Getting Plastered

Earlier this month I spent a few days gaining experience with a team of plasterers currently involved in the restoration of Lowther Castle near Penrith. The shell of this castellated mansion house sitting in idyllic parkland is fairly well preserved, the roof having been purposefully removed in the fifties. Lowther was one of architect Robert Smirke’s earliest commissions, designed and built following his return from the Grand Tour aged just twenty five. Throughout his career Greek Revival was to be his most celebrated style of building, motivated by the splendours of the ancient world he witnessed while studying architecture in Europe, but he undertook work in a variety of styles and a few of his Neo-Gothic domestic examples are still dotted around the country. I enjoy the strong, solid forms of these houses, calling on simple gothic detailing and marking a new revival style which grew increasingly popular in the early nineteenth century.

Lowther is in the midst of a regeneration project at the hands of an independent charity, the Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust. The shell of the castle is being stabilized allowing future visitors to walk among its walls, while the sizeable adjoining stables are near to being completely refurbished as a café and visitor centre.  The sculpture gallery, a later addition of 1814, is also being fully restored to act as a venue for events and the long-term aim of the project also includes the reinstatement of the gardens to their original plan.

My passion for ruins has naturally led to an interest in the care and restoration of neglected buildings, and I’ve long been a fan of the white stuff in particular. My love of architecture means I am drawn most to the fabric of buildings rather than their contents, while my artistic side revels in the decorative aspects to be found in the structure. To me, plaster seems to bridge this gap between structure and decoration perfectly; it performs a vital function while giving opportunity for ornamentation. Whenever I visit a stately home my head instinctively tilts back to stare upwards in each room I enter, allowing me to delight in the elaborate forms which so often adorn the ceilings. There is also nothing quite like discovering precious fragments of plasterwork among the debris in a ruin; whether a piece of simple moulded cornice or some intricately cast acanthus leaves they are often the sole survivor of the otherwise lost interiors.

Upon arriving at Lowther such a work of beauty was to be found already completed by the plasterers I would be working with. This was in the sculpture gallery, where gothic rib vaulting spans gracefully along the length of the space, each convergence point of the ribs embellished with a decorated boss. But such skill is not acquired overnight and I was to start with the more basic aspects of lime plastering, which was nevertheless still very enjoyable and interesting. Over the next few days I had a go at mixing hydraulic lime mortar and fat lime plaster, applying external render, helping with lining out and lathing the interior of one of Lowther’s miniature towers. It really was a great experience and I hope to be back again soon, as well as finding some other projects I may be able to help on.

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