Sunday 25 August 2019

What lies beneath: Plasterer by John Cranch

Plasterer by John Cranch (1751-1821)

Oil on canvas. Courtesy Yale Centre for British Art

The Plasterer by John Cranch
The Plasterer by John Cranch

Niall MacMonagle

The famous, the infamous make it into history books, celebrities come and go but millions lie in unvisited graves, no statue nor street name remembering them.

But they could have been as kind and decent as anyone who ever lived.

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When Tate Britain Gallery was being built, 1893-1897, a group of plasterers, wishing to be remembered, made their mark. A piece of paper, hidden in a wall and discovered during major renovations in 2012 read: "This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897, Jubilee Year by the plasterers working on the job, hoping when this is found that the Plasterers Association may still be flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink Your Health, Signed N Gallop, J Wilkins, H Sainsbury, J Chester, A Pickernell Secretary."

Who remembers them now? These five skilled men worked together once. They plastered walls and ceilings. They chatted, joked, complained, whistled, argued. They were alive in time and knowing that they wouldn't live forever, they wanted their names to live on, just as their work would.

The unnamed plasterer in this 1807 painting by John Cranch is long dead but here he is still busy, a young man at work. Alone, his back to the light, he's plastering a brick wall. The wall on the right with its broken plaster suggests that this is a renovation job. The deep, arched window, the vaulted ceiling, the various implements catch the light and create shadows. Does the small keg on the spike contain refreshment?

Cranch was born in Kingsbridge, Devon, taught himself drawing, worked as a clerk but having inherited money moved to London where he painted mainly portraits and historical subjects, and this oil on canvas of an ordinary, working day scene. Cranch's surname, bottom left, is given with a flourish. The plasterer doesn't pose. Trowel in right hand, he smooths the plaster; in his left a plasterer's hawk, held steady. He's getting on with the job. His hatted head considers his workmanship. The sleeves on his white shirt are protected, the sleeveless brick-red jacket, the tan knee-britches match the walls. The blue stockings are an interesting eye-catching contrast. No Spotify, no podcasts, no audio book. No earphones. He works in silence. Is he thinking of posterity? Has he left a note behind his handiwork?

Will that wall someday speak?

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