designs, the picture below is of the cornice style found on the first floor of the remaining West Wing.

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Notes

The book mentioned below was obtained as it seemed possible that it might have references to one of the craftsmen mentioned in Sir Edward Gascoigne's diaries of the 1730's. He stated as follows: March 15th 1732, bargained with Mr Vassali to do my chappel according to plan with a window and ceiling in ye Tribune...Thus I had hoped that some pieces of the work of Mr Vassali might be discovered amongst the remains of the demolished building. The pieces mentioned here are probably later, I suspect from the upper storey of the Drawing Room section. Mr Vassali is mentioned in the book in various places as having been employed in numerous Stately Homes, this may be worth exploring in more detail in the future.

References

The information on classical plastering has been enhanced by information sourced from the highly regarded book Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain, by Geoffrey Beard. First published by Phaidon Press Ltd 1975 ISBN 0 7148 1686 8.

The inner cover flap of the book states: Decorative plasterwork was created by skilled craftsmen, and for over four hundred years it has been an essential part of the interior decoration of the British Country House...

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