Lines of Beauty – Rococo Plasterwork ​and ​Revival of a Lost Art

by | Interiors

It was William Hogarth who in the 18th century put forward his theory that a serpentine or ‘S’ shaped line is a ‘Line of Beauty’. He stated what many widely believed before and after him – until that is – we get to Modernism. Quite simply the idea was that curves were voluptuous and stimulating and straight lines were by contrast dour and dull.

Foundling Museum ceiling plasterwork

The Foundling Hospital Court Room © The Foundling Museum

The heyday of the ‘line of beauty’ in the decorative arts was of course during the 17th and 18th centuries, with both the Baroque and then Rococo styles. Its last hurrah was at the turn of the century with Art Nouveau, when it made a flamboyant if brief return.  A Modernist contempt with surface decoration as ‘dishonest’ and extraneous was later to lead to a ‘cleaning’ up of all lines –  whilst ‘beauty’ was pronounced irrelevant.

There is of course an extravagance of serpentine lines in both Baroque and Rococo plasterwork. An exhibition at the Foundling Museum surveys 400 years of decorative plasterwork, centred around the museum’s own recently restored Rococo Court Room. The plasterwork in this magnificent room was made and donated by Georgian master craftsman and entrepreneur William Wilton in the 1740s. Wilton’s generous donation was the product of a twenty five year campaign by painter and satirist William Hogarth, for all the leading artists of the day, to donate an artwork to the newly created Foundling Hospital. A campaign that included donations of paintings from Gainsborough, Reynolds as well as Hogarth himself – and even benefit concerts by Handel. The original Foundling Hospital building was unfortunately demolished by a developer in the 1920s. But quite remarkably the plasterwork was saved and relocated piece by piece to their current site at the Museum.

Such examples of Rococo plasterwork in Britain, including the extraordinary work at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, are relatively rare compared to the Continent and even Ireland, where it was much more popular. Claydon is also the mother-load of English Rococo plasterwork, even though much of what appears to be plaster is in fact carved wood. The Verney family at Claydon intended to build a sort of Rococo palace in an act of political and social one-upmanship with the Temple family at Stowe. Social competition of this sort was quite common and frequently ruinous -and in this case led to bankruptcy and the partial demolition of the house. And so it was that England’s only Rococo palace – imperfect and unconfident though it may have been – was reduced to a rump of a building. But what a rump!

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire rococo plasterwork ceiling

Detail of the frieze beneath the glass dome in the staircase hall. The frieze is carved wood, and the ceiling coves are plasterwork by Rose. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire rococo plasterwork chinoiserie detail

Detail of carved swans on the overmantel in the North Hall at Claydon House. The Rococo decoration is largely the work of the carver Luke Lightfoot. Rebuilt in 1760s © GDC-group

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire rococo plasterwork chinoiserie

The Tea Party – a carving inside the Pagoda in the Chinese Room at Claydon Park, Buckinghamshire. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

There is something magical and fantastical about Rococo plasterwork. It’s a decorative art form with higher ambitions – apparently wishing and often deserving – to be treated on par with high art forms like painting and sculpture. Italian craftsmen had introduced their highly skilled stucco work to Britain in the mid-18th century for the decoration of country houses and churches. Unlike the shallow and repetitive stucco patterns of the Neo-Classical style, that could easily be fabricated in cast moulds, Rococo plasterwork was hand worked in wet plaster.

But there were both pragmatic and ideological issues that sealed the doom of this short-lived style (1710-70) and its techniques. The problem was that hand modelled plasterwork was not only quite expensive, but in the later 18th century – with both revolution and war in Europe – the Rococo style in general was perceived as somewhat un-British and unpatriotic. In contrast, the more restrained Neo-Classical style identified the English as latter-day Romans – a fitting identity for a small island with big ambitions. This meant that after a brief but beautiful flourishing, the fashion and skills simply disappeared – until the late 20th century.

The lost art was momentarily revived in the mid 1970s by the brilliant Christopher Hobbs, who helped the architectural historian Gervaise Jackson-Stops restore the exquisite Rococo plasterwork at the  Menagerie in Northamptonshire. The folly was built in the 1750s and designed and decorated for the Earl of Halifax by the great polymath Thomas Wright – both of whom were great enthusiasts of the Rococo style. When Jackson-Stops purchased it in 1972 the building and its plasterwork were badly damaged. Hobbs was one of the few people in England in the 1970s who could model stucco freehand, having previously made a number of plaster reliefs for the interior designer John Fowler. Hobbs is very much a polymath himself with a wide variety of skills and imagination to match. Having realised many other fantasies at the Menagerie including an elaborate shell grotto, he then went on to become a Bafta-nominated production designer and artist who has worked on over 50 major films.

Claydon House in Buckinghamshire plasterwork detail

Relief plasterwork in white on Wedgewood blue background on the pink wall of the Staircase at Claydon, Buckinghamshire. © GDC group

Geoffrey Preston working on a clay model based on a Tintoretto painting of Bacchus rococo plasterwork

Geoffrey Preston working on a clay model based on a Tintoretto painting of Bacchus, Venue & Ariadne, 2013 © nickcarterphotography.com

It was following a devastating fire in 1989 at the National Trust’s Uppark House in West Sussex, where five 18th century ceilings were destroyed, that the lost art of hand modelled stucco was given its major impetus. With his art college and stonemason background, Geoffrey Preston rose to the challenge, leading a team of sculptors to restore the damage over the next fourteen months. Preston’s experience at Uppark led him to reexamine the language of Rococo plasterwork that he was then able to incorporate into his own original work. In particular he began to uncover the proportion and geometry of 18th century stucco patterns, that acts as a fundamental frame or skeleton for the construction of the Rococo style. Preston eventually established his workshop in Devon in 2000. Since then many other commissions have followed, including the award-winning Great Fulford in Devon and a ceiling for a project in Ireland by Quinlan and Francis Terry. The Foundling Museum exhibition brings the story right up to date, with examples of Geoffrey Preston’s work, details of his extraordinary restoration activities and many of his sketches.

The Modernist idea of houses as machines may thankfully have faded away in our Post-Modernist environment, but any ‘lines of beauty’ – and indeed plasterwork – in the decorative arts today, are largely restricted to either historicism or restoration. Will a contemporary total-style ever again emerge that is popular and embraces voluptuous forms? Will the revived skill of freehand plasterwork ever again fit into contemporary culture in the way it once did? No sight or sound of any of that I’m afraid. Meanwhile we can but hope that it is not just disasters like the fires at both National Trust properties at Uppark and more recently at Clandon Park in Surrey, that will ensure a healthy future for this most beautiful, beguiling and underrated of art forms.

Clandon Park main hall after fire

The day after the devastating fire at Clandon Park, Surrey. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

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