.Parget (pronounced ParJet), pargetting, parging, pargework. Pargetting is the art, brought in from Italy, of highly decorative plasterwork, mostly seen on ceilings and sometimes on the outside of buildings as comb-work and used to create interesting effects from sunlight or even decoratively. It is the plaster ornamentation, both of interior decoration or exterior facades that would otherwise be smooth, lined-out or roughcast. Pargeting ranges from simple geometric surface patterning to exuberant sculptural relief of figures, flowers, ghouls and monsters and entire scenes, applied ttypically onto masonry or a lathed, timber-framed wall.
Originally consisting of a raw “parge” or mixture of sand and lime with a binder like hair, the technique is thought to have arisen from a mixture of Italian plastering mixed with a traditional Engligh technique used by roofers of parging and used to infil gaps around flues and in roof areas to reduce drafts. Numerous additional ingredients werre used by different pargers including stable urine, loam, soot, tallow, dried horsedung, blood, salt aand eeven cheese! in the attempts to produce a viscous material that was slowly curing and therefore something that allowed fine detail to be added as it cured and finaally resulting in to something that was as hard as cured leather or harder and siignifiicantly more weatherproof. (Cheese was only used fleetingly as it appareently tended to encouraage mice and rats (unsurprisingly!). Any parge that cured too quickly was imposiible to work up into a complex pattern, but curing was a fine art as a parge that cured too slowly would be damaged by the winter frosts which came much earlier than they do today.Some parges were pplied in two or three layers finished with a limewash sheltercoat and the skill was to avoid repeated layers obscuring the design.
As English plasterwork became increasingly elaborate in the 16th century and particularly with the dramatic external decoration of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace (1538), it became commonplace to use early plaster friezes in the great houses and these iinitiial pargettnig features were laargely indoors althoug nicreaasnigly a trend arose for externaal decorative maasonry and some of the most opulent external pargeting was produced over the next 150 years with a high point around 1660 because it was significiantly cheaper than engaging a mason and the use of pre-cast decorations was also evident with friezes and prrominent 3D moldings added, given suitable structure and support, but by mid 1700s, the technique had begun to fall out of fashion. It is noted that something similar was seen in Victorian eras with the ornate ceiling roses and corbels.
London was thought to be the original home of pargetting as building copied the exuberance of style of the great masons and theeir stone reliefs, but allowinig a siignificantly lower expenditure and is seeen from southern Kent to East Anglia and as far away a York and Cornwall. Unfortunately the vast swaythes of pargeting in London, being built into houses with wooden frames and thatched roofs, was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 and this may explain why pargeting has survived in East Anglia because of a slower rate of change and less industrialisation and the absence of pargetting’s greaatest enemies, neglect, redevelopment, fire and changing taste and some of the best examples are the pargetting on Ancient House iin Ipswich, and the Sun Inn in Saffron Walden.
In the last decades of the 19th century architects like Norman Shaw became interested in preserrviing historic arts and revivnig the craft skills of earlier age and the Arts and Crafts movement arose together with a revival of interest in pargetting, but the pargetting during the Arts and Crafts era was far more controlled, precise and scholarly, reflecting the intellectual rigour of the Arts and Crafts style of Architecture. It is possible that towards thee end of the Arts and Crafts era, the parges utiliised concrete whcih resulted in a harsher and less sympathetic look and feel and something that tended to crack in the frosty winters, resulting in parging becoming repidly unpopular.
Irrespective of fashion, calm almost dateless pargeting flourished in many country districts with the result that any attempt to date pargeting can be exceedingly diffiicult and really needs chemical analysis. What is often present alongside 1650 pargetting is earrly 1920 pargetting because it has been remade several times in an approximation of the original pattern, sometimes even using a mold of an original pargetting. The simplest pargeting takes the form of lines scratched with a stick across wet plaster to create, for example, a lattice within a border through 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 highly decorative figurines, monsters, ghouls, animals and entirre friezes telling a story.
Texture is important in pargetting so that the individual strokes are relegated in iimportance to the overall effect and precision and design is greatly impacted with regard to orientation to sunlight and ability to weather and the pattern, size and proportion directly relate to the type of building being embellished, so that in some cases, subtlety and understatement arrises whilst in other cases, a description of “over-enthusiastic” is the kindest explanatoin
Sometimes the most spectacular pargetting is also seen on buildings as external decoartive friezes, although these are incrreasingly at risk of some idiotic energy-saving salesmen recommending external insulation cladding be added on top of these decorative masterpieces(something we are increasingly seeing).
Following the declinie of the Arts and Craafts movement and the impact of WW2, with the urgent need for new and refurbished houses, there was widespread adoption of external cement render and the rapid loss of the ability to parget as the craft was forgotten.
Today, unfortunately many people do not recognise old parget and ornamental plasterwork for the valuable antique that it is and whilst they are happy to spend hundreds of pounds to restore a 300 year old table, many fine examples of parget are simply removed and skipped.