The final blog in this Tale of Two Ceilings explores potential candidates for the construction of the plasterwork ceilings at Bath Abbey and The Grapes...

Very few names of plasterers have come down to us, but some are found in royal documents. James and Abraham Leigh were associated in plastering work at the Charterhouse in 1613–14. Abraham Leigh carried out plastering work at the Prince’s Lodgings at St James’s Palace in 1618–20. In 1618–19 he was responsible for a fret ceiling in the Prince’s closet. He was a master plasterer. Another named plasterer is Edward Stanyon, 1581-1632/3. Examples attributed to him can be seen at Blicking Hall, in Norfolk, that dates to the 1620s.

 Further examples of his work can be seen at Apethorpe and Forty Hall, where interestingly, he used lion masks as a decorative motif.

 A high proportion of plasterers engaged in work for the crown were drawn from the ranks of The London Company of Plasterers. In 1501, the “Well beloved faithful and liege men of the mistery or art of gipsarswere granted a charter by Henry VII in London.

By the 17th century, the burgeoning popularity of decorative plasterwork lead to an increase in plasterer apprenticeships. An apprenticeship generally lasted for seven years. Several trade companies or guilds existed in Bath, which included plasterers. They claimed exclusive rights to exercise their respective trades, prohibiting others from doing so unless they had served a proper apprenticeship, and gained their freedom.

This would have been the same in Bristol with its wealthy merchant class, who would have wanted to surround themselves with the best art and craftsmanship available, emphasising their wealth and stature within society. Decorative plaster-work was at the height of fashion and there would have been a high demand, I am sure there would have been several plasterer workshops working within the City. 

The only known reference to a Bath plasterer is George Dell in 1611. He was the apprentice of Mr. Mason in London, and he was the son of a clerk from Bath. London was the go-to place to undertake your apprenticeship, and boys would travel from all over the country to do so. Quite often, after their apprenticeship, they would travel back to the place of their birth and set up their own company there.

Details of Bath Abbey excavations and sources, and the plasterwork ceiling at The Grapes

Even though research has not yet uncovered a Bristol plasterer, a maker who was working in the south west of England has been identified. Richard Eaton of Stogursey was a plasterer, documented as working at Combe Florey for John Frauncis in 1599, and Chantmarle, in Dorset, where he decorated the new chapel in 1615. As a master plasterer Robert Eaton would have been at the head of a workshop team, including apprentices and possibly journeymen.

Without documentary evidence and building records, it is impossible to know for sure who created the ceilings at Bath Abbey and The Grapes, but is possible that one of these known makers was involved in their construction. They all fit the timeline, and we can safely assume that the ceilings are contemporary and were constructed within a few years of each other.

If Bishop King was able to employ the King’s master masons, Robert and William Virtue, to create the fan vaulting at the west end of Bath Abbey, I am sure Bishop Montagu would have been able to do the same, and hire the very best plasterers available in his time. It is also possible that George Dell and Robert Eaton worked in Bath.

Very little research has been done regarding 17th-century plasterers in the Bath and Bristol area. Who knows what my continuing research may further reveal about these two enigmatic ceilings and the individuals who created them? I look forward to telling you all about it.

I would especially like to thank Anna Rigg, Claire Gapper, and Ellie at The Grapes for their help and assistance with my research for this series of blogs.

By Chris Hambleton, Fieldwork Archaeologist