Many of the traditional techniques from yesteryear are still employed today. The overall process of being able to produce a beautiful, yet strong piece of plaster craft is still evidenced in today’s architecture and restoration practices.
There is early evidence that plastering can be traced back to the prehistoric times, when man would plaster mud on the framework of sticks that made up his home.
The Egyptians would plaster the inside of tombs and create exquisite and finely detailed artwork. Some early examples are displayed in the British Museum and are beautiful samples of early plaster craft.
The tools that the Egyptians used, bear a striking resemblance to the tools used today. They featured a wide flat base, and a solid handle, for ease of use and maximum coverage.
These very early forms of plaster, were made from limestone. It was crushed and smoothed over walls and flooring, providing a suitable surface for designs and images to be crafted. Lime has an antiseptic quality to it, which was used by the ancient people as a sanitary material.
In the 1200s, the first Lord Mayor of London, Henry Fitz Alwyn, ordered that every house should be plastered and white washed with limestone. This was after a spell of cook shop fires, which had occurred in the town.
King John later ordered all homeowners along the Thames and London Bridge to whitewash and plaster any house that was covered in reed or rush, or face having their home pulled down.
Up until the mid-1200s, plaster was still mainly used for functional purposes.
This all changed on a visit to France by King Henry III, who was astonished at the level of detail that designs created in Plaster of Paris could offer. The concept was brought back to the UK.
During this time, a mixture of lime and sand were the main materials plasterers used. Early plastering was a timely process. Under good conditions, this mixture would take two weeks to set. This remained the most popular type of plaster up until the 19th century.
During the 15th century, a technique called ‘scagliola’ was developed in Italy. This was a type of imitation marble finish that used a material called gypsum. Gypsum is the name of a mineral compound, sometimes known as ‘sulphate of lime’. Although it set faster than traditional plastering material, it was very expensive and was only used in small quantities. Usually for decorative pieces.
Greece is well known for its ancient architecture. During the 16th century, five classic Greek orders were recognised. These were: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. Each had its own unique column style. The columns are made up of the shaft, base and capital. Across the top, lies the entablature, which is the horizontal structure. Architrave, cornice and frieze designs differed, depending on the classical order used.
Early plaster crafting was influenced by these Greek designs. This is evidenced in stately homes and older buildings around the United Kingdom, where detailed architraves and cornices have been created.
UK – Georgian and Regency
During the Georgian period, it was fashionable for cornices to have square shapes and horizontal lines running through them. This was similar to some of the designs seen in Greek architecture.
Throughout the Regency era, ceiling roses became popular. They were used to disguise light fixtures to the ceiling, and soot and dust that candle and oil burners caused. Often, to keep the room design matching, the style of the ceiling rose, would be tied in to the coving and corbelling.
During the 1700s, homeowners would entertain their guests in elaborate rooms, with detailed mouldings and rich, dark colours. Other rooms in the house, would have more simply detailed plaster craft to indicate that these rooms were designed for more light hearted reasons, such as reading or relaxing.
A popular design during this period, included the egg and dart with dentil. You can still see this design in stately homes around the UK.
In 1753, Mansion House opened. This building showcased one of the first examples of decorative plasterwork and ornate ceilings. This work was carried out by Humphrey Willmott and George Fewkes. The two men later went on to become Masters of the Plaisterers’ Company. This company was one of the original eight, who started the City & Guilds of London Institute.
UK - Victorian
The Victorian era heralded a new technique to plastering that involved the inclusion of hessian and lathes to strengthen the plasterwork. This allowed the product to be created in a workshop and transported to the site where the plastering was taking place. Many of the strengthening methods used today derive from Victorian innovations.
Over the seas in America, the USG (U.S. Gypsum Coporation) invented drywall in 1916. Initially, it was sold in the format of small tiles but this changed to larger sheets, which were much better received by consumers.
By this time, gypsum had replaced lime as the binding agent in plaster. Time was becoming more important, and using gypsum allowed the plasterer to build up layers of plaster in hours and days, rather than weeks.
Convenience is at the forefront of everyone’s mind in our modern age. It is now possible to buy plastic or polystyrene ceiling roses and ready-made coving.
However, especially in a traditional home, these can look unsightly. It is much more aesthetically pleasing to choose a plaster option. There are many available styles, from simple curves for a modern home, to intricate roses with leaves and flowers that would be more suited to a period property.
Exquisite and well executed plaster craft can make a welcome addition to any building. It’s really worth completing investigations locally to see if you can gather any ideas from existing plaster features that you would like to incorporate into your own design.
Whether you are looking for heavy, traditional plaster craft, or a simple, modern look, there are many designs available on and offline for you to consider. Always remember to use a professional, who can evidence their work with registration to a professional body and previous customer testimonials.
- License: Image author owned
Jon Riley is the Co-Founder of Locker & Riley, an award-winning fibrous plaster specialist based in the UK. Examples of their work can be seen at many famous locations such as St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and The London Palladium