Monday, December 6, 2010
Portland Place, London
Back in the shiny 1980s, I remember standing in front of a London building site on which a new office block was going up. I was with an architect of my acquaintance, and the building was none of his doing. He contemplated the sheets of shiny cladding with which the building was being covered. ‘I call them fall-offs,’ he said. ‘Because they fall off.’ We bemoaned the terrible times, but we were both well aware that bits of buildings have been falling off for centuries. Take Liardet’s patent stucco, for example.
From the 17th century onwards, the type of plaster known as stucco was widely used to cover the outsides of buildings to create a finish that looked like the finest stone – at a fraction of the cost. As well as providing a smooth render for walls the material was also well suited for the production of moulded decorations – reliefs, swags, heads, and all the other motifs with which builders and architects, especially the classical architects of the 18th century, loved to adorn the facades of the best houses.
Robert Adam and his less famous brothers were among the most enthusiastic users of stucco. By the time the Adams were designing buildings several recipes of stucco had been developed, but the brothers favoured a specific one, an oil-based stucco devised by a Protestant clergyman from Lausanne called John Liardet. Liardet’s stucco, was an oil-based material – it contained boiled linseed oil instead of the water used in other mixes, and this was said to make the plaster more readily workable.
The Adams were enthusiastic about Liardet’s recipe, and acquired the exclusive right to use it – it seemed to be ideal to produce the delicate reliefs and other decorations that they liked so much. These details from a pair of houses in Portland Place show the kind of effect that the Adams created with Liardet’s stucco in the years after they made their business arrangement with him in the 1770s. The reliefs echo on this exterior wall the cameo-like panels showing classical figures, flowers, swags, and other designs that Robert Adam, especially, used to decorate his interiors.
The Portland Place decorations are rare survivors – and in fact are probably restorations rather than survivors in the strict sense. This is because soon after these houses were decorated with Liardet’s stucco in 1778, a problem emerged. The stuff turned out to have a far from tenacious attachment to the walls, and stucco was soon sliding off buildings and landing on pavements and in areas, At least one of the brothers’ clients, Lord Stanhope, pursued them for compensation, and the use of this kind of stucco was abandoned. By the end of the 18th century, more stable stuccos were available and one kind of fall-off, together with its hapless inventor, was consigned to the footnotes of architectural history.