Decorative plaster mouldings originate from the Classical Order, one of the ancient styles of architecture. Each possesses its unique profiles, proportions and details and recognised by the type of column used.
The Classical Orders
In the 16th century, five distinct orders were established with origins coming from Ancient Greece (with some modifications by the Romans):
Mouldings give form and shape and help bring definition to the spaces and objects they are used within. Where architecture is concerned, mouldings can be found both outside and inside buildings. Architectural mouldings are a primary factor to the character of Victorian interior design.
Exterior mouldings are typically used to enhance the appearance of buildings. From the 1800s, stucco was the primary material that was used to create such enhancements as it was a much more affordable option than stone (unless good stone was available locally). The material was incredibly popular for residences in seaside towns as stucco is strong and durable, offering good protection against spray from the sea.
In the early Victorian days in London, external stucco was used to create smooth, evenly coloured house fronts in terraces and also for larger Victorian villas (including John Nash’s development of Regents Park). However, around the 1860s stucco became a less popular material to use for exterior mouldings as the price of stone fell and terracotta also became more widely used.
Plaster has been widely used throughout ancient history from the Egyptians and Minoans to the Roman and Greek civilisations. Primitive plastering used the wattle and daub technique using mud and clay to keep out the wet and cold.
The fire of London Bridge
We have all heard of the Great Fire of London in 1666, but if we go back a little further all the way to 1212 to the Great Fire of Southwark occurred. The flames destroyed London Bridge and what is now known as Southwark Cathedral. This tragedy caused King John to order all of the shops, bakeries and breweries that lined the Thames to have their walls plastered both inside and outside to prevent further fire damage.
During this time, architectural decoration in plaster was predominantly commissioned by only wealthy homeowners. Delicate decoration in low relief was often achieved using metal or wooden tools on the moist plaster, which was then painted and gilded.
Before the Victorian era, decorative plaster mouldings were created on site using only fingers on wet plaster. These mouldings contained heraldic or naturalistic images along with repetitive motifs which were cast separately and applied later on.
Before the nineteenth century, lime plaster was used for the internal plastering, but following the turn of the century gypsum or Plaster of Paris was far more commonplace. Gypsum (Calcium Sulphate) is a mineral and is a common form of sedimentary rock that is used to make plaster by simply heating it to 150̊C and then breaking it up into a powder.
The 18th Century
During the 18th century the types and profiles of plaster mouldings increased largely. Whilst these mouldings were often copied from historical examples, they were used and interpreted freely. In these times, it was the builder who marketed new houses and chose suitable mouldings for the house and this would influence interest in the buying of the house.
Decorative plasterwork was used to express and emphasize the social hierarchy. This meant that expensive houses required elaborate mouldings to validate their higher selling price. Lower class houses however often did not feature any expensive mouldings as not only was this inappropriate, it was also not affordable.
Succumbing to trend
Surprisingly, plaster mouldings fell out of fashion in the late 19th century. From 1880 onwards, plaster mouldings lost their appeal and become much plainer in style due to the introduction of decorative wallpaper, which became the number one choice for the inside of property.
Dominic Farrugia is co-director of Regency Plaster who offer a professional plaster restoration service across the UK since 1988.