30 March 2010 Afternoon
After visiting the picturesque and magnificent Salisbury Cathedral in the morning, I had a quick lunch and then hurried over to Mompesson House located in the Cathedral Close not far from the church. I had to meet up with our guide at 2pm in order to go to Stonehenge, so I had only a brief 30 minutes to peruse and enjoy the pleasures of this impressive 18th century house, particularly its gorgeous decorative plasterwork.
I love house museums such as Mompesson or the Wallace Collection in London or the Frick in New York City. They allow my imagination to wander and conjure up of images about how a certain class of people used to live and most interestingly how they decorated the spaces they inhabited. In places like the Wallace and the Frick, one sees incredible works of art in a domestic setting and scale that they were meant to occupy, not the large museums in which we mostly see them today. There is a greater intimacy and a different way of viewing and looking in contrast to that commercial context.
So, when I entered Mompesson House that March afternoon, I could imagine arriving at the house in the 1740’s for an intimate family fête in the gorgeous first floor Green Room with its plasterwork eagle located at the center of the ceiling. I walk through the center entrance hall and ascend the grand staircase. I hear the sounds of stringed instruments and the clinking of glasses; I admire the stunning new plasterwork of the staircase that the host of the party, Mr. Charles Longueville, has recently had installed in the house at great expense. I enter the salon through an elaborate pedimented doorway. The room is bathed in the soft glow of candlelight, highlighting the soft green paneling. I am offered a glass of…Bliss…
Mompesson House has been on its present site since at least 1649. In 1701 the exterior of the house and parts of the interior were rebuilt for Charles Mompesson, a lawyer and local MP who had become the lease holder of the property. The outside of the exterior has changed little since that time.
In the 1740’s his brother-in-law, Charles Longueville took over the lease of the house remodeling it with a grand central staircase, new fireplaces and most importantly he added the crisp off white decorative plasterwork which is still present today.
The Dining Room
The plain molded paneling in the dining room probably dates to the remodeling of 1701. The fireplace overmantel was probably completed during the redesign of the house’s interior in the 1740’s. This beautiful piece of plasterwork features classical elements such as garlands, swags, acanthus swirls, a figural head, and a basket of lush fruit. The basket of fruit suggests the purpose of the room as a place for eating, dining, entertaining and hospitality.
The ceiling of the dining room is also adorned with plasterwork accentuated by acanthus scrolls, a garland of what appears to be laurel leaves with berries and another garland reminiscent of a shaft of wheat. These 2 garlands surround a central facial mask. The face with its wildly flowing hair is ornamented by a draping fabric that forms a sort of collar. On top of the mask there appears to be a hat from which about 7 feathers emerge in a beautiful display of plumage. The high relief of the plasterwork and its soft off-white eggshell color produces the effect of the icing found on an elaborate cake. It is visually quite delicious and recalls the frothy depictions of Rococo painting despite its classical Greek and Roman elements.
The Large Drawing Room
The beautiful Large Drawing Room was remodeled in the 1740’s by Charles Longueville in order to more lavishly entertain guests and impress them with the ultra-fashionable plasterwork. Longueville raised the ceiling, added the plasterwork and the marble mantelpiece with a carved overmantel. The appearance of this mantelpiece and overmantel resembles a contemporary design by the architect of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, James Gibbs. The design for what was known in the 18th century as the “continued chimneypiece” was published in the second edition of A Book of Architecture in 1739. This “continued chimneypiece” contains classical elements typical of the period such as the broken pediment of the overmantel and the fabric swags on the mantle itself. In the plasterwork of the room the dental border around the ceiling edge echoes the classical spirit found in the fireplace ornamentation.
Used as a library by the last owner of the house, the architect Denis Martineau, this room was originally the pantry or the larder in the 18th century. The ceiling is decorated with a central medallion surrounded by personifications of the Four Seasons each surrounded by what appears to be a shaft of wheat. This shaft of wheat motif was also used in the dining room ceiling.
The decoration of the Four Seasons is appropriate and fitting in a room meant to store and prepare food especially as the consumption of food in the 18th century was based on the seasonal availability of products.
The pale pink and blue color of the ceiling is not original, but was painted by Denis Martineau when he owned the property. In the 18th century, this plasterwork would have been an off white eggshell color like an ancient Roman statue as seen in the other areas of the house.
The Staircase Hall
The plasterwork of The Staircase Hall is perhaps the most exquisite and intricate in the entire house. This embellishment has a variety of classical elements such as masks, garlands of fruits and flowers, acanthus scrolls and a pair of antique cameo medallions of classical female heads. Each medallion with swaging fabric that appears to uphold the medallion is located over a window on the first landing of the staircase.
The upper register of The Staircase Hall is filled with empty frames with elaborate mask, shell and acanthus embellished surrounds in the style of William Kent.
The ceiling plasterwork of The Staircase Hall features the head of King Midas with the ears of an ass bestowed on him by Apollo when he foolishly gave the god second place in a music contest. Perhaps the inclusion of Midas with his new ears is a comment on the interior design of Mompesson House and its decorative plasterwork undertaken by Charles Longueville. When remodeling your house never settle for second best or don’t make an ass of yourself in the redecoration.
The Green Room
The Green Room is the grandest room on the first floor despite its size. The entrance to the room is centrally located at the head of the stairs and its door is surmounted by an ornate pediment. It was mainly used as an informal family sitting room.
The plasterwork in this room includes a magnificent eagle, a symbol of generosity, with outstretched wings located in the center of the ceiling.
Plasterwork eagle on the ceiling of The Green Room
Alas, my 30 minutes in Mompesson House was too brief and I had to rejoin the tour group for the short bus trip to Stonehenge. I could have stayed in the house for quite a long time and truly studied the plasterwork in greater detail. Also, I could have enjoyed the William Bessemer Wright Collection of porcelain figures made to ornament a dining room table or mantelpiece. These ornaments were produced by the Derby (1756-84) and the Bow (1765-74) factories. The figures often represent ideals, the seasons or stories from classical mythology.
Also, I could have given more attention to the Turnbull Collection of 18th century drinking glasses which are just exquisite with their air twist stems and engraved decoration, but my destination for the rest of afternoon was several thousand years further in the past.
As I walked around Stonehenge I thought again of the delicate 18th century drinking glasses at Mompesson House in contrast to the formidable, huge stone monoliths that were now before me. I was struck by the limitless nature of human creativity and desire- how a drinking vessel moves beyond merely its function and is transformed into a work of art and how a group of people thousands of years ago literally moved mountains to erect a sacred monument that still keeps its secrets today. And I thought despite the cold, wet weather that it must have been lovely in the 18th century to view Stonehenge not in its present state as an organized tourist site, but as something bizarre, uncanny, unknown and a stirring backdrop for a spot of tea out of doors circa 1740.
THE GREAT WITHIN DESIGN CONTEST
The beautiful decorative plasterwork of Mompesson House has inspired me to launch a design contest for The Great Within:
Using the 18th century decorative plasterwork at Mompesson House as a source of inspiration and a point of departure, how would you employ decorative plasterwork as a design element in a residential or commercial room today? In Mompesson House the plasterwork is full of classical references. What would be the content of your plasterwork? How would that content speak to and reflect today’s clients? In which room of a private house or a commercial setting would ornamental plasterwork be used? What areas of that room would feature decorative plasterwork- the ceiling, the walls, the mantelpiece etc.?
Come up with a design scheme in any style you wish, modern, art deco, traditional and so on, for a room in a private home or a commercial space that employs decorative plasterwork as a featured element. Submit an image of a photograph, drawing, painting, watercolor or even a collage of your design along with a written description that conveys your inspiration and explains the ideas in your design proposal.
Submissions of design proposals should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, June 2, 2010.
The Winner will be chosen by myself and my dear friend D____ who is an artist with a keen, modern design sense. The Chosen Winner will receive a genuine English solid silver 5.25” coffee spoon hallmarked Birmingham 1909 by Elkington and Co. and weighing over 1 ounce. This spoon with its shell motif is reminiscent of some of the plaster designs at Mompesson House.
Readers of The Great Within will also select a Reader’s Choice Winner by casting their vote on the blog. The winner of the Reader’s Choice will receive a pair of 6” silverplate teaspoons by Tiffany in their pattern Whittier which was introduced in 1907.
III. Final Details
All entries will be posted on The Great Within on Friday, June 4, 2010 in order to allow for the voting of the Reader’s Choice Winner. Voting for the Reader’s Choice Winner will end at midnight, Friday, June 11, 2010.
The Winner selected by myself and Deirdre as well as The Reader’s Choice Winner will be announced on Saturday, June 12, 2010 on The Great Within. Both the Reader’s Choice Winner and The Winner selected by myself and Deirdre will be featured in their own individual, highlighted post on June 12 with reactions and comments from myself, Deirdre and other readers. The individual winners will also receive an email on that day about their win.
If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to email me at email@example.com
I look forward to seeing all the unique proposals!