Elizabethan edifice, Eastgate House, Rochester
Dr Claire Gapper, Historic Plastering Academic
Online: 16th July 2020
It was a complete delight to conclude the five Gypsars & Daubers online events with a specialist talk about a unique historic house by an esteemed historic plastering academic – Dr Claire Gapper.
Her subject was the Elizabethan edifice, Eastgate House, Rochester. Lately refurbished to become a shrine to local lad Charles Dickens, it started life in the 1580s – one of the oldest domestic buildings in Rochester. Indeed Dickens would have known it as a young man brought up in the Medway and he referred to the house in two of his books, The Pickwick Papers (as Westgate) and the Nun’s House in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
The House was the home of Peter Buck and his family from 1580 – 1687. Thereafter it was variously a free school and girls’ boarding school, a young men’s hostel and a library and museum. Along the way it was extended with some elements that seem to have been transferred from local buildings such as the Red Lion Inn in Frindsbury – all adding to a delightful hotchpot of architecture and most importantly plasterwork. The house was enlarged over a long period and there is no coherent overall plan. Just as well we had Claire with her 85 PowerPoint slides to guide us around.
There were two especially lovely and original plaster ceilings on the ground and second floors of the first phase of the building. How do we know that they are original – in part due to the fact that the lines in the decoration are wavy and so hinting at hand work in situ – skilled and idiosyncratic. Claire helped those of us unfamiliar with the technique used to create this plaster and outlined the basic method and materials that the skilled but unknown craftsmen of the time used and are still largely used today for similar work or repairs.
Claire showed photos of and described the numerous heraldic signs around he house and the plasterwork – with fleurs-de-lys, in different versions and floral designs with pinks and acorns. To say nothing of the grotesques where the plasterer seems to have revelled in this kind of decoration. Writhing sea monsters, a merman with a cutlass and a depiction of a merman and mermaid, who were disproportionately large for the small ceiling they occupy. Many animals were depicted – lions and deer. The works were mainly created freehand as this would have been cheaper than creating wooden moulds that a more luxurious house might have boasted.
The talk sparked many interesting questions. I was concerned as to whether there are the skills today that could be used to create such ceilings – but Claire assured me that craftsmen like Philip Gaches (one of our new freemen) are well able to work in this way. The only issue is around the likely over-demand for such skills if the prospective work at the Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace place a huge premium on such skills all at the same time. It is good to recall the rich history of plastering and the connection with our current craft today.
Alderman Alison Gowman, Deputy Master
Watch the full Gypsars & Daubers event below: