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