In search of a Lost Barnstaple Plaster Ceiling

A research request came in for an image of a Plaster Ceiling of the Trevelyan Hotel, now demolished, which had been 69 High Street Barnstaple. The building in the 1980-90’s had been Woolworth’s Department Store and is now Boots the Chemists.

Plaster Ceilings – this was not just a question of whether to paint or whitewash. Plaster Ceilings of the 17th century were intricate geometric patterns decorated with flowers, fruits, animals, mythical beasts, fish and insects. Around the room would be an elaborate frieze and sometimes over the fireplace a large overmantel.

[Image No 4 at 8 Cross Street Ground Floor “The Early Seventeenth Century Plaster Ceilings of Barnstaple” (printed 1917) for the Transactions of the Devonshire Association. DP900BAR/OLI]

Internal ornamental plasterwork was extremely fashionable among wealthy merchants and prosperous farmers during this period.

Barnstaple had been famous for the quality of fine craftsmanship of 16th/17th Century Plaster Ceilings in the numerous luxurious houses built near to the Quay for the Barum Merchant Princes who sent their ships to engage with the Spanish.

By 1917 there were 18 ceilings of quality, by 1987 there were nine, to my knowledge, in 2018 there are 5 viewable ceilings in Barnstaple although there are others that have been covered in.

The Plaster ceiling were constructed on wooden laths covered with a base of cob – a mixture of sandy clay soil, straw and water- and lime and animal hair. The plaster was applied to this base, the ribwork design drawn onto it and then moulded in situ. Decorative motives were moulded separately and applied. Considering their rudimentary construction, the fact that the 16th/17th century plaster ceilings have remained aloft for over four hundred years is remarkable.

Bruce William Oliver (1883 -1976) a Barnstaple Architect and Chairman and Life President of the North Devon Athenaeum, was interested in recording evidence of the architecture of old houses, stately homes, cottages and alms houses as he was concerned that so many of them were being demolished or refurbished.

He wrote numerous books, papers and pamphlets. One of his more notable works was “The Early Seventeenth Century Plaster Ceilings of Barnstaple” (printed 1917) for the Transactions of the Devonshire Association. He was also a noted amateur photographer who took photographs, recorded on glass negatives which he left to North Devon Athenaeum.

Although the pamphlet above mentions the Trevelyan Hotel it does not contain a photograph.

At the time of writing the pamphlet in 1917 the ceiling is described as one of only two double-ribbed ceilings in Barnstaple of which only small portions remained.

“The Trevelyan ceiling is identical in design with the single-ribbed ceiling of the Golden Lion Hotel, with only slight variation as regards enrichment. The pattern is built up from squares set apart and linked by ribs arranged in octagonal foliation, from each cusp of which springs a cast spray. Cast ornament occupies the centre of each panel.”

[Image No9 The Golden Lion Hotel Barnstaple Ground Floor “The Early Seventeenth Century Plaster Ceilings of Barnstaple” Transactions of the Devonshire Association. DP900BAR/OLI]

Even though the photograph is not used in the pamphlet it is mentioned by number as if there was a photograph.

Now it was a matter of finding it.

Searching the Athenaeum Catalogue for Trevelyan Hotel produced – Nothing!

Searches for Plasterwork or Plaster produced 32 hits, some named places, but many stating Un-named Photographs in various boxes, folders, and albums.

The most numerous photographs were in the Grimmett Collection.

Cecil G W Grimmett, a Police Constable of Swimbridge, set out in the 1950’s, to collate a complete pictorial record of his Parish. He was a member of the Devonshire Association and a recognised authority on local history. The completed collection was presented to the North Devon Athenaeum.

Some of the photographs of the ceilings recorded by Cecil Grimmett were in quite small cottages considering they were of such elaborate ceilings. “Disappearing Devon” by Pauline and Robert Brain [pub.1987] D728/BRA in the Athenaeum Library collection, records that ‘Devon is unusual in that many otherwise insignificant townhouses, longhouses and farmhouses contain rooms with decorative plasterwork while in other Counties examples are more often seen only in important Manor houses and Mansions.’

So, none in this collection were of the Trevelyan Hotel.

[Image Bruce Oliver Notebook on Plastering Techniques drawings B80-24]

Now to tackle the photos scattered around in other document boxes.

Unfortunately, someone in the past had collected Plasterwork photographs from various sources within the archive, possibly for a display and had not returned them to their original collections.

When the Athenaeum archive had been catalogued in 2010 they had been catalogued in their present position.

There were also more photographs in the North Devon Record Office Archives.

[Image 38 North Street Exeter rescued by Rev Sabine Baring-Gould to Lew Trenchard, showing the geometric design and the embellishments.]

The Plaster Ceiling designs were based on a variety of Geometric patterns. The Square, Diamond, Fan, Star, Octagon, Kite, Circle, and Ellipse.

There are also Hearts, Kidney, Clover leaf, Petals, and Ogee, which is a double continuous S- shaped curve.

As I worked my way through the collections I was starting to get boggle-eyed with all the different versions of geometric design, so I photocopied them all to make cross referring and naming them easier.

Still none of these were of the Trevelyan Hotel.

One day, by chance, I mentioned what I was researching to the Chairman of the Athenaeum when he called in. Imagine my surprise when he said he knew where there was a collection of glass negatives by Bruce Oliver that contained examples of Plaster Ceilings.

A previous Athenaeum Librarian, in the 1980’s had earmarked them for disposal and our present Chairman had recognised their value and had rescued them. These have now been returned to the Athenaeum Archive.

Still there was no identifying list of the ceiling’s whereabouts.

That meant going back to my photocopies and working my way through each glass negative and drawing any identifying features to identify its location. Finally, one ceiling was left unidentified and it was the Trevelyan Hotel!

It was possible to make an identification because another picture in the Athenaeum archives had contained the fireplace in the hotel which matched the one with the unidentified ceiling.

[Image Trevelyan Hotel ceiling]

Subsequently, from the same source as the glass negatives, an original manuscript for Bruce Oliver’s booklet came to light which contained all the photographs referred to in the text but not used in the booklet. So now we have a photograph as well as a glass negative of the Trevelyan Hotel Plaster Ceiling.

In addition, another document contained the notes of a tour around Barnstaple given by Bruce Oliver on the Plaster Ceiling of Barnstaple that existed in 1942. These included more information on the buildings that contained the Plaster Ceilings. A chance remark, at the right time, to the right person resulted in a valuable resource recording Barnstaple’s history becoming accessible again to the general public.

…Sandi, Assistant Librarian

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