31. The Abbott Overmantel
This plaster overmantel was created around 1620, by John Abbott the Elder, of Frithelstock, a member of the celebrated North Devon family of plasterers. It shows the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the son of God. Although the scene is biblical it shows an early 17th century English domestic scene. Mary is busily engaged in sewing next to a basket of cloth, while a bible – the only book many families would have owned – sits on the table behind her. A pair of shears can be seen in her lap, a key tool in sewing before pivoted scissors became widely available in the 1760s. Surrounding this image are numerous exotic fruits and flowers, as well as imaginatively rendered depictions of lions, rams, and jesters.
The overmantel comes from 69 High Street, Barnstaple. The building would have been a merchant’s house, the parlour on the first floor a high-status space for meeting customers. It was removed from the fireplace sometime between 1957 and 1964, when the building was demolished and then disappeared, before appearing for sale in the 1990s.
The Abbott family sketchbook which survives at the Devon Heritage Centre contains an identical design for the court jester. Other Abbott plasterwork survives in the town and in high status houses around North Devon. They demonstrate the growing prosperity of North Devon and the sophistication and ambition of its craftsmen.