In Michael Forsyth’s Revised Pevsner, it is suggested that Bishop Montagu’s nave had a timber roof with a ceiling of Tudor-perp-ribs with plaster infill, giving the effect of a flattened vault.

In the eighteenth century the architect John Wood described the nave ceiling as;

very plain when compared to the elaborate ramifications of the stone fan vaulting of the choir. The arch that forms the coved ceiling of the nave is elliptical, and comparatively flat. Its span being 30 feet 9 inches, and its rise only 3 feet. Though less ornamental than the choir, it is constructed with great ingenuity and skill. The construction is most singular, the several mouldings which compose the tracery being the only solid work, while the spaces between them are cut through, but are now slightly filled with lathe and plaster.

In the middle of each compartment of this ceiling, within a radiated quatrefoil is a sculptured shield of arms, including those of the city of Bath and Bishop Montagu. The latter being twice repeated.”

In Some Account of the Abbey Church of Bath, written in 1798, the ceiling is praised highly; "The rich coved ceiling of the nave, the pleasing design and exuberance of fancy, which our ancient architects displayed throughout their work". In the same book, John Carter, considers the nave ceiling to be "A masterpiece of masonry."

Late 18th or early 19th century print showing the Abbey nave's plaster ceiling

An 18th century print showing the intact nave plaster ceiling. Image courtesy of Anna Riggs, Bath Abbey Archive

This is all very interesting. Firstly, archaeologically, we have found no evidence of timber or masonry Tudor-perp-ribs. We have only discovered plaster rib-work in large quantities, which suggests an entirely plaster ceiling not timber or plaster with timber ribs. This makes me wonder whether Montagu’s plaster ceiling was of such high quality that it deceived some who gazed upon it, perceiving it to be wood or stone-work, not plaster. Montagu was a well-connected courtier who would have been able to employ the best craftsmen if he so desired.

Initially, before any research or the discovery of the ceiling at The Grapes, I had thought that due to the dreadful condition of Bath Abbey in the early seventeenth century, and the seeming lack of funds, that any type of roof above the nave would have been better than nothing, and also that a plaster ceiling would have been considerably cheaper and quicker to construct than stone fan-vaulting. The latter is certainly true, but after researching Jacobean plaster ceilings I think it is fair to suggest that the ceiling above the nave was a high status and highly fashionable construction, following the courtly interior design aesthetic of the time, and was not considered a poor relation to the fan-vaulting.

From the 18th century descriptions of the ceiling that have come down to us, we are told that it was a high-quality construction, detailed and elaborate, and no one seems to have realized that it was completely made of plaster. The ceiling is also barrel-vaulted, such ceilings were created for higher-status rooms in the Jacobean period, improving the level of illumination, and within the Abbey it would have no doubt improved the acoustics.

A barrel-vaulted ceiling would also have been more complicated and expensive to create. It would have been much easier, quicker and cheaper to have created a flat plaster ceiling, but this was not the case. A close inspection of the rib fragments suggests that the plaster used was gypsum, not lime and hair, since there is no evidence of hair within the plaster. Gypsum plaster was more expensive; its use was preferred in high-status lodgings and by the aristocracy. It had a higher status than lime and hair plaster.

Gypsum dries quickly, to a hard-smooth finish, and it can be painted almost immediately. Two types of paint were available to colour plaster surfaces in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; either water-based limewashes and distempers, or oil paints, where pigments were bound with oil, usually linseed. Lime plaster takes at least a year to cure fully and oil paint can not be applied until the drying process is complete. Water-based treatments on the other hand can be applied almost immediately. The same restrictions do not apply to gypsum plaster, and oil paints can be used within a matter of weeks. While the range of available pigments which could be added to an oil binder was quite large, many of these colors were destroyed by contact with lime and were therefore unsuitable for coloring limewash or whitewash. The color range for these latter finishes is therefore limited almost exclusively to the earth colors, such as ochres.

Many of the fragments from the nave’s barrel-vaulted ceiling are painted. Until further analysis is carried out, I am unsure whether the pigments are water based or oil, but a lot of blue pigment was used, which was expensive. It was also painted using the Tromp I’oeil technique, to create an optical illusion. Such techniques would have been painted by specialists in their field. Another example of Tromp I’oeil can be seen in the documents connected to the Royal works in the mid-1620s. King James I presence chamber, in the upper-house at Westminster was provided with a “Greate compaste ceelinge” in 1623-4 which was painted “with a curious stoneworke in distemper”. This further suggests that the nave ceiling was following the courtly fashions of the time, and imitating the high-status interiors of the Jacobean period.

By Chris Hambleton, Fieldwork Archaeologist


The story of Bath Abbey's Tale of Two Ceilings will continue in the fourth blog in the series - coming soon...