Made in Bri­tain

Com­bin­ing geo­met­ric pat­terns with nat­u­ral mo­tifs, the dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­work of Ge­of­frey Pre­ston cre­ates breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful ar­chi­tec­tural fea­tures

Period Living - - Contents - Words An­dréa Childs Pho­to­graphs Ka­sia Fiszer

Ge­of­frey Pre­ston wel­comes us to his Devon work­shop to sam­ple the her­itage craft of plas­ter­work

The route to Ge­of­frey Pre­ston’s work­shop in Ide, Devon, winds down a sin­gle­track coun­try lane, sur­rounded with ver­dant hedgerows and glimpses into sheep-dot­ted fields be­yond. It’s a ru­ral com­mute by bi­cy­cle from his home in nearby Ex­eter, and one that’s to­tally in-keep­ing with his na­ture-in­spired de­signs. Ge­of­frey is one of the UK’S lead­ing ar­chi­tec­tural sculp­tors, spe­cial­is­ing in dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­work. His work adorns the ceil­ings and walls of pri­vate homes and stately build­ings across the UK – even the lobby of the Lon­don night­club Annabel’s, where a winged uni­corn made by Ge­of­frey and his team prances above the par­ty­go­ers. ‘I worry that some­one will jump on its back and it will come crash­ing to the floor,’ Ge­of­frey says with a smile, only half jok­ing. ‘For­tu­nately, my usual work is a lit­tle less full-on.’

His cur­rent project is the restora­tion – ‘more like to­tal re­build­ing’ – of an 18th-cen­tury ceil­ing in a Lon­don gallery. Work­ing from a sin­gle 1960s pho­to­graph of the orig­i­nal de­sign, be­fore most of it col­lapsed to the floor be­low, it’s a job that com­bines sleight of hand with the vi­sion to reimag­ine how the ceil­ing looked be­fore time and grav­ity took their toll. ‘Ac­tu­ally, it’s un­usual for me to be in­volved in a restora­tion project these days,’ Ge­of­frey says. ‘I trained as a sculp­tor and most of my fo­cus is on cre­at­ing orig­i­nal de­signs. If I’d con­tin­ued as an artist, my pieces would be shown in gal­leries. Work­ing on com­mis­sions al­lows me to build re­la­tion­ships with my clients and make some­thing that will be loved and seen ev­ery day in their own homes.’

Ge­of­frey stud­ied sculp­ture at Hornsey Col­lege of Art in the 1970s. ‘It was an in­ter­est­ing time; we were on the thresh­old of con­cep­tual art and my work was very ab­stract,’ he re­calls. In or­der to find reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment, he then trained as a stone­ma­son and carver, be­com­ing in­volved in stone con­ser­va­tion projects in the 1980s. ‘That took me back to a more tra­di­tional ap­proach, in­flu­enced by the build­ings I was work­ing on, which in turn led to es­tab­lish­ing my own con­ser­va­tion com­pa­nies and jobs, in­clud­ing the restora­tion of the 18th­cen­tury ceil­ings at Up­park House in West Sus­sex, which had been de­stroyed by fire,’ Ge­of­frey adds. It was at Up­park that he dis­cov­ered

‘I’m in­spired by the plas­ter­work of the 1750s and 1760s, by Bavar­ian ro­coco and in­ter­war baroque’

a pas­sion for plas­ter­work and where he met his wife Jenny Lawrence, who now works along­side him in the stu­dio. ‘Jenny was in charge of the join­ery at Up­park. We didn’t hit it off at first but a year later, in 1995, we moved to the US and stayed for four years, help­ing to re­store Ca’ d’zan, the State Art Mu­seum of Florida, which was orig­i­nally a man­sion built by the founder of the world­fa­mous Rin­gling Circus.’ On their re­turn, the cou­ple swapped the show­man­ship and raz­zledaz­zle of the Sun­shine State for a rel­a­tively slower pace – Ge­of­frey es­tab­lish­ing his work­shop in Ex­eter and Jenny work­ing as a fi­nan­cial ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Tate and, later, a Lon­don theatre com­pany, com­ing home to Devon at the week­ends.

‘A friend lent me a stu­dio space for free for the first two years and I be­gan with a bit of hum­ble mak­ing for pres­ti­gious plas­ter­work com­pa­nies,’ re­mem­bers Ge­of­frey. ‘I de­signed pan­els for the Rivoli Bar at the Ritz Ho­tel in Lon­don and was asked by Stan­ley Fal­coner, di­rec­tor of Cole­fax & Fowler, to work on pri­vate com­mis­sions. There were times when I was in the dol­drums, but that gave me space to be creative and de­velop my own style. I’m in­spired by the plas­ter­work of the 1750s and 1760s, by Bavar­ian ro­coco and in­ter­war baroque, which have huge free­dom and flow in their nat­u­ral forms. But I’m also in­debted to wood artists, in­clud­ing Clare Leighton, Agnes Miller Parker and Charles Tun­ni­cliffe – his Mere­side Chron­i­cle is a book I con­stantly go back to for in­spi­ra­tion.’

Look at Ge­of­frey’s de­signs and you’ll see that, de­spite the ap­pear­ance of sym­me­try, no panel is the same. His work com­bines geo­met­ric pat­terns with life­like mo­tifs taken from the Bri­tish coun­try­side - a barn owl peek­ing from be­hind oak leaves; swal­lows swoop­ing across the plas­ter; or a pike ap­pear­ing to emerge from the sur­face of the plas­ter to snap at a scroll-turned-fish­ing line. ‘I want to rein­ter­pret the forms of the past to cre­ate some­thing new and orig­i­nal,’ Ge­of­frey ex­plains. ‘Mod­el­ling is es­sen­tially like draw­ing or writ­ing; over the years I’ve de­vel­oped my sig­na­ture style.’

Two years ago, Ge­of­frey, Jenny and as­sis­tants Kate Mon­tagne and Louisa Shor­ney moved to the cur­rent farm­yard stu­dio, a small barn di­vided into a kitchen, large cen­tral workspace and a sep­a­rate draw­ing area. ‘We’re very col­le­giate; we work from 8.30am to 6pm, with breaks for tea and lunch that we eat around the ta­ble to­gether,’ Ge­of­frey says. A com­puter is used only for emails and ad­min, as ev­ery part of a project is con­ceived and cre­ated by hand – from Ge­of­frey’s pen­cil draw­ings to his clay mod­els, the sil­i­cone moulds made by Jenny, Kate and Louise, and the fi­nal plas­ter­work cast from them. ‘Mould-mak­ing is an in­cred­i­ble skill; with­out the team’s tal­ents, I wouldn’t be able to re­alise half my con­cepts,’ Ge­of­frey says. As well as plas­ter­work, Ge­of­frey will also re­alise some projects in stucco – a type of plas­ter with a putty con­sis­tency that is mod­elled di­rectly on to the ceil­ing or wall sur­face.

‘One of the joys of our work is that ev­ery piece is unique but that also makes it time con­sum­ing and costly to pro­duce,’ Ge­of­frey says. ‘For a ceil­ing, I’ll spend four to six weeks draw­ing the de­sign, which then takes around four months to mould and cast. We com­plete only three or four projects each year.’

His lat­est ini­tia­tive aims to bridge the gap be­tween be­spoke and off the shelf. It’s a se­ries of lim­it­ededi­tion, cast-to-or­der flo­ral pan­els, in­spired by French 18th-cen­tury porce­lain paint­ing. Part art­work, part per­ma­nent fix­ture, the pan­els are the per­fect pair­ing of Ge­of­frey’s artist past and his ar­chi­tec­tural present. And, per­haps, a tem­plate for the fu­ture.

Visit ge­of­freypre­ston.co.uk for more in­spi­ra­tion

‘One of the joys of our work is that ev­ery piece is unique, but that also makes it time-con­sum­ing and costly to pro­duce’

This page: A ceil­ing rose cre­ated for a pri­vate house in Hen­ley-on-thames Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Ge­of­frey plans his de­signs to scale in sketch­books be­fore draw­ing out full-size ver­sions; the orig­i­nal mould­ing for his new se­ries of...

Above: Jenny Lawrence (left), Ge­of­frey and their as­sis­tant Louisa Shor­ney take a break out­side the stu­dio in Devon Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Ge­of­frey works on a ceil­ing panel; a plas­ter mo­tif lies next to the sil­i­cone mould it is cast from;...

Above left: A new sil­i­cone mould is re­moved from its clay tem­plate by Ge­of­frey and Jenny. The neg­a­tive mould will be cleaned then filled with plas­ter to cre­ate a cast of the orig­i­nal flower de­sign Above right: A sec­ond cast of a ceil­ing cen­tre­piece,...

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