Friday, 19 June 2015

Lines of Beauty

The ceiling is the pièce de résistance in this unique exhibition celebrating Rococo plasterwork decoration.

Written by Hugh St Clair
Hugh-St-Clair-colour-176The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury was outside of London when built in the early 18th century, but in the 20th century found itself surrounded by the city. Property developers were keen to buy and redevelop the site. The Foundling governors felt the building was out of date and sold it, moving the hospital to Berkhamsted.

However, they soon realised they needed a central London office and fortunately were able to buy a plot on the edge of Brunswick Square where they recreated a smaller Georgian building. Wisely, they had saved some of the original interiors and were able to install them in the new property, particularly the Court Room with its stunning plasterwork ceiling and wall decoration. It is now a museum and the ceiling is the pièce de résistance in this exhibition, celebrating rococo plasterwork decoration in photographs and maquettes.

Rococo comes from the French word rocaille, meaning shell work, which, interspersed with flowers, leaves and curlicues, was very fashionable in the mid 1700s. Originally it was hand-modelled in plaster directly onto the ceiling, a technique known as stucco.

Today, in restoration and new projects, plasterwork decoration is made from moulds in a studio. The unrivalled specialist in the field is Geoffrey Preston, whose work forms the basis of this exhibition. So many rococo ceilings were lost in the 20th century when country houses and London mansions were torn down. However, there seems a bit of interest in the style again. As well as restoration projects we can see Preston’s original designs in plasterwork. At the New House built in Wiltshire in 2009 in the Palladian style, two finches squabble with a blackbird looking on. Birds also appear in a commission in a private cinema.

Most impressive are the skills of Preston and his team in working from photographs to recreate large and very intricate plasterwork ceilings at the National Trust’s Uppark House in Sussex, lost in a fire in 1989. It’s good to see that the reality TV stars of Life Is Toff and Country House Rescue, the Fulford family from Great Fulford in Devon, asked Preston to put back plasterwork in the ballroom ceiling, which had collapsed in the 18th century, becoming a room with exposed rafters, known as the Ruin.

Until 6 September, Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, London WC1: 020-7841 3600,

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