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Celebrating the talent of plaster sculptors

Detail of plasterwork cherubs on the Saloon ceiling at Clandon Park Surrey before the 2015 fire
Plasterwork cherubs on the Saloon ceiling at Clandon Park, Surrey | © Chris Lacey

Clandon Park has always been a showcase for the art of free-hand decorative plasterwork. We have learned much about how the elaborate ceilings were made because of the fire. Yet the artists’ methods remain elusive.

Nowhere was the talent of sculptors in plaster clearer than in Clandon Park’s remarkable ceilings. The exuberant Marble Hall ceiling featured life-size sculptures of people falling from the sky onto the viewer more than 10 metres below. The visual tricks created by the artists contributed to this ceiling being one of the greatest examples of 18th century European design and sculpture in England.

Marble Hall ceiling detail, Clandon Park, Surrey
Marble Hall ceiling detail, Clandon Park Surrey | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Most of the plasterwork was destroyed in the fire apart from the ceiling of the dining room known as the Speakers’ Parlour. What remains is more than 1,000 trays of decorative plaster fragments: from small to large, some mould-made, some hand modelled, with varying levels of damage. Little is known about how the master sculptors worked, jealously guarding their recipes and techniques.

Like many historic houses, there are no surviving documents about the making of the ceilings and there is insufficient photography and measurements to replicate using digital technology such as 3D printing in new materials. Despite this, the lime plaster fragments are helping the curatorial and conservation team at Clandon Park to understand how these incredible sculptors worked.

Tray containing range of plasterwork fragments
Tray of plasterwork fragments, Clandon Park Surrey | © Andy Chopping

Decorative lime plaster

The fire of 2015 created a unique opportunity to closely examine the form and physical make-up of surviving pieces of the plasterwork ceilings. With the help of historic materials analysts, the curatorial team are still researching and learning about the materials and techniques used by the sculptors, which are crucial to our understanding of the house and its sculptural processes.

When the fire raged through the house the extreme heat irreversibly changed the chemical composition of the decorative plaster meaning its size, shape and colour have been altered forever. The layers of lime plaster built up by sculptors to create 3D faces, figures and animals split apart giving the team an insight into previously unknown sculptural techniques and materials.

From the fragments we are learning that all the plasterwork in the house was created by different teams or ‘workshops’, each with their own production styles but each making use of lime from chalk pits on the Clandon Park estate. We’ve been able to see the difference between the work of the English artisan plasterers and the stuccatori, sculptors who came from the Italian Swiss border to carry out this important commission.

Under a microscope, we can see that English workshops added animal hair to some of their plaster layers and sand with large grains. The stuccatori used more lime combined with less and finer sand, this mix being better suited to the freehand modelling they were famous for. The fragments have revealed for the first time that the stuccatori sculpted layers of this quick-drying plaster around bundles of reed to reduce weight and help to form shapes. Working high up on wooden scaffolding, the stuccatori raced against time to create their masterpieces as the plaster set quickly.

Tray of plasterwork fragments including a section sculpted around a bundle of reeds from Clandon Park Surrey
Plasterwork fragment revealing reeds, Clandon Park Surrey | © Andy Chopping

Sharing our knowledge

The Clandon Park curators’ research into how the stuccatori created plasterwork on location is contributing to academic knowledge. Senior Project Curator Sophie Chessum published a chapter about the ceilings at Clandon Park in Enriching Architecture (2023) edited by leading expert on stuccatori Professor Christine Casey and architectural historian Dr Melanie Hayes. For the first time, this peer-reviewed article explains how the ceilings at Clandon Park were created by different workshops of stuccatori. The greatest stuccatori of their day Guiseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti sculpted the ceilings in the Marble Hall and Saloon.

Supporting decorative plasterwork research

Clandon Park remains an important, historically significant place. We continue to learn from the fire-damaged house as we work to preserve the historic fabric, including stabilising the in-situ plaster.

The fire at Clandon Park created a unique opportunity for experts to examine this type of decorative plaster with the benefit of 21st century knowledge and technology. The findings are helping the Clandon Park team to identify the most appropriate ways to conserve and repair the precious ceiling in the Speakers’ Parlour, to preserve surviving decorative plaster elsewhere in the house, and to inform the future of the many fragments.

The plaster fragments are important for the opportunities they create for academics researching European architectural sculpture of the early 18th century. The Clandon Park team worked with the Department of Architectural History at Trinity College Dublin on the project 3D Craft which was supported by UKRI funding. The team continues to collaborate with the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI) located in the Italian-Swiss region that was home to many of the stuccatori and has research specialisms in decorative plasterwork.

National Trust visitors will be able to see examples of the plaster fragments up close in the revitalised Clandon Park.

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