Decorative painting and plasterwork in houses: the use of copy-books

Dr Tara Hamling, Department of Modern History, University of Birmingham

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

This talk explores the subject of manuscript pattern books. With all that we now know about the use of prints as a source of design and iconography for the visual arts of the Tudor period , it seems timely to return to the question of the role of craftsmen's drawings in the design process. The discussion focuses on one manuscript in particular; the so-called 'Abbott pattern book' or 'sketchbook' containing designs relating to decorative plasterwork.

For many years the Abbott manuscript was described as a working pattern book of designs passed down from father to son over three generations within a family of plasterers in the West Country. This thesis was overturned by Michael Bath's analysis of the watermarks in the book, which indicated that the pages of the book were manufactured in the 1650s. Bath re-positioned the Abbott book as a 'copy book' whereby all its contents were copied into it by the plasterer John Abbott in the 1650s or 1660s.

The talk explores the implications of the re-dating of the Abbott book in relation to the nature and function of the drawings of plasterwork seemingly dating from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The discussion proposes: i) that some of the drawings of plasterwork were not designs for projected work but were rather made to record completed work; ii) that these drawings could have served as a template for subsequent work in the absence of available printed material; iii) that the time lapse between the style of the plasterwork in the drawings and the date of the Abbott book suggests that the drawings are copies of earlier record drawings; iii) that the copying of earlier drawings was part of a project concerned with the compilation of visual and textual information from printed sources and elsewhere.

In this way the Abbott book can be understood in the context of wider cultural practices involving the assembling and copying of material into manuscripts, or commonplace books. Thomas Trevelyon's two manuscript books of drawings-which have also been described, erroneously, as pattern books-also represent this practice. Comparison between the Abbott book and the Trevelyon manuscripts suggests that we should be wary of treating such manuscripts as 'pattern books' because the nature of the relationship between the drawings and craft practice is unclear. While these manuscripts might not have functioned as part of the working process, as copy-books they provide evidence of the wider visual and textual vocabulary that informed craft production.

1 Thanks principally to Anthony Wells-Cole's book, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints, (Yale University Press, 1997).
2 The Abbott manuscript is held in the Devon Record Office, Exeter, MS 404 M/BI.
3 Michael Bath, 'The Sources of John Abbott's Pattern Book', Architectural History, 41, 1998: 49-66.