Auricular plasterwork?

by The Frame Blog

by Dr Claire Gapper

Lime plaster is an eminently suitable material for the creation of decoration in the auricular style. It is malleable and slow-setting, allowing the plasterer to continue perfecting his work over several weeks, whether cast from moulds or hand-modelled. Decorative plasterwork in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was heading towards an increasingly ‘fleshy’ style but the influence of Inigo Jones meant that, unlike picture frames, it never became fully Auricular.

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Fig. 1. Strapwork from Bury Hall, Middlesex (c1620). © Victoria & Albert Museum.

The description of Auricular frames as ‘leatherwork’ in seventeenth-century bills immediately brings to mind the French use of ‘cuirs’ at that time, when referring to ‘strapwork’. Originating in the stuccowork at Fontainebleau, strapwork, became an essential element in English plasterwork. Although hand-run, the strapwork that flowed across plaster ceilings was initially rather flat but by 1620 it had become more three-dimensional, with concave profiles terminating in high-relief scrolls.

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Fig. 2. Grotesque mask in the Drawing Room frieze at Lyme Park, Cheshire (c1600). © Richard Gapper. By courtesy of the National Trust.

A similar trend can be observed in the cartouches that accompanied strapwork, both of which were combined with ‘grotteschi’ – masks, lion heads, small whimsical figures – to produce the ceilings and friezes typical of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

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Fig. 3. Detail of the great chamber ceiling at Hall Place, Bexley, Kent (c.1650). © Richard Gapper. By courtesy of the Bexley Heritage Trust.

Plasterers were clearly well-placed to adopt the Auricular style when it became fashionable but this development failed to materialise. Inigo Jones wrought a dramatic change in the design of ceilings. Beams decorated with guilloche and scrolling acanthus, laid out geometrically, replaced enriched ribs and strapwork; and architectural mouldings became the primary source of decoration. This severity was lightened by garlands of bay leaves or of fruit and foliage, the latter occasionally incorporating lion heads and grotesque masks, as at Ham House. Clearly some patrons found this chaste style too plain and soon the fields between the beams blossomed with a greater variety of motifs and vigorously scrolling acanthus. Forde Place, Dorset and Hall Place, Kent (both 1650s) provide vivid examples of this mixed style. Even here, symmetry was maintained and decoration failed to break the bounds of its geometrical framework. Nor did outlines dissolve into the rippling distortion typical of Auricular frames to provide running ornament.

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Fig. 4. Cartouche from a ceiling at a house in Surrey (1680s). © Claire Gapper. By kind permission of the owners.

Although increasingly exuberant in its decoration, the Jonesian model prevailed for the rest of the century. Cartouches, as fields for heraldic display, remained popular but despite their ebullient modelling, do not really qualify as ‘ear-like’. English plasterers and patrons alike ceased to venture any further along the Auricular path.

Dr Claire Gapper is an independent scholar.

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