Lime, sand and animal hair: on 18th-century British interiors

There was an extraordinary flowering of stucco decoration in the period at hand


The decorative arts have so often been sidelined by art historians—especially architectural historians—but Christine Casey’s revelatory book, Making Magnificence: Architects, Stuccatori and the 18th-Century Interior, underscores how subjects such as plasterwork lie at the heart of many important European aesthetic and architectural achievements. Casey is the associate professor in architectural history at Trinity College Dublin. She has produced a compelling study, which is essential reading for any student of 18th-century architecture and interiors.

In the early part of the century, men who had worked on the Palazzo Reale in Turin and the Upper Belvedere in Vienna brought sculptural stuccowork of the highest quality to the interiors of great country houses in the British Isles, giving them theatrical and artistic confidence. These houses included Houghton Hall, Ragley Hall, Barnsley Park and Wentworth Castle in England, and Carton, Castletown and Russborough in Ireland.

Astonishingly, most of this work was executed by a mere handful of itinerant stuccatori from the Italian-speaking Ticino region of Switzerland, who brought wide experience and a pan-European decorative tradition with them to the British Isles. Their skill in “the rhetorical stagecraft of European ecclesiastical decoration and of cosmopolitan Régence taste” provided the framing and decoration of the interiors of the potentially ponderous and austere Neo-Palladian architecture then fashionable in England.

One late 18th-century account of the stuccowork in the Schloss Söder in Lower Saxony succinctly described the artistic skills of the stuccatori: “to work in plaster is to give this malleable material form, to add variety and richness to extensive surfaces, to lend ornament to interior architecture, to offer the eye a thousand pleasant diversions, to achieve with light speed what is slow and painstaking in marble, wood and other sculpture”.

But other factors also encouraged their popularity: stucco was considerably cheaper than painted decoration. As Casey notes, the sums paid for whole ceilings in the British Isles “would not secure a half-length portrait by a fashionable painter”. Stuccowork also found its place, and its moment, in the emerging classicising taste for stone-like interiors and all’antica ceiling ornament to which it added movement and grace. The sheer virtuosity, self-evident artistic confidence, knowledge and skills of the stuccatori impressed itself on both architects and patrons.

Casey’s lucid and incisive book provides an excellent account of the European context for this work, explaining the industry of stucco making, the training and distinctive skills of the stuccatori. She also deftly explores the relationship between stucco decoration and the architecture it served, as well as the creative relationship between architects and stuccatori. Seven stuccatori dominate the story in the British Isles: Giovanni Battista Bagutti (around 1681-1755) who worked at Castle Howard from 1709 to 1710 and later at Mereworth Castle; Giuseppe Artari (around 1690-1771), active at Houghton Hall and Clandon Park; Francesco Vassalli (1701-71) admired for his work at Shugborough and Wentworth Castle; Giuseppe Cortese (1704-79) who worked at Gilling Castle, Lytham Hall and Newburgh Priory; and the Lafranchini brothers, Paolo, Filippo and Pietro, who dominated such work in Ireland (at Carton, Castletown, Russborough and many important Dublin interiors). They had all served long apprenticeships in an intensely hierarchical trade, assisting skilled craftsmen and receiving an essential training in design and modelling. Indeed, it was their skill at disegno (used for preliminary drawings, tender drawings and presentation drawings) that especially demonstrated their supremacy over native craftsmen in Britain and Ireland. They sometimes took a risk by being too grand with their clients, though: the Conollys of Castletown “were excessively diverted by Franchini’s impertinence”. Terracotta models were also used to present proposals to clients. These skills were closely guarded and they did not seem to pass down the techniques of sculptural modelling to their local assistants.

The itinerant stuccatori made considerable use of engravings (works by artists such as the Carraccis, Pietro da Cortona and Simon Vouet). For example, the Lafranchinis used Vouet’s personifications of the cardinal virtues in two different schemes in Dublin houses: one executed in around 1738 and the other in around 1756. Smaller sculptural elements of the decorative schemes might be cast on benches, but larger-scale figurative work was normally modelled in situ on armatures (usually of brick, or timber for larger scale and high level). The principal stuccatori did the modelling work in situ, while assistant quadratori worked on the ribs and compartments of the walls and ceilings.

Major British commissions of the 1720s were on the grandest scale. At Houghton Hall in Norfolk, Artari collaborated with William Kent on the great masterpiece of the double-height stone hall, and the fluid quality of the dancing putti of the hall’s frieze is strong evidence of this stuccatore’s direct influence on Kent’s intensification of ornament to this great interior. At Clandon Park in Surrey, Artari worked on the marble hall, the ceiling of which was so tragically destroyed by fire in 2015.

Here, as Casey observes, he and the architect Leoni “successfully modulated Seicento illusionism to the exigencies of classicising Neo-Palladian taste… without the rich planar complexity and decorative exuberance of the ceiling, the Marble Hall would have been austere, if not dull in its effect”.

Later in the century, the transformative stuccowork of these itinerant artist-craftsmen became unfashionable, and was indeed positively disliked in the 19th century, partly for its overt sensuality—continuing proof, perhaps, of the effectiveness of the stuccatori’s modelling skills. But their work still populates and elevates many of the finest houses and must also be understood in a wider European context. As Casey observes: “From the meagre materiaåls of lime, gypsum, sand, water and animal hair, a band of provincial craftsmen of varying vintage and skill crafted interiors in Britain and Ireland of sumptuous plasticity and powerful performative effect.” Their contribution was, as she observes, “a vital counterpoint to the restraint of Palladian taste”.

• Jeremy Musson is an author, lecturer, historic buildings consultant and trustee of the Country Houses Foundation. His books include Up and Down Stairs (2009), English Country House Interiors (2011) and The Drawing Room (2014). His book Robert Adam: Country House Design, Decoration and the Art of Elegance, recently published, will be reviewed in a future edition of The Art Newspaper

Making Magnificence: Architects, Stuccatori and the 18th-Century Interior

Christine Casey

Yale University Press, 328pp, £50 (hb)