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The Sources of John Abbott’s Pattern Book

  • Michael Bath


The pattern book of the Devonshire plasterer, John Abbott II of Frithelstock (1639–1727), is a document which has attracted some attention, not just on the part of local historians interested in the rich corpus of West Country decorative plasterwork, but also from historians with a wider interest in decorative arts of the seventeenth century in England. Although the manuscript has the dates 1662 and 1665 repeated several times on the fly-leaf and end-papers, it draws on printed sources which had first appeared long before these dates. Abbott took over the trade of plasterer from his father Richard (1612–63) and his grandfather John I (1565–1635), and it has been suggested that the book may have been handed down within the family over two or more generations, which makes the dating of most of its contents particularly problematic. Abbott’s actual work is known to have survived at a number of sites in Devonshire, and his pattern book has sometimes been used in the often highly speculative business of assigning and dating the plasterwork in particular buildings; but as the substantial working notebook — more than 300 pages long — of a family of practising journeyman artists, it might also be expected to tell us something more generally about the design vocabulary and the working practices of craftsmen at this period in England.



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1 Oliver, Bruce W., ‘The early seventeenth-century plaster ceilings of Barnstaple’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 49 (1917), pp. 190-99; M[argaret] J[ourdain], ‘A 17th century plasterer: John Abbott of Barnstaple and his sketch book’, Country Life (March 2, 1940), pp. 222–25; K., and French, C., ‘Devonshire plasterwork’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 89 (1957), pp. 124-40, Plates 8-21; Beard, Geoffrey, Stucco and Decorative Plasterwork in Europe (London, 1983), p. 70 ; Trench, John Chevenix, ‘John Abbott’s manual of limning’, Transactions of the Association for Studies in the Conservation of Historic Buildings, 11 (1987), pp. 1926 ; Thorp, John, ‘Wall painting and lime-plaster decoration’, in Beacham, Peter, Devon Building: An introduction to local traditions (Tiverton, 1990, 2nd ed. 1995), pp. 129-49; Bristow, Ian C., Architectural Colour in British Interiors 1615–1840 (London, 1996), p.xiii, n.22; John, and Penoyre, Jane, Decorative Plasterwork in the Houses of Somerset 1500-1700 (Taunton, 1994), pp. 43–44 ; Wells-Cole, Anthony, Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625 (New Haven, 1997),pp. 158-63. The Abbott manuscript was deposited in Devon County Record Office, Exeter, MS 404 M/B1, by Abbott’s descendants in 1958.

2 Chevenix Trench (1986), p. 20, identifies forty-five of the total of seventy-eight recipes or instructions as borrowed from earlier writers; only the section on oils seems to be Abbott’s own work. For Bate, see Pollard and Redgrave, STC 1577-78, and Wing, B-1092.

3 Five cartouche designs from a set by Lucas Kilian, see Wells-Cole, p. 161.

4 London: Augustine Matthews for Robert Allott (1635), Pollard and Redgrave, STC 25900a-d, repr. London: Scolar Press, 1989, with introduction by Michael Bath.

5 See, for instance, Daly, Peter M., ‘The cultural context of English emblem books’ in Daly, The English Emblem and the Continental Tradition (New York, 1988), pp. 160 ; Bath, , Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture (London: 1994), pp. 12–17 ; Bath, , ‘Alexander Seton’s painted gallery’, in Gent, L., ed., Albion’s Classicism: The Visual Arts in Britain (New Haven, 1995), pp. 79108 .

6 For Wither’s use of Rollenhagen, see Bath, Speaking Pictures (n.4 above), pp. 116-17.

7 On emblem formats see Daly, , Emblem Theory: Recent German Contributions to the Characterization of the Emblem Genre (Nendeln, Lichtenstein, 1979); on the way Wither’s own format adapts his source, see Bath, Speaking Pictures, pp. 116-17.

8 See Wind, Edgar, ‘Enigma termini’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1 (1937), pp. 6669 ; Guillaume, J., ‘ His terminus haeret: du terme d’Erasme à la devise de Claude Gouffier, la fortune d’un emblème pendant la Renaissance’, Warburg Journal , 44 (1981), pp. 186-92.

9 For wall painting generally in England, see the various articles written in the 1930s by Francis Reader (ArchaeologicalJournal, 87 (1930), 89 (1932), 92 (1935), 93 (1936), 98 (1941) ). For inscriptions, see Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1540–1640 (Cambridge, 1991) pp. 217-53. Decorative painting in Scodand has not been at all comprehensively documented, though it is the subject of continuing research by the author of this paper. The painting at Crathes and at Delgaty includes versified proverbs inscribed along the ceiling joists, see Bath, , ‘Applied Emblematics in Scodand: Painted Ceilings, 1550-1650’, Emblematica: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Emblem Studies, 7 (1993), pp. 259305 , which illustrates similar moralizing couplets on a painted ceiling at Culross, Fife, which are strictly emblematic, being based on the Emblemes (1586) of Geffrey Whitney. For trencher decorations, see Bath, , ‘Emblems from Alciato in Jacobean Trencher Decorations’, Emblematica, 8 (1994), pp. 359-70.

10 Penoyre (1994, p. 71) cites a long biblical inscription running all round the frieze of the hall at Rowlands, Ashill, Somerset. Further investigation would, doubtless, succeed in identifying other examples.

11 See Daly (1988), ‘England and the Emblem’ (n.5 above), pp. 11–12 for the emblems at Blickling and at Lanhydrock.

12 John Thorp illustrates one such example from a house at Bideford, in Beacham, Devon Building, fig. 7.37 (see n.1 above). It seems likely that the series of biblical texts in triangular cartouches which makes up the concluding section of Abbott’s pattern book was designed for such use.

13 See Beard, , Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain (London, 1975), p. 19 . The rare exceptions, such as the High Great Chamber at Hardwick, belong to an élite tradition which is rather different from the vernacular traditions discussed in this article.

14 French, ‘Devonshire plasterwork’ (n. 1 above), p. 138; the other recorded commission is for the Exeter Custom House, see French, p. 139.

15 Wells-Cole, p. 162 (fig. 261), notes the rarity of this source — Pencz is only otherwise known to have been used as a decorative source at Edzell Castle in Scodand, where the planetary deities carved on the walls of the pleasance have been shown to copy prints by Pencz dating from 1528-29. There were particular reasons for Sir David Lindsay’s use of Pencz at Edzell, which cannot possibly apply to these English overmantels. Pencz worked, and the prints were published, in Nuremberg, a city with which Lindsay had close connexions since he is known to have employed German engineers from Nuremberg to oversee his mining operations in Glenesk, as Douglas Simpson pointed out when he first identified the source of the carvings, Edzell (Proceeding of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 65 (1930-31), pp. 115-73).

16 The only apprentice known to have worked for Abbott is a certain Laurence Mabyn (see Beard 1975, p. 200). Guild records, which might shed more light on this question and on relations between the Plasterers and the Painters-Stainers at this period in Devonshire, require more research.

17 Quoted in Beard, Decorative Plasterwork in Great Britain, p. 22.

18 A similar caption is to be found on the page which illustrates ‘The two Sorts of Cameleopardals’, which is Topsell’s caption for his two species of giraffe.

19 Bristow, Architectural Colour (n. 1 above), p. 22 n. 221.

20 Wither’s emblems had not been reprinted by 1665, though in 1684 Nathaniel Crouch reprinted fifty of them, including some of those used by Abbott, under the title Delights for the Ingenious (Wing, C-7312).

21 ‘Abbott’s Manual of Limning’, p. 20.

22 For instance, Thomas Combe’s much more modest little 8vo emblem book, The Theater of Fine Devices, (?1593) which, though it ran to several editions, only survives in two known copies: the condition of one of these — Glasgow University, Stirling Maxwell Collection SM688 — suggests why. The book lacks its outer pages, and is much torn and worn — evidently having been read to pieces. Combe was used as a pattern-book in Bury St Edmunds, and possibly elsewhere: see Bath and Jones, ‘Emblems from Thomas Combe in Wall Paintings at Bury St Edmunds’, Emblematica: A Journal for Emblem Studies (in press).

23 See Heawood, Edward, Watermarks, Mainly of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Hilversum, 1950), nos. 35943638 : the watermark in Abbott’s sketchbook corresponds very closely to no. 3602, though the 8vo format makes positive identification difficult.

24 The iconography of this extraordinary painted long gallery is the subject of continuing research. The only discussion of it to date is in Apted, M. R., The Painted Ceilings of Scotland 1550-1650, (Edinburgh, 1966), p. 28 , Plates 32-33.

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The Sources of John Abbott’s Pattern Book

  • Michael Bath


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