Plastering Plain & Decorative – 4th Edition

By William Millar, rewritten and revised by George Bankart. Introduction by Tim Ratcliffe and Jeff Orton.

Review by Rory Young (February 2010)

How appropriate it is that this duo of Tim Ratcliffe, a SPAB Scholar architect who enjoys operative plastering embracing the Arts and Crafts ethos, and Jeff Orton, a master-plasterer who is very highly qualified in his trade, should introduce books (written separately then together) by the duo of George Bankart, an Arts and Crafts architect and sensitive designer of plasterwork reviving the 16th/17th Century tradition, and William Millar, a titan tradesman of the Victorian era during which the propriety of workmanship was a religion.

It is actually difficult for us to relate to the universally high standards of training and skills, together with the ‘pride in the trade’ that was prevalent in the Victorian era in which Millar thrived. He gives a few paragraphs disdainful of what I heard an old tradesman thirty years ago call ‘cottage work’ in which the coating system is reduced to being lean and mean over its substrate. For him plastering had always to be a sophisticated process. However, Bankart and the early SPAB repairing architects were recognising the significance of sparely applied undulating trowelled, not floated plaster surfaces that survived from before the mid 18th Century.

We always need to be aware of appropriateness and propriety. Are we plastering in a vernacular low status building where ‘cottage work’ is appropriate? Or in a 19th Century rectory, for instance, where the work should be ‘plumb and dot’, fair-faced and straight, in multiple coats? All too often I see the former style substituting the latter, either due to ignorance, or more probably due to there being not enough provision of funds and/or time on site. Each generation of plasterers has therefore so much to learn from Millar’s writing.

I wholeheartedly share Jeff’s feeling that it is imperative to have both a reprint of the First Edition, and of the Fourth edition, of Plastering Plain & Decorative side-by-side on your bookshelf! They complement each other, chapter by chapter; together they make an invaluable whole. Dipping into each volume is as absorbing as it ever was. Both will be eternally useful and inspiring to so many in our fraternity.

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