Pargeting is sometimes characterized as a dying art, but


Pargeting is sometimes characterized as a dying art, but
Above left Bill Sargent and his faithful companion pose
at the gate of his latest restoration project in Suffolk.
Above & below Just some of Bill’s intricate work – drawing
on the ancient and heraldic motifs of the past, including a
lion, a green man, birds and a griffin.
Pargeting is sometimes characterized as a dying art, but the ancient building craft is alive and
well, and can even be said to be flourishing in East Anglia. Howard Spencer and photographer
Mike Hemsley met Bill Sargent, master lime plasterer and pargeter.
bservant visitors to East
Anglia are sure to find their
eyes drawn to curious and often
whimsical relief designs on the outside
walls of old, and some new, buildings.
Birds, beasts, heraldic devices, vines
and geometric patterns all feature
in the ancient folk art of pargeting,
a branch of the plasterer’s craft that
is commonest in this region, if not
entirely exclusive to it.
Bill Sargent has been pargeting –
also spelled ‘pargetting’ – for nearly 40
years, and the family firm of plasterers
was founded by his grandfather in
1926. ‘I’m one of about ten pargeters
currently working in the country,’
he tells me. Born in Clacton, Essex,
Bill has been based close to Bury St.
Edmunds, over the border in Suffolk,
for almost all of his working life.
‘Much of my work is in restoration,
and most of it is fairly close to where
I live,’ he says. ‘There are two reasons
why pargeting is common in East
Anglia: first, the large number of
timber-framed buildings with rendered
walls – blank canvases, if you like. The
second is the historic wealth of the
region – if you’ve got it, flaunt it, as
they say – and an ornate piece
of pargeting does exactly that!’
Bill is especially proud of the role he
took in bringing the Garrison House
at Wivenhoe back to its former glory a
couple of years back – the house is so
named, incidentally, because Cromwell
stationed soldiers there. The building
boasts a fine foliate pargeted relief at
first-floor level. ‘Previously, the local
council had done a bad restoration
using cement,’ he reveals, ‘so we had
to chop that all away and replace it
with the traditional lime plaster, which
moves with the timber frame of the
building and allows the structure to
breathe.’ The lime plaster used for
pargeting reliefs is stiffened with
chopped hogshair – sourced from
China these days, Bill explains. ‘You
have to add just the right amount to
the mix – too much and it rises to
the surface as you’re working it, and
that can spoil the finish.’
Another recent high-profile repair
job was on the Grade I-listed Ancient
House at Ipswich, perhaps the bestknown pargeted building of them all.
‘It’s a real privilege and satisfaction
to do a successful restoration job on
something that’s getting on for 400
years old,’ Bill enthuses. The four friezes
on the Ancient House, representing
the seasons, feature a couple of equine
designs and – as Bill tells it – ‘one of
the horse’s ears had fallen right off.
It turned out this was yet another
restoration that had been done in
cement, so I replaced that with the
authentic material. I’ve kept the
cement ear, though, as a memento.’
The word pargeting comes from
the French par jeter, meaning ‘by
throwing.’ Some branches of the
craft – using stamps and combs – do
indeed involve ‘throwing’ a form of
mould across wet lime render. Most of
Bill’s work, however, is of the more
specialist freehand variety, using just a
small trowel and a spoon for the fine
detail. ‘The basic design is cut in with
the trowel, you scratch the surface to
give a key for the relief design, and you
just build it up from there,’ he explains.
A lime wash is then applied to the
finished piece.
It comes as a surprise to find that a
significant portion of Bill’s work is on
original commissions, often for newbuilds. ‘There’s a tremendous demand
for it, though there never used to be,’
he says, seeming almost bemused by
the success that has come his way.
‘Up until the turn of the millennium,
I used to just tick over as a oneman band, but since then interest has
exploded – I reckon it might have
something to do with TV programmes
Top left The plaster is specially mixed to Bill’s recipe to
provide just the right amount of pliability and durability.
Above left & top right Bill carefully models the feathers of
a bird while the plaster is still wet and malleable.
Above The finished image, a partridge, after it has set.
like Grand Designs and Restoration,’
he muses.
For his original designs, it is
only recently that Bill started using
anything like drawings or a patternbook. ‘About half of what I do is still
out of my own head – I make it up
as I go along,’ he smiles. ‘What set
me off was being given a book by
the gothic-revival architect Alfred
Waterhouse. A lot of my ideas are
inspired by the terracotta animals he
designed for the front of the Natural
History Museum in Kensington.’
This has defined Bill’s style
– William Morris and the Arts
and Crafts movement are other
acknowledged influences – though
it much depends, of course, on the
wishes of the individual client. ‘The
oddest thing I have done was a 14fthigh devil,’ he grimaces. ‘And I am
just about to start work on a 26-ft
medieval-style frieze of dancing pigs
– that’s on the wall of a place that
I’ve bought myself!’ Among other
practitioners, reliefs of motorbikes,
scenes from the Jungle Book and dogs
playing snooker are not unknown, but
as Bill says, with some understatement,
‘on the kind of buildings that I tend
to work on that’s not quite the right
thing – and I like my designs to look
authentic, even when they’re not.’
Bill has branched out in other ways
too; he now works regularly with a
fresco painter, Andrew Fawcett, and
has turned his hand to sgraffito, in
which artwork is etched into blackwashed render. ‘It’s important to
keep on learning,’ he says simply.
Like these arts, incidentally, pargeting
originated in Italy – the first pargeters
were supposedly brought to these
shores by Henry VIII to decorate the
now-vanished Nonsuch Palace.
Far from jealously guarding his
trade secrets, Bill sees it as something
of a sacred duty to pass on his skills:
one apprentice, Richard Childs,
was featured in last winter’s issue of
Beautiful Britain, and is now working
independently. ‘I teach the craft all
over the place, to help bring more
people into it – I am just off to Wales
next week,’ Bill announces.
Mention the word ‘retirement’,
and Bill will cut you short. ‘No, no,
I’ve got to keep going, although I do
a bit less of the heavier preparation
work these days – I honestly believe
that we get better at doing this with
every year that passes.’ Upcoming
commissions include restoration work
on an Elizabethan farmhouse, and a
new design for a house that was once
a pub called The Dragon – no prizes
for guessing which heraldic beast Bill
will be crafting onto that.
Bill’s order book has never been
fatter. He now has a regular staff
of nine employees and apprentices,
including his youngest son Kenny,
who range in age from early 20s to
mid-70s. ‘It’s crazy not to value and
use experience,’ he says, ‘but on one
recent job, restoring a relief on a
synagogue in West Hampstead, the
oldest person I had on the site was 27,
and they made a real success of it.’
Some may still insist on referring
to pargeting as a ‘lost art’, but in the
hands of Bill and his colleagues, this
is clearly far from the case. BB
Above Attention to detail is one of the key qualities of a good
pargeter, says Bill, who teaches the craft around Britain.
Below Bill poses next to the finished figure of a green man,
a popular decoration dating back to the middle ages.
To enquire about Bill Sargent’s services,
call him on 01359 271779 or visit Bill also participates
in the Building Skills Bursary Scheme.
Visit for
more information.