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their purpose being to darken the room and keep out the cold,
while the light is regulated by the outside blinds. The best
of these is the old-fashioned hand-made blind, with wide fixed
slats, still to be seen on old New England houses and always
used in France and Italy : the frail machine-made substitute
now in general use has nothing to recommend it.


THE fireplace was formerly always regarded as the chief
feature of the room, and so treated in every well-thought-
out scheme of decoration.

The practical reasons which make it important that the win-
dows in a room should be carried up to the cornice have already
been given, and it has been shown that the lines of the other
openings should be extended to the same height. This applies
to fireplaces as well as to doors, and, indeed, as an architectural
principle concerning all kinds of openings, it has never been
questioned until the present day. The hood of the vast Gothic
fireplace always descended from the springing of the vaulted roof,
and the monumental chimney-pieces of the Renaissance followed
the same lines (see Plate XX). The importance of giving an
architectural character to the chimney-piece is insisted on by
Blondel, whose remark, "Je voudrais n'appliquer a une che-
minee que des ornements convenables a 1'architecture," is a
valuable axiom for the decorator. It is a mistake to think that
this treatment necessitates a large mantel-piece and a monumental
style of panelling. The smallest mantel, surmounted by a picture
or a mirror set in simple mouldings, may be as architectural as the
great chimney-pieces at LJrbino or Cheverny: all depends on the







Fireplaces 75

spirit of the treatment and on the proper relation of the different
members used. Pajou's monument to Madame du Barry's canary-
bird is far more architectural than the Albert Memorial.

When, in the middle ages, the hearth in the centre of the room
was replaced by the wall-chimney, the fireplace was invariably
constructed with a projecting hood of brick or stone, generally
semicircular in shape, designed to carry off the smoke which in
earlier times had escaped through a hole in the roof. The opening
of the fireplace, at first of moderate dimensions, was gradually en-
larged to an enormous size, from the erroneous idea that the larger
the fire the greater would be the warmth of the room. By degrees
it was discovered that the effect of the volume of heat projected
into the room was counteracted by the strong draught and by the
mass of cold air admitted through the huge chimney; and to ob-
viate this difficulty iron doors were placed in the opening and kept
closed when the fire was not burning (see Plate XXI). But this
was only a partial remedy, and in time it was found expedient to
reduce the size of both chimney and fireplace.

In Italy the strong feeling for architectural lines and the invari-
able exercise of common sense in construction soon caused the
fireplace to be sunk into the wall, thus ridding the room of the
Gothic hood, while the wall-space above the opening received a
treatment of panelling, sometimes enclosed in pilasters, and usually
crowned by an entablature and pediment. When the chimney
was not sunk in the wall, the latter was brought forward around
the opening, thus forming a flat chimney-breast to which the same
style of decoration could be applied. This projection was seldom
permitted in Italy, where the thickness of the walls made it easy
to sink the fireplace, while an unerring feeling for form rejected
the advancing chimney-breast as a needless break in the wall-sur-

j6 The Decoration of Houses

face of the room. In France, where Gothic methods of construc-
tion persisted so long after the introduction of classic ornament,
the habit of building out the chimney-breast continued until the
seventeenth century, and even a hundred years later French deco-
rators described the plan of sinking the fireplace into the thickness
of the wall as the "Italian manner." The thinness of modern
walls has made the projecting chimney-breast a structural neces-
sity; but the composition of the room is improved by "furring
out" the wall on each side of the fireplace in such a way as to
conceal the projection and obviate a break in the wall-space.
Where the room is so small that every foot of space is valuable,
a niche may be formed in either angle of the chimney-breast, thus
preserving the floor-space which would be sacrificed by advan-
cing the wall, and yet avoiding the necessity of a break in the
cornice. The Italian plan of panelling the space between mantel
and cornice continued in favor, with various modifications, until
the beginning of the present century. In early Italian Renaissance
over-mantels the central panel was usually filled by a bas-relief;
but in the sixteenth century this was frequently replaced by a
picture, not hung on the panelling, but forming a part of it. 1 In
France the sculptured over-mantel followed the same general lines
of development, though the treatment, until the time of Louis
XIII, showed traces of the Gothic tendency to overload with orna-
ment without regard to unity of design, so that the main lines of
the composition were often lost under a mass of ill-combined

1 In Italy, where the walls were frescoed, the architectural composition over the
mantel was also frequently painted. Examples of this are to be seen at the Villa
Vertemati, near Chiavenna, and at the Villa Giacomelli, at Maser, near Treviso.
This practice accounts for the fact that in many old architectural drawings of Italian
interiors a blank wall-space is seen over the mantel.

Fireplaces 77

In Italy the early Renaissance mantels were usually of marble.
French mantels of the same period were of stone; but this mate-
rial was so unsuited to the elaborate sculpture then in fashion
that wood was sometimes used instead. For a season richly carved
wooden chimney-pieces, covered with paint and gilding, were in
favor; but when the first marble mantels were brought from Italy,
that sense of fitness in the use of material for which the French
have always been distinguished, led them to recognize the superi-
ority of marble, and the wooden mantel-piece was discarded : nor
has it since been used in France.

With the seventeenth century, French mantel-pieces became
more architectural in design and less florid in ornament, and the
ponderous hood laden with pinnacles, escutcheons, fortified cas-
tles and statues of saints and warriors, was replaced by a more
severe decoration.

Thackeray's gibe at Louis XIV and his age has so long been
accepted by the English-speaking races as a serious estimate of
the period, that few now appreciate the artistic preponderance
of France in the seventeenth century. As a matter of fact, it is to
the schools of art founded by Louis XIV and to his magnificent
patronage of the architects and decorators trained in these schools
that we owe the preservation, in northern Europe, of that sense
of form and spirit of moderation which mark the great classic tra-
dition. To disparage the work of men like Levau, Mansart, de
Cotte and Lebrun, shows an insufficient understanding, not only
of what they did, but of the inheritance of confused and turgid
ornament from which they freed French art. 1 Whether our indi-
vidual tastes incline us to the Gothic or to the classic style, it is

1 It is to be hoped that the recently published English translation of M. Emile
Bourgeois's book on Louis XIV will do much to remove this prejudice.

78 The Decoration of Houses

easy to see that a school which tried to combine the structure of the
one with the ornament of the other was likely to fall into incohe-
rent modes of expression ; and this was precisely what happened
to French domestic architecture at the end of the Renaissance
period. It has been the fashion to describe the art of the Louis
XIV period as florid and bombastic; but a comparison of the de-
signs of Philibert de Lorme and Androuet Ducerceau with those
of such men as Levau and Robert de Cotte will show that what
the latter did was not to introduce a florid and bombastic manner,
but to discard it for what Viollet-le-Duc, who will certainly not
be suspected of undue partiality for this school of architects, calls
" une grandeur solide, sans faux ornements." No better illustra-
tion of this can be obtained than by comparing the mantel-pieces
of the respective periods. 1 The Louis XIV mantel-pieces are much
simpler and more coherent in design. The caryatides supporting
the entablature above the opening of the earlier mantels, and the
full-length statues flanking the central panel of the over-mantel,
are replaced by massive and severe mouldings of the kind which
the French call male (see mantels in Plates V and XXXVI).
Above the entablature there is usually a kind of attic or high con-
cave member of marble, often fluted, and forming a ledge or shelf
just wide enough to carry the row of porcelain vases with which
it had become the fashion to adorn the mantel. These vases, and
the bas-relief or picture occupying the central panel above, form
the chief ornament of the chimney-piece, though occasionally the
crowning member of the over-mantel is treated with a decoration
of garlands, masks, trophies or other strictly architectural orna-

1 It is curious that those who criticize the ornateness of the Louis XIV style are
often the warmest admirers of the French Renaissance, the style of all others most re-
markable for its excessive use of ornament, exquisite in itself, but quite unrelated to
structure and independent of general design.




iUia. - ,.,... i ....




Fireplaces 79

ment, while in Italy and England the broken pediment is fre-
quently employed. The use of a mirror over the fireplace is said
to have originated with Mansart; but according to Blondel it was
Robert de Cotte who brought about this innovation, thus produc-
ing an immediate change in the general scheme of composition.
The French were far too logical not to see the absurdity of placing
a mirror too high to be looked into; and the concave Louis XIV
member, which had raised the mantel-shelf six feet from the floor,
was removed 1 and the shelf placed directly over the entablature.

Somewhat later the introduction of clocks and candelabra as
mantel ornaments made it necessary to widen the shelf, and this
further modified the general design; while the suites of small
rooms which had come into favor under the Regent led to a re-
duction in the size of mantel-pieces, and to the use of less massive
and perhaps less architectural ornament.

In the eighteenth century, mantel-pieces in Italy and France
were almost always composed of a marble or stone architrave
surmounted by a shelf of the same material, while the over-
mantel consisted of a mirror, framed in mouldings varying in
design from the simplest style to the most ornate. This over-
mantel, which was either of the exact width of the mantel-shelf
or some few inches narrower, ended under the cornice, and its
upper part was usually decorated in the same way as the over-
doors in the room. If these contained paintings, a picture carry-
ing out the same scheme of decoration was often placed in the
upper part of the over-mantel; or the ornaments of carved wood
or stucco filling the panels over the doors were repeated in the
upper part of the mirror-frame.

1 It is said to have been put at this height in order that the porcelain vases should
be out of reach. See Daviler, " Cours d' Architecture."

80 The Decoration of Houses

In France, mirrors had by this time replaced pictures in the cen-
tral panel of the over-mantel; but in Italian decoration of the
same period oval pictures were often applied to the centre of the
mirror, with delicate lines of ornament connecting the picture and
mirror frames. 1

The earliest fireplaces were lined with stone or brick, but in
the sixteenth century the more practical custom of using iron
fire-backs was introduced. At first this fire-back consisted of a
small plaque of iron, shaped like a headstone, and fixed at the
back of the fireplace, where the brick or stone was most likely
to be calcined by the fire. When chimney-building became more
scientific, the size of the fireplace was reduced, and the sides of
the opening were brought much nearer the flame, thus making it
necessary to extend the fire-back into a lining for the whole fire-

It was soon seen that besides resisting the heat better than any
other substance, the iron lining served to radiate it into the room.
The iron back consequently held its own through every subse-
quent change in the treatment of the fireplace; and the recent
return, in England and America, to brick or stone is probably due
to the fact that the modern iron lining is seldom well designed.
Iron backs were adopted because they served their purpose better
than any others; and as no new substance offering greater advan-
tages has since been discovered, there is no reason for discarding
them, especially as they are not only more practical but more
decorative than any other lining. The old fire-backs (of which
reproductions are readily obtained) were decorated with charm-
ing bas-reliefs, and their dark bosses, in the play of the firelight,

1 Examples are to be seen in several rooms of the hunting-lodge of the kings of
Savoy, at Stupinigi, near Turin.

Fireplaces 8 1

form a more expressive background than the dead and unrespon-
sive surface of brick or stone.

It was not uncommon in England to treat the mantel as an
order crowned by its entablature. Where this was done, an in-
termediate space was left between mantel and over-mantel, an
arrangement which somewhat weakened the architectural effect.
A better plan was that of surmounting the entablature with an
attic, and making the over-mantel spring directly from the latter.
Fine examples of this are seen at Holkham, built by Brettingham
for the Earl of Leicester about the middle of the eighteenth

The English fireplace was modified at the end of the seven-
teenth century, when coal began to replace wood. Chippendale
gives many designs for beautiful basket-grates, such as were set
in the large fireplaces originally intended for wood; for it was
not until later that chimneys with smaller opening^ Xvere specially


constructed to receive the fixed grate and the^db-grate.

It was in England that the architecturrfrtreatment of the over-

V - .;_

mantel was first abandoned. ThflHJse of a mirror framed in a

' ^^jr^
panel over the fireplace haji Tiever become general in England,

**. '
and toward the end of the eighteenth century the mantel-piece

was frequently surmounted by a blank wall-space, on which a
picture or a small round mirror was hung high above the shelf
(see Plate XLVII). Examples are seen in Moreland's pictures,
and in prints of simple eighteenth-century English interiors; but
this treatment is seldom found in rooms of any architectural

The early American fireplace was merely a cheap provincial
copy of English models of the same period. The application of
the word "Colonial" to pre-Revolutionary architecture and deco-

82 The Decoration of Houses

ration has created a vague impression that there existed at that
time an American architectural style. As a matter of fact, " Colo-
nial" architecture is simply a modest copy of Georgian models;
and "Colonial" mantel-pieces were either imported from England
by those who could afford it, or were reproduced in wood from
current English designs. Wooden mantels were, indeed, not
unknown in England, where the use of a wooden architrave
led to the practice of facing the fireplace with Dutch tiles; but
wood was used, both in England and America, only from motives
of cheapness, and the architrave was set back from the opening
only because it was unsafe to put an inflammable material so near
the fire.

After 1800 all the best American houses contained imported
marble mantel-pieces. These usually consisted of an entablature
resting on columns or caryatides, with a frieze in low relief
representing some classic episode, or simply ornamented with
bucranes and garlands. In the general decline of taste which
marked the middle of the present century, these dignified and
well-designed mantel-pieces were replaced by marble arches con-
taining a fixed grate. The hideousness of this arched opening
soon produced a distaste for marble mantels in the minds of a
generation unacquainted with the early designs. This distaste led
to a reaction in favor of wood, resulting in the displacement of
the architrave and the facing of the space between architrave and
opening with tiles, iron or marble.

People are beginning to see that the ugliness of the marble
mantel-pieces of 1840-60 does not prove that wood is the more
suitable material to employ. There is indeed something of un-
fitness in the use of an inflammable material surrounding a fire-
place. Everything about the hearth should not only be, but look,

Fireplaces 8 3

fire-proof. The chief objection to wood is that its use neces-
sitates the displacement of the architrave, thus leaving a flat in-
. termediate space to be faced with some fire-proof material. This
is an architectural fault. A door of which the architrave should
be set back eighteen inches or more to admit of a facing of tiles
or marble would be pronounced unarchitectural; and it is usually
admitted that all classes of openings should be subject to the
same general treatment.

Where the mantel-piece is of wood, the setting back of the ar-
chitrave is a necessity; but, curiously enough, the practice has be-
come so common in England and America that even where the
mantel is made of marble or stone it is set back in the same way;
so that it is unusual to see a modern fireplace in which the archi-
trave defines the opening. In France, also, the use of an inner
facing (called a retrecissement} has become common, probably
because such a device makes it possible to use less fuel, while not
disturbing the proportions of the mantel as related to the room.

The reaction from the bare stiff rooms of the first quarter of the
present century the era of mahogany and horsehair resulted,
some twenty years since, in a general craving for knick-knacks;
and the latter soon spread from the tables to the mantel, espe-
cially in England and America, where the absence of the architec-
tural over-mantel left a bare expanse of wall above the chimney-

The use of the mantel as a bric-^-brac shelf led in time to the
lengthening and widening of this shelf, and in consequence to the
enlargement of the whole chimney-piece.

Mantels which in the eighteenth century would have been
thought in scale with rooms of certain dimensions would now
be considered too small and insignificant. The use of large man-

84 The Decoration of Houses

tel-pieces, besides throwing everything in the room out of scale, is
a structural mistake, since the excessive projection of the mantel
has a tendency to make the fire smoke; indeed, the proportions
of the old mantels, far from being arbitrary, were based as much
on practical as on artistic considerations. Moreover, the use of
long, wide shelves has brought about the accumulation of super-
fluous knick-knacks, whereas a smaller mantel, if architecturally
designed, would demand only its conventional garniture of clock
and candlesticks.

The device of concealing an ugly mantel-piece by folds of dra-
pery brings an inflammable substance so close to the fire that
there is a suggestion of danger even where there is no actual risk.
The lines of a mantel, however bad, represent some kind of solid
architrave, a more suitable setting for an architectural opening
than flimsy festoons of brocade or plush. Any one who can
afford to replace an ugly chimney-piece by one of good design
will find that this change does more than any other to improve
the appearance of a room. Where a badly designed mantel can-
not be removed, the best plan is to leave it unfurbelowed, simply
placing above it a mirror or panel to connect the lines of the
opening with the cornice.

The effect of a fireplace depends much upon the good taste and
appropriateness of its accessories. Little attention is paid at pres-
ent to the design and workmanship of these and like necessary
appliances; yet if good of their kind they add more to the adorn-
ment of a room than a multiplicity of useless knick-knacks.

Andirons should be of wrought-iron, bronze or ormolu. Sub-
stances which require constant polishing, such as steel or brass,
are unfitted to a fireplace. It is no longer easy to buy the old
bronze andirons of French or Italian design, with pedestals sur-

Fireplaces 85

mounted by statuettes of nymph or faun, to which time has
given the iridescence that modern bronze-workers vainly try to
reproduce with varnish. These bronzes, and the old ormolu
andirons, are now almost introuvables ; but the French artisan
still copies the old models with fair success (see Plates V and
XXXVI). Andirons should not only harmonize with the design
of the mantel but also be in scale with its dimensions. In the
fireplace of a large drawing-room, boudoir andirons would look
insignificant; while the monumental Renaissance fire-dogs would
dwarf a small mantel and make its ornamentation trivial.

If andirons are gilt, they should be of ormolu. The cheaper
kinds of gilding are neither durable nor good in tone, and plain
iron is preferable to anything but bronze or fire-gilding. The
design of shovel and tongs should accord with that of the andi-
rons: in France such details are never disregarded. The shovel
and tongs should be placed upright against the mantel-piece, or
rest upon hooks inserted in the architrave : the brass or gilt stands
now in use are seldom well designed. Fenders, being merely
meant to protect the floor from sparks, should be as light and
easy to handle as possible: the folding fender of wire-netting is
for this reason preferable to any other, since it may be shut and
put away when not in use. The low guards of solid brass in
favor in England and America not only fail to protect the floor,
but form a permanent barrier between the fire and those who
wish to approach it; and the latter objection applies also to the
massive folding fender that is too heavy to be removed.

Coal-scuttles, like andirons, should be made of bronze, ormolu
or iron. The unnecessary use of substances which require con-
stant polishing is one of the mysteries of English and American
housekeeping: it is difficult to see why a housemaid should spend

86 The Decoration of Houses

hours in polishing brass or steel fenders, andirons, coal-scuttles
and door-knobs, when all these articles might be made of some
substance that does not need daily cleaning.

Where wood is burned, no better wood-box can be found than
an old carved chest, either one of the Italian ca&soni, with their
painted panels and gilded volutes, or a plain box of oak or walnut
with well-designed panels and old iron hasps. The best substi-
tute for such a chest is a plain wicker basket, without ornamen-
tation, enamel paint or gilding. If an article of this kind is not
really beautiful, it had better be as obviously utilitarian as possible
in design and construction.

A separate chapter might be devoted to the fire-screen, with its
carved frame and its panel of tapestry, needlework, or painted
arabesques. Of all the furniture of the hearth, it is that upon
which most taste and variety of invention have been spent; and
any of the numerous French works on furniture and house-deco-
ration will supply designs which the modern decorator might
successfully reproduce (see Plate XXII). So large is the field
from which he may select his models, that it is perhaps more to
the purpose to touch upon the styles of fire-screens to be avoided :
such as the colossal brass or ormolu fan, the stained-glass screen,
the embroidered or painted banner suspended on a gilt rod, or the
stuffed bird spread out in a broiled attitude against a plush

In connection with the movable fire-screen, a word may be
said of the fire-boards which, until thirty or forty years ago, were
used to close the opening of the fireplace in summer. These fire-

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe decoration of houses → online text (page 7 of 16)