Plain and Decorative.


A practical treatise on the art & craft of

plastering and modelling.


Including full descriptions of the various tools, materials, processes, and appliances employed; also of moulded or “fine” concrete as used for fireproof stairs and floors, paving, architectural dressings, &c. &c.


together with an account of

historical plastering in England, Scotland, and Ireland,

accompanied by numerous examples.



William   Millar,

plasterer and modeller.


with an introductory chapter entitled “a glimpse of its history”

by G. T. Robinson, Esq., F.S.A.


The whole fully illustrated with fifty-two full-page plates, and two hundred and thirty-one smaller illustrations (comprising over five hundred figures) in the text.



B. T. Batsford,   94, High Holborn.



Chapter   XII.

Fibrous Plaster Work.

Historical - Fibrous plaster before the Christian era - fibrous plaster ceilings used in Cairo in the

fourteenth century - uses for fibrous plaster - renovating old ceilings - fibrous plaster for panelled ceilings - fibrous plaster nomenclature - fibrous plaster materials - cutting canvas - fibrous plaster wooden laths - fibrous plaster casting - casting fibrous plaster centre flowers - undercutting fibrous plaster - fibrous plaster cornices - mitre and joint stops - casting fibrous plaster plain cornices - casting fibrous plaster enriched cornices: bedded enrichment system - moulding and casting fibrous enrichments - casting fibrous plaster enriched cornices : fixed and cast enrichment systems - frame wax and gelatine moulds - fixing fibrous plaster cornices - fibrous plaster measurements - fireproof fibrous plaster - fibrous plaster decorative sheets - muslin plaster casts - tow and plaster casts - rapid plastering - fibrous plaster slab moulds - fibrous plaster slab making - setting fibrous plaster slabs - fireproof, salamander, combination, metallic, external, reed, grooved, perforated, finished face, gesso, sgraffitto, fresco, and pugging fibrous plaster slabs - hardening and damp - proofing fibrous plaster slabs - fixing finished face slabs - fibrous plaster sign - boards and blocks.


            Historical.-Fibrous plaster was patented in 1856 by Leonard Alexander Desachy, a French modeller. The patent was for “producing architectural mouldings, ornaments, and other works of art formed with surfaces of plaster.” The materials named are plaster, glue, oil, wood, wire, and canvas, or other woven fabric. A part of the specification reads: “To facilitate the fixing of such moulded surfaces to other surfaces, wires are, when required, laid into and between the two or more layers of canvas. Flat surfaces are strengthened with canvas, wires, hooks, or pieces of wood may be inserted whilst the plaster is in a fluid state.” The specification also includes the formation of solid slabs of plaster strengthened with two layers of canvas in the centre. Desachy introduced the manufacture of fibrous plaster decorations into London, where he employed a large number of hands, male and female.

            The late Owen Jones, architect, and the author of “The Grammar of Ornament” was the first patron of fibrous plaster. Desachy, after a precarious run of work, returned to Paris. The business was then for a time carried on under the management of J. M’Donald and R. Hanwell, respectively foreman and modeller to Desachy. When Desachy retired from the business he was pecuniarily indebted to Owen Jones, which handicapped the efforts of M’Donald, and the business was eventually taken over by Messrs G. Jackson & Sons, London, who acquired the then existing patents.             They have introduced many improvements, and brought it to a high degree of perfection. During the construction of the old Oxford Music Hall, about a generation ago, they successfully defended their patent rights. Fibrous plaster during the last two decades has been worked by other firms, and it is now open to all plasterers. Such is the British history of fibrous plaster. It is an old saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” This may be safely applied to fibrous plaster, as the uses of linen and canvas, in conjunction with plaster and glue was known and practised by the Egyptians long before the Christian era.

            From ancient MSS still extant, and ancient coffins and mummies, now to be seen in the British Museum, it is conclusively proved that linen, stiffened with plaster, was used for decorating coffins, and when embalming human bodies, by the Egyptians, 1500 B.C. Dr Petrie’s discoveries at Kahun go even further, for he found that plaster and canvas were used for casting mummers masks nearly 4,400 years ago. Plaster, canvas, glue, and wood were used in the formation and decorations of ceilings in Cairo eight hundred years ago. According to the MS. of Cennino Cennini, who wrote in 1437, fine linen, soaked in glue and plaster, was used for forming grounds on wood intended to be painted on. Thus it will be seen that plaster combined with linen has an ancient as well as a modern history. Plaster mixed with tow was used for the decorations of a church in Hamburg about two hundred years ago. While giving Desachy the honour of reviving the process, and of introducing it into England, it is more than probable that he got the idea from some of the French writers - Reinaud, Prisse D’Avennes, Girault de Prangey, or others, who had very fully described and illustrated Egyptian arts and architecture. Coming nearer home, it will be found that canvas has been used for ages for another plastic purpose. Canvas and mortar were in everyday use in Great Britain up to the middle of the present century as a heat-resisting plaster. It is still to a small extent employed in some districts, but its general use ceased after the introduction of Portland cement.

            Canvas was used as a binding power to prevent the mortar round wash-house coppers from cracking or expanding when subjected to heat. The mortar was composed of equal parts of haired lime and gritty road scrapings. Sometimes clay was substituted for the scrapings, but more often all the three stuffs were well worked together. The walls of the copper were rendered with this mortar, and allowed to stand until the next day. Then it was floated with the same kind of stuff, and while soft, a sheet of strong coarse canvas was laid over the mortar. and pressed and patted with a hand-float into the mortar, and then trowelled. I have found that this canvas plaster, after many years’ wear and exposure to heat and damp, was extremely hard and tenacious when being pulled down for alterations.

Uses for Fibrous plaster. - Fibrous plaster is an important branch of the plasterer’s craft, and is now in great request by architects, builders, and decorators. Its uses are so various that it is becoming very general for works requiring lightness and rapidity. It is fast superseding carton-pierre and papier-mâché. It is not only lighter and tougher than either, but it also can be made in larger sections, and adapted to more purposes. Fibrous plaster was used in the Paris Exhibition of 1878 for the construction of the ceilings in the principal edifice of the Exhibition. Some of the panels were nearly 40 feet square. The panels, with the enrichments, were composed of fibrous plaster, but tow was used instead of canvas or trellis cloth. In France it is known by the name of “staff” and the enrichments in their frames as chassis-en-staff.

            The “Street of Nations,” as well as the large arches in the permanent buildings of the Exhibition, were composed of this material. In the South Kensington Museum there is a large figure of Moses, taken from the marble original in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, executed 1541-53, by Michael Angelo. The cast was made by the Desachy process, and weighs only 168 lbs. The ornamental plaster work of the new Opera House in Paris has been made in staff. Fibrous plaster affords great facilities for the faithful reproduction of ancient or modern architectural or other works, either for temporary or permanent purposes. I have used it for stage properties, notably for the column capitals in the Ducal Palace scene, when Miss Marie Wilton produced “The Merchant of Venice” at the old Prince of Wales Theatre. The caps for perspective purposes ranged from 3 feet to 4 feet 6 inches in height. The bells and the abacus and necking mouldings were composed of fibrous plaster, and the enrichments modelled in plaster and tow. I used a similar process for scenic properties for the late C. Rice at the Royal Theatre, Bradford. I used a combination of tow and canvas fibrous plaster (with iron wire instead of wood laths) for the ornamental parts of various built scenes; also a fountain and other properties for H. E. Abbey, when Miss Mary Anderson appeared as “Juliet,” in 1884, at the Lyceum, London. Fibrous plaster has been successfully adapted for construction and decoration. I used this material for constructing facsimiles of the temples of Saturn and Vespasian that stood near the Roman Forum in the grounds of the Italian Exhibition, London, 1888. The temple of Saturn, with its eight remaining columns and the entablature, was 33 feet high. The temple of Vespasian, with its three remaining columns and cornice, was 38 feet high. They were constructed from measured drawings by Mr T. W. Cutler, architect. After standing in the open air during the six months that the Exhibition was open, they were taken down, seemingly none the worse for the exposure, and were then sent “on tour” for other exhibitions. I also used plaster and tow for modelling the Italian coat of arms, and a replica of the old Roman shield for the Fine Art Galleries. The whole was made in the shop, and then fixed in position under the superintendence of my then partner, Mr G. M. Jay. it has often been used for triumphal arches in streets for public rejoicings. The decorations and guns of the old “Victory,” for the Naval Exhibition, 1891, were faithfully reproduced in this material by G. Jackson & Sons. Ten thousand superficial yards of fibrous plaster were supplied by the Plastic Decoration Company in the reproduction of ancient streets for “Venice in London.”

            The Gronese Company and Marshall & Slade made many thousand yards of ornamental fibrous plaster: work for the Indian and other exhibitions at Earl’s Court, London. No less than 150,000 superficial yards of fibrous plaster were used in the buildings at the “World’s Fair,” Chicago. Besides those more or less temporary purposes, it is extensively used in the decorations of many classes of permanent building, and is sent abroad in large quantities to our own colonies and other countries. Messrs G. Jackson & Sons, the Plastic Decoration Company, C. H. Mabey, and J. Bickley, of London; Cordingley, Greenwood, and Home, of Yorkshire; Rule, of Sunderland; and T. Jones, of Liverpool, all employ a large staff of skilled workmen in the manufacture of fibrous plaster. Mr A. M’Gilvray, of Glasgow, executed a vast quantity of elaborate fibrous plaster ceilings and other works for the Glasgow Municipal Buildings. Nearly the whole of the numerous theatres and music-halls which have been built in London and the provinces during the last generation have been decorated with fibrous plaster.

            This material has also been used for the decorations of ships saloons, being first introduced into the “City of New York” and her sister s.s. the “City of Paris” by Mr G. T. Robinson, in 1887, and shortly after into the “Majestic” and “Teutonic,” after which its use has become common, its lightness and elasticity rendering it very applicable to ship decorations. One of the most striking examples of the utility of fibrous plaster was the buildings erected on the Champ de Mars for the Paris Exhibition in 1889. The Indian Palace, one of the most imposing edifices in the Exhibition, was the only one that was mainly done by English plasterers, and was erected by Messrs Joubert, of King’s Road, Chelsea, London. Messrs Joubert found it more profitable to pay English plasterers 10d. per hour, with lodgings and expenses, than to pay Frenchmen 8d. per hour, with no lodgings or expenses. The Palace was about 180 feet in length and 50 feet in width. It was surmounted by a large central dome and fourteen smaller ones, with minarets and towers. It was constructed of wood framework bolted together, and the walls, ceilings, and domes lined with fibrous plaster, solid plaster being employed where necessary. The exterior was also formed with fibrous plaster. All the decorations were taken from original sculptures in the Indian Museum at South Kensington. The building was designed by Mr C. Purdon Clarke, C.I.E.



© Exhibition Study Group 2010