An old, sexist joke relates the tale of the long-married couple who’ve just finished a round of perfunctory sex. The wife, lying back in the “afterglow,” stares thoughtfully up at the ceiling and declares, “Beige. I think we should paint the ceiling beige.”
Or, maybe she and he should move to England and seek to make life a little more interesting. Surely the ceilings would be more interesting. The variety, the artistry, the engineering and sheer work of it all are enough to hold your attention for a lot longer than an afternoon delight or two.
So, the ceilings: We’ve visited more than a half-dozen of Oxford’s colleges now, plus an array of castles, cathedrals, abbeys and assorted other grand spaces in which the ceilings alone have been worth the price of admission. I’ll mention just a few:
The massive carved masterpiece of Cardiff Castle’s Banqueting Hall is one of my most recent favorites. Giant beams are supported on elegant pillars that spread out like so many Egyptian fans to help support all that weight up top. Here, the weight is wood. A heavenly host of angels hovers along the grand central arch, drawing your view through overlapping rows of intricate smaller arches carved within it. Forget the feast on the table! For once I might be inclined to enjoy the feast for the eyes more than the food.
For a different kind of feast on high, throw your head way, way back to take in the upper reaches of Bath Abbey. This ceiling gives new definition to the meaning of soaring. Here you’ll find more of those practical-as-they-are-lovely fanned pillars (this time supporting stone). They’re all over the country. But Bath’s are so high, so elegant in their simplicity. And of course they form the perfect arching anchor for the equally ubiquitous stained-glass windows. Still, they thrill.
Others worth a sore neck:
The Oxford Divinity School, ensconced on the grounds of the Bodleian Library, is rightly called “a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture.” Completed in 1488, it has been used for teaching, lectures and student exams — as well as the ballroom set in one of the Harry Potter films. University literature says the vaulted ceiling includes 455 “bosses,” the carved knobs where the joints of the vaulting ribs intersect.
During Open Colleges Day in September, we had a chance to visit The Queen’s College Upper Library, closed to tourists most of the time. The library, which dates to the late 17th century, is a reading room for students. Items from the college’s large collection of rare books (about 100,000 of them) are often on display here. The ceiling’s fine plaster-work was carefully cleaned and the flat surfaces repainted in 2013-2014.
The plaster-work in the college’s chapel is even more elaborate, including a gilt ring of flowers and foliage around a glowing painting of The Ascension.
And at Exeter College, where J.R.R. Tolkien studied, the striking timber arches towering over the long tables in the dining hall help create the stately, time-honored atmosphere of this impressive room, which dates from 1618.
Sadly, I have no pictures of the grandest ceiling of all — the one in the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Talk about lavish! The “pleasure palace” of King George IV, it takes the cake — and eats it, along with the 70 or so other dishes that would have been served when the gluttonous, adulterous king was showing off for his pals in the 1820s. The ceiling is a vast dome covered in colorful, intricate inlaid patterns all drawing the viewer into the central feature: a 3-dimensional arrangement of palm fronds from which emerges a huge, writhing dragon, red tongue flicking, silver claws extending and, from them, a spectacular 30-foot-tall crystal chandelier. The opulence of this ceiling and this room is really too much to comprehend. This is one you have to see in person to believe.