The New House

Date
2009
Location
Wiltshire, England
Architect
George Saumarez Smith, Adam Architecture

The New House was designed by George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture. We designed and made four hand modelled stucco panels for the dining room, inspired by the long, curving leaf forms often found in baroque and rococo plasterwork.

Built from natural stone and lime render, The New House is simple and elegant. The three central bays of the entrance front create an enclosed loggia, which leads into the dining room. Perhaps better described as a hall, this room occupies the centre of the house and opens onto the garden behind. Three full height arches echo those of the entrance loggia, creating a central space which is light, airy and calm. The house was commended in the Georgian Group’s 2010 Architectural Awards for the best ‘New Building in the Classical Tradition’.

Design

The designs were inspired by the long, curling architectural leaf forms which are often seen in baroque and rococo plasterwork. Particular variations were almost like signatures, associated with modellers like the Artari or La Franchini families. They can be astonishingly inventive, elegant forms that help to create energy and movement in a design. Geoffrey was interested in using these historic forms but developing them into a new language.

In each of the panels the leaves move differently; we wanted them to be harmonious, but not repeat, to have balance, but not symmetry. Birds and flowers were introduced; a little owl and a peregrine inhabit two of the panels. On another, two finches squabble, a blackbird looks on curiously, and a starling shouts from the sidelines. Leaves and flowers include Liriodendron Chinensis and the oversized leaves of the oak, Quercus Dentata Carl Ferris Miller, both favourites of the owners.

Process

The panels are made from hand modelled plaster, or stucco. A combination of lime, gypsum, a fine aggregate and a binder, it is mixed to a putty consistency and modelled into shape with small metal tools as it sets. Traditionally modelled in situ onto an existing wall or ceiling, it can also be modelled onto plaster base panels, which make a strong but lightweight background on which to work.

To start, four base panels with a border moulding each measuring 7’6” high by 4’ wide were set up in our workshop in Devon. The designs were drawn onto the panels, the surface of the plaster scratched to form a key, and armatures attached. Enough stucco was mixed for a couple of hours work at a time. Each section was built up, firstly with a core, and then with a fine finishing coat.

Three sculptors worked on the panels from May to October, clocking up several hundred hours each of modelling. Once finished, the panels were transported to the house, the framing was cut away, and they were fixed in place. In the blink of an eye, the giants that had dominated our workshop settled into place and became part of the architecture of the room. Despite the energy of the modelling style, they have a calm presence; the soft white stucco almost ethereal in the light from the full height windows at either end of the room.

A work in stucco is absolutely unique – these are not casts, and there’s no mould. The panels were made by hand especially for this house, and this family. It was a wonderful commission; one that we are very proud of and had great pleasure in creating.

The house is designed with a deliberately Italian character, including its interiors which are simple but bold in their decoration. Geoffrey Preston’s stucco panels are in the ground floor dining hall, essentially the heart of the house. The architecture of the room is greatly complemented by these four panels modelled in high relief, drawing on the best traditions of Italian and English decorative plasterwork.

What would otherwise have been a rather austere space has been given tremendous character and vitality through Geoffrey’s remarkable work. I am firmly of the belief that the standard of design and craftsmanship in these panels is outstanding and they deserve to be regarded as fine works of art in their own right.

George Saumarez Smith MA(Hons) DipArch RIBA, Director, Adam Architecture

…The decoration is deliberately spare, allowing the architecture to speak unhindered, but the single decorative flourish, in the form of large stucco panels by Geoffrey Preston, is brilliantly conceived and realised

The Judges’ citation, Georgian Group 2010 Architectural Awards