From the Georgians to the present day: we look at the rich history hidden within period property.
Often overlooked in recent years, interior mouldings have returned to the spotlight. Traditionally used to enhance the proportion of a room and demonstrate status, the style of decoration is often considered as important to the building’s heritage as the exterior architecture.
With many historical trends, these architectural details have practical origins. Frequently seen in Greek and Roman architecture where it was used to enrich the interiors, plasterwork only became common practice in the UK following the fire of London in 1212. In light of the devastation this had on the city, King John decreed that all buildings along the Thames must plaster both their interior and exterior walls as a fireproof measure.
Period mouldings such as plaster cornicing, coving, and ceiling roses have been an essential decorative feature of the home since gaining prominence in the Georgian period (1714-1830). This chapter saw the widespread transition from ceilings supported by visible timber joists to suspended ceilings adorned with decorative plasterwork. Previously reserved for the exceptionally wealthy or royal families, many of their stately homes have showcased crests and badges in their mouldings since the mid-1600s.
Heavier and more elaborate decoration was reserved for the public parts of the house such as the porch, hallway, reception and dining rooms. These grander spaces provided an opportunity to showcase the homeowner’s wealth and taste with the private areas (kitchens and bedrooms) being adorned with comparatively simplistic detailing.
Ceiling Roses, while primarily considered a decorative element, once served an important role. Often boasting the most complex detailing in the house, they were used to distract attention from the soot and dust produced by candles and oil lamps that adorned the chandeliers below. In the Victorian era, it became common practice to add deep recesses that served as ventilation for gas lighting, a trend becoming popular among the British upper-class.
The introduction of wallpaper in the late 1880s saw a return to the more restrained and straightforward styles championed by the early Georgians. With successful trade routes established with the Orient, the aristocracy was quickly drawn to the lustrous effect that came with the first handcrafted silk wall finish.
These trends, which are once again proving popular, can be traced to three specific periods ranging over 200 years.
Preceded by the Baroque era, the Georgian period was heavily influenced by Palladian architecture. Pioneered by James Gibbs, this approach focussed on symmetry, proportion and perspective; drawing heavily from the ancient Greeks and Romans.
This period saw mouldings become less detailed and started to show heavier detailing. Popular designs included the ‘egg and dart’ or ‘dentil’ which featured along the bottom edge of the moulding.
The Georgian era saw the creation of the dado rail. With fashion dictating that dining chairs were placed against the walls rather than under the table, the rail offered protection from knocks and marking. These were traditionally positioned at 900mm from the floor.
This period reflects the nine years the Prince Regent ruled before ascending to the throne as King George IV in 1820. This spell saw mouldings take on a lighter and more decorative quality. Designs followed an increasingly mathematical approach evidenced in the symmetry, scale, and proportions. These years also saw the rise of one of London’s greatest builders, John Nash, who was responsible for many of the best examples of Regency architecture. Predominantly formed of sweeping terraces, his work includes the Royal Pavilion, Regents Street, and Buckingham Palace.
Arguably the most creative and ambitious of all the periods, the Victorian era focussed on revival and reinterpretation. Drawing inspiration from a myriad of different architectural periods, from Neoclassical and the Renaissance to the Oriental and Medieval, the Victorians favoured the bold and ornate. They also created their versions such as Jacobethan: a combination of the Jacobean and Elizabethan styles.
This period also saw the phasing out of the dado rail, although the picture rail remained. With the preference now to place dining chairs around the table, the rail no longer served it’s original purpose. The removal of the rail led to higher skirting boards and deeper cornices designed to provide balance to the comparatively bare wall.
The surge in building work during these years saw plaster mouldings linked to social hierarchy. With developers free to determine the suitable style depending on their target market, detailing became integral to the success of the overall design. Larger and more substantial houses required more elaborate features to justify their price while at the lower end plaster mouldings were neither affordable nor appropriate.
With today’s interior market increasingly focussing on heritage for inspiration, we are seeing a resurgence in interest for period mouldings. Designers from Rose Uniake to Joseph Dirand are demonstrating how best to showcase these architectural features. Breathing life back into these details, this trend for preservation provides a much-needed celebration of the home’s historical identity.