Faces in the ash
As I took my first look into the Marble Hall with the ashes still smouldering, I could immediately see large pieces of plaster strewn amongst the debris. A life-size leg from one of the figures lay on top of the pile of charred, smoking timbers. Although bizarre and rather ghoulish, these discoveries were tremendously heartening as we realised that significant sculpture from the ceiling had survived and could be put back together like the pieces of a jigsaw.
Alongside the swags and fruit, we have found a number of heads and faces, each carefully excavated from the ash and cleaned to reveal wonderfully expressive features. Each element in the ceiling was sculpted freehand. Layers of plaster were built up culminating in a fine, smooth upper layer upon which tools were used to create deeply carved facial features and tight curly locks. Both the bodies and the faces were exaggerated and oversized because the artist knew that they would be seen from 30 to 40 feet away rather than up-close and personal as we’re seeing them now.
A closer look at the plaster
Whilst the ceiling was modelled by hand some of the repetitive patterned areas on the lower cornices would have been moulded to save time. This work was carried out by English craftsmen, who would have carved wooden moulds and then pressed wet lime plaster into them, before it was peeled out and attached to the ceiling.
Visual inspections of broken plaster have revealed that whilst the plaster made by the European stuccoists is very smooth in texture, that made by the English craftsmen is coarser and has much more grit and animal hair in it. We think that the Europeans would’ve been involved in the entire process of creating the ceiling; from the design, to instructing the construction of the timber work, to mixing the plaster to modelling the figures and ornament.