YOU CAN NO LONGER ENJOY a tankard of ale at the Sun Inn in the Essex town of Saffron Walden. However, you can still enjoy the fine pargetting (moulded sculptured plasterwork) that adorns it.
The building that housed the former Sun Inn was built in the 15th century. Late in the 16th or early in the 17th century, an upper floor was added. Indeed, one of the gables with fine pargetting bears the date 1676. This might have been the date when the present pargetting was created or when the upper floor was added, or even both. The former inn has an opening that allowed wagons and other traffic to enter the yard behind it.
The pargetting is described well in a website (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp228-260) as follows: “… in the middle bay are two late 17th-century panels in plaster, one with a design of foliage and birds, and the other with a stocking; in the S.W. gable is a design of the same date in plaster, which consists of a circular panel divided into twelve segments; on each side is the figure of a man in a long coat, knee-breeches and high-heeled shoes; one figure holds a sword and buckler, the other a long club.”
Today (late 2020), the group of beautifully decorated houses that includes the former Sun Inn is empty. The ground floor of part of the building bears a shop sign ‘Lankester Antiques & Books’. Run by Paul Lankester of Thaxted in Essex, the shop closed after 48 years of business in July 2015. Another sign near it reads ‘The 14th century Old Sun Inn. Oliver Cromwell’s Headquarters 1647’. In 1647, when Cromwell’s New Model Army had won the first civil war for the Parliamentarians, they gathered in Saffron Walden. For various reasons the war weary army was becoming dissatisfied. Cromwell and his officers arrived in Saffron Walden on the 2nd of May 1647 to try to satisfy the troops’ various demands and to deal with their grievances (www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/news/a-lasting-place-in-history-1-377880). He was unable to do so and returned to London after staying in the town for 19 days.
Although the town has many other attractions, seeing this old building with its exquisite external decorations is on its own an excellent reason to pay a visit to Saffron Walden.
IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.
According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).
Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’. By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.
After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.
Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.
In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building, Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention. From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.
As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.
“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”
So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley. The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.
Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.
Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.
RUSSELL SQUARE IN London’s Bloomsbury was laid out in 1804 following the demolition of Bedford House. Russell was the surname of the Dukes and Earls of Bedford. Its garden is a pleasant place to relax and contains fountains as well as a lovely café where Italian food is available. The garden was redesigned in 200-2001 by Camden Council, but retains features of the layout of the original garden created by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) in about 1801. Visitors to the square cannot but help noticing a huge, flamboyant hotel facing its eastern side. This is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, which was known as the ‘Russell Hotel’ until 2018.
The hotel faced with terracotta coloured stone, which bears the date 1898 on its exuberant façade, was opened in 1900. It was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850-1929), who designed the dining room on the ill-fated liner, ‘The Titanic’. His design for the building was inspired by the Château de Madrid near Paris (France). The hotel is a remarkably eye-catching building covered with decorative features. A terrace framed by arches and slender pillars runs around the first floor of the edifice. This terrace is decorated by a series of roundish three-dimensional bas-relief coats-of-arms that are best seen with either binoculars or through the zoom lens of a camera. These have caught my eye on many occasions as some of them contain crests that include the mythical/heraldic double-headed eagle, a ‘creature’ that interests me greatly.
The coats-of-arms are of countries that existed in 1898. The double-headed eagle crests contain images of St George slaying a dragon. This suggests to me that these crests represent Imperial Russia rather than Austria-Hungary. I was able to identify some of the other crests, such as those of the Kingdom of Italy, Portugal, USA, and France. Some of the others represent countries that I am not able to identify.
In 1994, the hotel hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Russell Group of research universities. More recently, in late 2011, I attended a reunion dinner of alumni of the now defunct University College Hospital Dental School. It was the thirtieth anniversary of my class’s graduation. My memories of the hotel’s interior were of somewhat gloomy but impressive public rooms with much dark marble or similar stonework. The food served at the costly (overpriced) reunion dinner was unremarkable. What struck me was how much some of my fellow students, who were younger than me, had aged. What did not stroke me until some years after that evening was that the exterior of the building which I had entered was studded with double-headed eagles.
Unlike flags that can be easily removed or changed according to what happens to countries, the bas-relief crests on the hotel cannot be changed so easily without damaging the buildings structure. So the Kimpton Fitzroy, once the Russell, bears a curious history of nations some of which have changed considerably since 1898. What amuses me is that the Russian double-headed eagle, which gave way to the hammer and sickle in 1917, survived the Russian Revolution and is now Russia’s symbol once more. It is lucky that the hotel’s management did not attempt to remove it.
DURING RECENT TRIPS TO villages and small towns in Essex and Suffolk, we have noticed that some of the plastering on the external walls of buildings is decorated with patterns and illustrations in bas-relief instead of being flat and featureless, as it often is. I first became aware of this decorative plasterwork on a house in the tiny village of Tollesbury in Essex. As we begun to see more examples, my curiosity about it grew. When we visited Saffron Walden, we saw that the outer wall of a bookshop was covered with plasterwork with patterns and symbols. I decided that if anyone would know about this kind of plastering, it would be someone working in what looked like a serious bookshop.
In Saffron Walden
I entered Harts bookshop and noticed two things. Firstly, the shop was very well stocked. It was a place where one might spend quite a long time browsing. Secondly, the shelving units looked very familiar. I mentioned to the sales assistant that the shelving resembled that used by branches of the excellent Daunt’s bookshop chain. She replied that despite its name, Hart’s is now a branch of Daunt’s. Saffron Walden is lucky to have such a fine bookstore. I asked the assistant about the plasterwork with decorations that was on her shop and other buildings in the area. Another customer overheard me and explained that what I was asking about is called ‘parget(t)ing’. According to Wikipedia:
“Pargeting derives from the word ‘parget’, a Middle English term that is probably derived from the Old French pargeter or parjeter, to throw about, or porgeter, to roughcast a wall.”
However, the frequently fine and intricate patterns and illustrations created on the plaster suggest that creating pargetting involves little if any ‘throwing about’ of plaster but rather much care in its application.
The patterns or drawings were/are often produced by filling moulds with plaster while the wall is being plastered. An important ingredient in the plaster used to create these three-dimensional images and to give them some cohesive strength is fibre.
“English plasterwork became increasingly elaborate in the 16th century and the dramatic external decoration of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace (1538) was contemporary with early plaster friezes in the great houses. Some of the most opulent pargeting was produced over the next 150 years with a high point around 1660 (for example, Ancient House, Ipswich, and the Sun Inn, Saffron Walden), then the technique began to fall out of fashion.”
Later in the 19th century, some architects like Norman Shaw who were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement revived pargetting, but the effects produced were far less spontaneous looking than those produced by earlier craftsmen. The same website explains:
“The simplest pargeting takes the form of lines scratched with a stick across wet plaster to create, for example, a lattice within a border. More complexity comes from using fingers and combs or moulded templates, incising or impressing chevrons, scallops, herringbones, guilloches, fantails, rope patterns and interchanging squares.”
To create the images that can be seen in pargetting, the plaster used needs to have sufficient cohesive strength. This can be achieved by adding fibre to the plaster mix. According to the http://www.plasterersnews.com website:
“Early pargeting was always worked in lime plaster which had three main ingredients; lime, aggregate and hair … Traditionally it was probably cow or horse hair but BSE stopped them being used and imported goat and yak hair became popular.”
Modern craftsmen conserving pargetting sometimes use synthetic fibres instead of natural hair because some of the modern sources of natural hair have been washed and this removes natural oils, which prevent the hair dissolving in the plaster.
If you, like me, did not know about pargetting before, now you do. When the man in Harts bookshop mentioned ‘pargetting’, “The Archers”, the British radio serial set in a country village, sprung to mind. One of the memorable characters in this series, which was first broadcast in 1950, is a man called Nigel Pargetter. Sadly, his death was recorded in The Guardian newspaper on the 3rd of January 2011. The paper recorded:
“Pargetter, played by Graham Seed for almost 30 years, was felled by the combination of a loose slate, a flapping happy new year banner on the roof of his home, and the need for a rousing climax to the special half-hour 60th anniversary episode, which the producers promised would ‘shake Ambridge to the core’. It had been, the BBC said, ‘a tough decision’”
You will be relieved to learn that Grahame Seed, the actor who played the role of Nigel Pargetter, still thrives. Nigel might be dead but pargetting still survives and serves to add visual interest to many buildings in East Anglia.