Architectural Background And Methods Of Fixed Decoration

Allusion has already been made to the domestic architecture of the age of Elizabeth, which was largely a composite of Flemish Renaissance forms grafted upon an English stock of late Gothic provenance. One might characterise the style as a Gothic body with Flemish Renaissance features and clothes.

The rooms and galleries were large, or at the very least commodious, and the ceilings were frequently though not invariably low in comparison to the other dimensions, unless there was an open timbered roof. The window openings were large and might consist of a range of three or more leaded casements separated by upright posts or mullions of wood or stone, or might rise to a great height, filled with tiers of leaded casements (Plate 5) separated both horizontally and vertically by mullions. Again, the whole end of a room might be filled by one great bow window with the mul-lion divisions, as in the previously noted oases. In any event, the mullions were an invariable as well as a distinctly characteristic and decorative feature. The casements were glazed with small quarries or with little lozenge-shaped panes leaded together. While the leading alone served as an agreeable decoration, heraldic blasonings and other devices in colour, in the centre of a casement, were often employed to lend additional glow and interest.

The walls were panelled with small oaken panels (Plates 3, 4 and 5), separated by broad stiles and rails, for either their whole height or else for the greater part of it, and when any part of the upper wall was left unooated with wainscot it was plastered. At the top of the panelling was often a carved and moulded frieze. Projections from the panelling, such as door frames and pilasters, were carved in low relief.

The fireplace and its superstructure always formed an highly significant and much decorated feature of the room. The opening of the fireplace was of generous size and the surround was of carved stone (Plate 4), while the massive superstructure or chimney piece might be either of richly carved stone or of wood (Plate 3) carved with an equal degree of elaboration.

Whether of wood or of stone, the further enrichment of colour and gilding was often added. Equally significant with the fireplace as a conspicuous item in the Elizabethan and Stuart interiors was the staircase, the newel post and the side railing beautifully carved and fretted, which rose by broken flights and landings to the upper floor, sometimes ascending directly from one of the larger rooms, sometimes from a hall or gallery.

Doorways, too, were objects of rich ornamentation (Plate 2), both at the sides, in the shape of either carved pilasters or semi-engaged pillars, and at the top with elaborate carving and moulding, often in the form of armorial bearings with casque, mautlings and supporters. In not a few instances, the actual entrance was surrounded by an elaborately carved and panelled screen extending from the floor part way to the ceiling. The door itself not infrequently bore the adornment of wrought-iron hinges and bands with scrolls. The floors were of stone, of tiles and of wood, the latter being most used. Occasionally simple decorative devices were essayed with stone or tile paving, but as a rule the paving was without any pretense at ornamentation.

The ceilings were of beamed wood or of plaster or else there were open timbered roofs. The beamed ceilings commonly displayed the amenity of chamfering and moulding on the beams and frequently the addition of carving. Colour, too, was apt to play a part in the decorative scheme. Open timbered roofs might or might not be plastered between the timbers and characteristic ornamentation of carving and colour sometimes adorned the woodwork, while decoration was also extended to the plaster surfaces.

The plastered ceilings were either flat or barrel vaulted or coved. In some cases stucco-duro or parge (Plates 3 and 4) ornamentation was used for the ceiling and consistent decoration in the same media extended to a portion or to the whole of the wall surface above the oak panelling. The over-mantel decoration, too, often consisted of a stucco-duro or a parge composition instead of carvings in stone or wood. The art of working in stucco-duro was introduced into England in the time of Henry VIII and was executed by Italian workmen who continued to ply their craft during a great part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and they taught some of the more capable English artificers to work after the same fashion. For various reasons, however, the art decayed and was eventually supplanted by the simpler substitute of parge work which, while it required less skill of execution, was also limited in the scope of delicacy and the range of motifs which might be executed therein. The stucco-duro ceilings were beautifully decorated with moulded ribs and panels, floriations and other devices, while the plaster portions of walls above the panelling often bore most intricately and deftly wrought friezes of hunting scenes, mythological or historical subjects. The same style of device was likewise used for an over-mantel embellishment and well-moulded strapwork was employed freely. It was not at all unusual further to augment the decorative effect of this carefully wrought stucco-duro work by polychrome treatment in tempera colours.

After the hand of the average English plasterer had somewhat lost its cunning and it became necessary to descend to the cruder parge work, the modelled decoration continued to be applied in the same places as previously noted, but the motifs were necessarily simpler and the execution far less delicate. For a full explication of stucco-duro and parge work, for the methods and motifs employed, and for numerous excellent illustrations, the reader is referred to George P. Bankart's admirable book, "The Art of the Plasterer." When all the resources of fixed decoration just enumerated were fully utilised, the interior of many an Elizabethan or Stuart room was so replete with decorative variety and interest that it gave the impression of being furnished, even before a stick of movable furniture was put in place. This fact deserves close attention for the emphasis it lends to the reasonable contention that interior decoration is not alone a matter of selecting and arranging an aggregation of movable pieces, but comprehends the creation of an whole and complete composition, a conception of the art that too many are unfortunately disposed to ignore.