It is highly unusual for similar plaster ceilings with identical decorative motifs to be found at separate locations. Ceilings that are almost but not quite identical, and therefore most likely the work of a single plasterer or plasterer’s work-shop, are extremely rare, which makes this recent discovery so very exciting.
The Grapes is located on the south side of Westgate Street, a prominent thoroughfare in the centre of Bath. It is now a pub and has been so since 1794. The land and all subsequent buildings built on the site of The Grapes have been owned by St John’s Hospital since the medieval period. Without building records, it is difficult to give a definitive date for the current building’s construction, but there are some clues.
With the rise of the Spa in the 16th century, there was a fever of rebuilding in the city as the demand for lodgings, taverns and inns grew. Fine houses were built in the centre of Bath and The Grapes on Westgate street is one of the few still standing. Behind its Georgian façade lies a far older building.
Evidence for this can be seen on the east side of the upper floor, where a late 16th- or early 17th-century little four-centered window of the arch-headed type can be seen. Within the building some wood paneling also still survives from this period. The most notable survivor of the earlier building however is the magnificent plaster-work ceiling located in the first-floor drawing room. The ceiling is covered in countless layers of whitewash, which would be expected from such an old ceiling, but this has obscured a lot of the intricate decoration.
It was only because I immediately recognised the telltale lumps and bumps on the lion masks that I was able to clarify what they were. Ellie, the current landlady, was delighted by this finding because no one had been completely sure what they represented. The rib-work is laid out in a partially concave hexagon, with three main centres of decoration. The intersections of the ribs are embellished with two different types of boss. One is decorated with radiating lion masks and the other with acanthus leaves that are identical to the examples from Bath Abbey.
They are without doubt created from the same hand-carved wooden moulds. Plasterers obtained their moulds from wood carvers. The moulds were expensive, and plasterers guarded their designs jealously, and often bequeathed them to their apprentices on their retirement or death.
The rib-work on the Grapes ceiling is of a slightly different design and more convex but the scale of the mouldings is very similar. The rest of the ceiling’s decoration is more difficult to interpret. For all its magnificence, it seems more cluttered than one would usually expect in a ceiling of this period. The most noticeable, and potentially later, additions are the double-headed eagle escutcheons symbolic of the Holy Roman Empire and the masks that could potentially represent Native American or South American indigenous people with feather headdresses.
The escutcheons seem too large for the available space within the rib-work, which detracts from its symmetry.
They are also flatter by design and personally I think they may have been created by a different craftsman, at a later date. The ceiling does show signs of damage and the cornice has been partly removed. Some of this may have taken place in 1720 when, as John Wood tells us, the fronts of the houses were rebuilt.
Details of the ceiling at The Grapes, showing escutcheons and masks in the plasterwork. Image courtesy of Ellie at The Grapes
From the documentary evidence we know that the house was leased to Richard Gay in 1620, three times Mayor of Bath. Gay sub-let the house on Westgate Street to Dr. John Ostendorph, a physician from Germany, who had settled in Bath by 1637. Dr. Ostendorph graduated from Leiden University and published a treatise on the Bath waters in 1639. The renewed desire to take the waters at Bath meant that Bath was a desirable place for a Doctor to set up business and there was a relatively large proportion of foreign doctors working in Bath at the time. Ann of Denmark, the wife of King James I, visited Bath on three occasions to take the waters, The Queen’s Bath was named in her honor and this helped to make Bath a fashionable destination, it also attracted a great many Doctors and no doubt even more quacks in the early 17th century.
Dr. Ostendorph died in Bath in 1648 and was buried in Bath Abbey on the 12th of April of that year. His wife survived him by several years and was still living in the property in 1665.
It is possible that Dr. Ostendorph had the double-headed eagle escutcheons added to the ceiling as a patriotic gesture by a man far from the land of his birth. The Indian heads could be a symbol of the growing tobacco trade. Tobacco was used in medicinal potions at the time.
It has also been suggested that the escutcheons were added to the ceiling by Charles Granville, 2nd Earl of Bath, who was created Count of The Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Leopold, for his services as a volunteer in the Hungarian wars. He also helped to defeat the Turks outside Vienna in 1683. But there is no documentary evidence to suggest that he ever lived at the property.
Though unusual, the double-headed eagle motif does exist on another early 17th-century plaster ceiling at Hyde, north of Winchester. Without knowing the original patrons of theses ceilings, it is difficult to determine whether they were of particular significance. But research has tended to show that it was only in the greatest houses that an iconographical scheme was sometimes worked out, dictating the choice of motifs. In most houses the selection was fairly random. This could possibly be the case at The Grapes.
The final instalment of Bath Abbey's 'Tale of Two Ceilings' examines the potential identity of the plasterer behind the two ceilings. Look out early next week for the final edition...