An architectural material popular in the mid-eighteenth century, papier mâché was used in place of heavier plaster to create architectural ornamentation for homes in England and its colonies. Development of the material began in the early eighteenth century, and by mid-century was well established. Historic documents attest to its popularity as an export to the American colonies with noted customers including Philip Schuyler, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. The process involves using paper fiber, either layered up or pulp, mixed with a binder, which is then pressed into a mold. The cast can then be applied to a variety of surfaces, especially high walls and ceilings.
The intact ceiling at Philipse Manor Hall is a rare remaining example of the art form. It is believed the ceiling was installed by Frederick Philipse III between 1751 and 1760, in what might have been a remodel of the parlor. According to J. Ritchie Garrison,
“These ceilings are so rare that it is hard to generalize about them. From a distance, the ceiling of the southeast parlor looks elegant, but up close, it becomes clear that the papier mâché is fairly crude. It was made of cast pieces that were attached on-site using small sprigs. The installer had to cut some pieces in order to fit them together. These cuts sometimes disrupt the faired curves of the castings.”
Even with these adjustments, the papier mâché ceiling enhances the elegance of the room and updates the more Classical and Palladian elements with a transitional style between Baroque and Rococo.
Center: An elaborate arabesque of Rococo acanthus leaves and other intricate motifs in the center of the ceiling features eight figures along the outer edge. A chandelier likely hung from the center medallion to illuminate the room.
Beginning at the east (top center in the image above) and going clockwise: a Cupid*, a woman with a mandolin, a Cupid, a woman (perhaps a shepherdess) singing and dancing, a Cupid, a man with a hautboy (a type of oboe), a cupid, a man with bagpipes.
*The term "cupid" often brings to mind winged angelic figures. But, if you look closely, you will notice that these have horns, wooly legs, and hoofs, more reminiscent of the Greek god Pan.
At the cardinal points and in the corners, the motifs are: north side, over the mantel, flowers and tropical birds; center-east side a portrait medallion of a man*; center-south side; flowers and tropical birds; center-west side portrait medallion of a man*; in each of the four corners, a wreath of flowers and arabesque.
*The two men: Early histories described the two men as members of the Philipse family. Later information suggested they are Sir Isaac Newton, (1642-1727), the greatest mathematician and physicist of his age; and the writer Alexander Pope (1688-1744) who wrote essays, satire, and poetry, and translated Homer’s Iliad into English. However, without historic documentation, it is still unclear who the images truly represent.
Northeast and Southeast quarters: a bird, (pelican) with wings elevated.
Northwest and Southwest quarters: a hunting dog.
Edward Hagaman Hall, Philipse Manor Hall at Yonkers, NY
J. Ritchie Garrison, Philipse Manor Hall: An Historical Architectural Context and Stylistic Analysis, 2005
Jonathan Thornton, The History, Technology and Conservation of Architectural Papier Mâché, Journal of the American Institute of Conservation, Summer, 1993.