A pro­fu­sion of plas­ter

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Photography by Justin Paget

Roger White vis­its Rash­leigh Bar­ton in Devon to ex­am­ine its lav­ish or­na­men­tal plas­ter­work

Rash­leigh Bar­ton, Devon The home of Rus­sell and Ali Mabon

The West Coun­try was home to a flour­ish­ing 17th-cen­tury school of or­na­men­tal plas­ter­work. Roger White en­coun­ters a lav­ish ex­am­ple in an ex­ter­nally mod­est build­ing

For much of its his­tory, rash­leigh Bar­ton has been a mod­est farm­house. It sits in rolling coun­try­side above the west bank of the river Taw, across the val­ley from the lit­tle town of Chulm­leigh (al­though it is in­vis­i­ble ei­ther from it or in­deed any road). The river flows north­west­wards to the much more im­por­tant town of Barn­sta­ple, some 15 miles away, and the main road con­nect­ing Barn­sta­ple to the re­gional cen­tre of Ex­eter fol­lows its course.

The rash­leigh fam­ily orig­i­nated in Barn­sta­ple, but were in pos­ses­sion of this prop­erty by 1196. In 1530, the rash­leigh heiress Ib­bot mar­ried Thomas Clot­wor­thy from South Molton and, al­though the rash­leigh name stuck, the es­tate be­came a Clot­wor­thy pos­ses­sion un­til 1708, when it passed by mar­riage to the Tre­maynes of Heli­gan in Corn­wall.

The Tu­dor Clot­wor­thys found them­selves in pos­ses­sion of a late-me­dieval house built of cob. As is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Devon, it was long and low with a dou­ble-height hall in­cor­po­rated in the cen­tre of the plan. This was en­tered through a tall porch—in the po­si­tion of its low, mod­ern suc­ces­sor built in 1999 af­ter the orig­i­nal had been lost—and warmed by a fire­place with a mas­sive chim­neystack, both typ­i­cal ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures of the re­gion.

At one end of the hall (to the south), there was a screens pas­sage and, beyond that, the kitchen and but­tery, with ac­com­mo­da­tion above. The hall it­self was spanned by a roof—still sur­viv­ing and par­tially vis­i­ble—with mul­ti­ple tiers of wind­braces, a treat­ment that, through its greedy con­sump­tion of tim­ber, em­pha­sised the wealth of the house’s own­ers. In a cross wing at the op­po­site end were the prin­ci­pal fam­ily cham­bers ar­ranged on two floors.

It is pre­sumed that, dur­ing the 16th cen­tury, one of the early Clot­wor­thys—ei­ther Thomas and Ib­bot’s son Thomas or their grand­son Si­mon—in­tro­duced a floor into the hall, cre­at­ing new do­mes­tic rooms in its roof space that linked the first-floor cham­bers at the two ends of the house. Such re­or­gan­i­sa­tions of me­dieval hall in­te­ri­ors are a com­mon­place of the Tu­dor pe­riod. In the process, the par­ti­tion clos­ing off the screens pas­sage was re­placed with a wall pierced by a sin­gle door.

of the Tu­dor dec­o­ra­tion of the house, we know lit­tle, be­cause, in the 1630s, dur­ing the ten­ure of John Clot­wor­thy, its in­te­ri­ors were re­ordered and over­laid by the sump­tu­ous plas­ter­work that is the mod­ern glory of rash­leigh Bar­ton.

Ex­ter­nally, rash­leigh Bar­ton’s mod­est size and plain, white­washed walls do lit­tle to raise ex­pec­ta­tions of an ex­cit­ing in­te­rior (Fig 2). The porch leads into a cor­ri­dor, the suc­ces­sor to the screens pas­sage. To the right (south) lay the orig­i­nal kitchen and ser­vices. Ac­cess to the room above it was pro­vided in the 1630s by a stair tur­ret and ex­ter­nal gallery. The lat­ter (Fig 3) is now in­ter­nalised by the

ad­di­tion of new kitchens, prob­a­bly in the 19th cen­tury, to the rear of the hall.

At the time of this ad­di­tion, the orig­i­nal ser­vices were com­pletely re­con­fig­ured to cre­ate two com­fort­able rooms, one of which was a cosy, oak-pan­elled win­ter par­lour. The par­lour join­ery, com­plete with Clot­wor­thy arms over the fire­place and a frieze of fire­breath­ing dragons, may be partly re­cy­cled from else­where in the house. To the south again, the Clot­wor­thys added a gra­nary range, never di­rectly ac­cessed from the house.

Across the pas­sage from the win­ter par­lour, a door opens into the hall, a sin­gle­storey room with a sim­ple beamed ceil­ing and an even sim­pler gran­ite fire­place, prob­a­bly of Tu­dor or late-me­dieval date (Fig 4). By the early 17th cen­tury, the hall had ceased to func­tion as a din­ing cham­ber in gen­try houses, al­though it re­mained one for ser­vants. This prob­a­bly ex­plains why at Rash­leigh Bar­ton no par­tic­u­lar ef­fort was made to in­tro­duce fancy dec­o­ra­tion here. Rather, it was con­cen­trated on the with­draw­ing spa­ces beyond and ac­ces­si­ble through a door

‘The curlicues sprout hops, pears, pomegranates and dif­fer­ent flow­ers’

at the op­po­site end of the room from the en­trance pas­sage.

The ground-floor par­lour was where the fam­ily could meet, talk, re­lax in­for­mally and some­times eat (Fig 1). Above it was the great cham­ber, which was for all for­mal en­ter­tain­ing, in­clud­ing din­ing, mu­sic and danc­ing.

The par­lour has a flat ceil­ing di­vided by deep, plas­ter-clad beams into three ob­long com­part­ments. At the cen­tre of each is a shield of Clot­wor­thy her­aldry (Fig 7), out of which elab­o­rate fo­liage trails loop and in­ter­twine across the re­main­ing sur­face. The curlicues sprout hops, pears, pomegranates, ap­ples and dif­fer­ent flow­ers and the in­ter­ven­ing spa­ces are oc­cu­pied by such crea­tures as ele­phants, camels, li­ons, boars, pe­ga­suses and cock­a­tri­ces, not to men­tion birds, but­ter­flies and as­sorted bugs. The de­sign and mod­el­ling are not so­phis­ti­cated, but are im­mensely en­dear­ing.

To con­nect this up­graded par­lour with the yet more elab­o­rately dec­o­rated great cham­ber above it re­quired a suit­ably hand­some stair­case, which was pro­vided in a new pro­jec­tion at the north end of the wing. This rises to a land­ing en­closed by typ­i­cally Ja­cobean elon­gated col­umn balus­ters (Fig 5). The vestibule at the top of the stairs—an an­techam­ber to the great cham­ber—suf­fered badly dur­ing the long years of Rash­leigh Bar­ton’s ne­glect, when much of the ribbed bar­rel vault col­lapsed (Fig 8).

How­ever, the tym­pana of the end walls re­tain their elab­o­rate strap­work car­touches cen­tred on Clot­wor­thy her­aldry, with putti perched non­cha­lantly on the ex­trem­i­ties and, in one of them, the ini­tials ‘IC’ (for John Clot­wor­thy) and ‘MC’, to­gether with the date 1633. Vis­i­tors would have seen this be­fore pass­ing through the door be­neath into the richly em­bel­lished great cham­ber that was the cli­max of the Ja­cobean in­te­rior.

The cham­ber walls are bare—no doubt, orig­i­nally, there would have been hang­ings or pan­elling to con­ceal them—and the cru­dity of the fire­place open­ing sug­gests that a more elab­o­rate af­fair, pos­si­bly with over­man­tel, is miss­ing. The dec­o­ra­tive ef­fort is all now con­cen­trated on the ceil­ing, a bar­rel vault that has clearly been su­per­im­posed on the ear­lier me­dieval rafters (Fig 6).

The lat­ter pro­trude some­what awk­wardly through a dense web of ribs that curve, in­ter­sect and in­ter­weave like the pat­tern of a par­tic­u­larly elab­o­rate knot gar­den. Many of the re­sult­ing com­part­ments are, in fact, filled with stylised sprigs of flow­ers and it is in­deed known that the pat­terns of such El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean ceil­ings were often in­spired by what went on in the gar­den.

The four largest com­part­ments are con­cavesided oc­tagons and these are oc­cu­pied by fo­liage tan­gles of ex­actly the same va­ri­eties as the par­lour below: ap­ples, pears, hops and pomegranates. Paired with these are quar­tets of an­i­mals—foxes, dogs, li­ons and uni­corns re­spec­tively. Even this does not ex­haust the pro­fu­sion of mo­tifs, which also fea­ture goats, rams and birds (in­clud­ing a pea­cock and a dopey owl). All this ar­ranges it­self around three pen­dant bosses, the cen­tral one in the form of an open­work cage.

The en­sem­ble is com­pleted on the in­ner wall with arms said to be those of Wil­liam Bourchier, 3rd Earl of Bath, al­though, as he died in 1623 and the plas­ter­work here is prob­a­bly a decade later, they per­haps re­fer to his el­dest son Ed­ward, the 4th Earl. The Bourchier seat was at Taw­stock Court near Barn­sta­ple and John Clot­wor­thy was pre­sum­ably a pro­tégé who as­pired to en­ter­tain his pow­er­ful pa­tron at Rash­leigh Bar­ton.

The ques­tion that ob­vi­ously presents it­self is who the au­thor of this dis­play of rus­tic vir­tu­os­ity in plas­ter might have been. The ex­is­tence of the Ab­bott fam­ily from the vil­lage of Frithel­stock, a north Devon ‘dy­nasty’ of plas­ter­ers go­ing back to the late 16th cen­tury, has been widely ac­cepted since the pub­li­ca­tion in 1940 of a Coun­try Life ar­ti­cle by Mar­garet Jour­dain. This fo­cused on a sur­viv­ing sketch­book full of what, on the face of it, looked like El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean mo­tifs, seem­ingly com­piled by one John Ab­bott, born in 1639.

It was thought at one time that the sketch­book was a tes­ta­ment to the longevity of a stylis­tic vo­cab­u­lary that had long gone out of fash­ion else­where, passed down through gen­er­a­tions of Ab­botts.

In fact, the dates oc­cur­ring in the plas­ter­work at Rash­leigh Bar­ton make Ab­bott’s in­volve­ment here im­pos­si­ble and, in any case, there are no sim­i­lar­i­ties with Ab­bott’s doc­u­mented work, which is dated to the 1680s and in the char­ac­ter­is­tic id­iom of Charles II’S reign.

Sub­se­quent writ­ers drew at­ten­tion to Ab­bott’s grand­fa­ther, also John, who died in 1635 and may have been the first of the fam­ily to take up the pro­fes­sion, or his fa­ther Richard, born in 1612.

More re­cently, doubt has been cast on the very ex­is­tence of an Ab­bott dy­nasty, as there is no di­rect ev­i­dence to con­firm the iden­tity of any plas­ter­ers in the re­gion prior to the mid 17th cen­tury. How­ever, even if the Rash­leigh plas­ter­work can­not be by John Ab­bott the younger, the near­ness of the es­tate to Frithel­stock does at least al­low the pos­si­bil­ity of in­volve­ment by his elderly grand­fa­ther or youth­ful fa­ther.

There does, in any case, seem to be a def­i­nite over­lap in both id­iom and mo­tifs be­tween the

Rash­leigh great cham­ber and the ceil­ing of a house in Bout­port Street, Barn­sta­ple, dated 1620. There also are also com­par­isons to be made with the more am­bi­tious ceil­ings in the gallery at Lan­hy­drock and the great cham­ber at Prideaux Place (see Coun­try

Life, June 9, 2010), both in Corn­wall and both of about 1640.

A ma­jor dif­fer­ence is that both of those grander schemes in­cor­po­rate bib­li­cal scenes, whereas the Rash­leigh ceil­ings are en­tirely sec­u­lar in their vo­cab­u­lary. Whether this re­flects Clot­wor­thy’s at­ti­tude to life and re­li­gion, and whether the plas­ter­work as ex­e­cuted has any spe­cific sym­bol­ism, must re­main an open ques­tion.

The pass­ing of the es­tate to a Cor­nish fam­ily in 1708 meant that Rash­leigh quickly de­clined into the sta­tus of a ten­anted farm­house. The build­ing was spared ex­trav­a­gant ren­o­va­tion, but it also suf­fered at­ten­dant ne­glect: the hall be­came a work­shop, the south wing de­gen­er­ated into a garage with hayloft above and cows wan­dered through it. The par­lour and great cham­ber ceil­ings sur­vived, but the an­te­room ceil­ing par­tially col­lapsed.

By the time the Tre­mayne fam­ily fi­nally sold the es­tate in 1975, the build­ing was in a par­lous con­di­tion, from which suc­ces­sive new own­ers grad­u­ally res­cued it, no­tably Lord and Lady O’ha­gan in 1987–88. Some as­pects of the restora­tion might now be judged rather heavy­handed, par­tic­u­larly the inser­tion of plate glass into win­dows where small leaded panes would have been more au­then­tic and sym­pa­thetic, but the im­por­tant thing is that Rash­leigh Bar­ton has sur­vived and that Rus­sell and Ali Mabon, its own­ers since 2006, have made it a com­fort­able, stylish and work­able fam­ily home.

Fig 1 pre­ced­ing pages: The par­lour. Fig 2 above: The house in its land­scape. The cen­tral hall is en­tered through a mod­ern porch and the cross-wing to the left con­tains the par­lour and great cham­ber. That to the right was re­built in the 19th cen­tury

Fig 3 above: The 1630s gallery, in­ter­nalised by later ad­di­tions, prob­a­bly in the 19th cen­tury. The gallery and its stair gave ac­cess to a with­draw­ing cham­ber above the kitchen ser­vices.

Fig 4 below: The hall, with its great fire­place and rel­a­tively plain plas­ter dec­o­ra­tion. In the late Mid­dle Ages, this in­te­rior rose for an­other storey and was open to the roof

Fig 5: The dog gate on the 17th-cen­tury prin­ci­pal stairs. The four flights are ar­ranged around a pan­elled core, a form that had be­come un­fash­ion­able by the 1630s

Fig 6 above: The ceil­ing of the for­mer great cham­ber. The cen­tral of its three pen­dants is a cage-like sphere; the ring is pre­sum­ably for hang­ing a lamp. To the right are vis­i­ble the arms of the Earls of Bath. Fig 7 below left: One of the pan­els in the par­lour; swirls of fo­liage ra­di­ate from a Clot­wor­thy fam­ily coat of arms. Fig 8 below right: The an­techam­ber at the head of the main stairs

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