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Decoration of Houses - Chapter Guide | Decorating Windows [Previous Chapter] | Decorating Ceilings & Floors [Next Chapter]



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 win­dows 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 Urbino or Cheverny: all depends on the





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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 en­larged 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 ob­viate 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 invari­able 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-surface


of the room. In France, where Gothic methods of construc­tion 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 deco­rators 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 neces­sity; 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 advan­cing 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 it1 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 orna­ment without regard to unity of design, so that the main lines of the composition were often lost under a mass of ill-combined detail.

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.

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In Italy the early Renaissance mantels were usually of marble. French mantels of the same period were of stone; but this mate­rial 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 superi­ority of marble, and the wooden mantel-piece was discarded: nor has it since been used m 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 cas­tles 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 tra­dition. 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 indi­vidual 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.

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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 incohe­rent 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 de­signs 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 ViolIet-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 illustra­tion 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 mdle (see mantels in Plates V and XXXVI). Above the entablature there is usually a kind of attic or high con­cave 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 re­markable for its excessive use of ornament, exquisite in itself, but quite unrelated to structure and independent of general design.

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ment, while in Italy and England the broken pediment is fre­quently 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 produc­ing 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 removed1 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 re­duction 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 over­mantel consisted of a mirror, framed in mouldings varying in design from the simplest style to the most ornate. This over­mantel, 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 carry­ing 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.

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

8o                   The Decoration of Houses

In France, mirrors had by this time replaced pictures in the cen­tral 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.*

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 fire­place.

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 subse­quent 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 advan­tages 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 charm­ing bas-reliefs, and their dark bosses, in the play of the firelight,

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

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form a more expressive background than the dead and unrespon­sive 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 in­termediate 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 century.

The English fireplace was modified at the end of the seven­teenth 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 openings were specially constructed to receive the fixed grate and the hob-grate.

It was in England that the architectural treatment of the over­mantel was first abandoned. The use of a mirror framed in a panel over the fireplace had never 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 XLV1I). 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 pretensions.

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-

8 2                   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, " Colo­nial " 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 con­taining 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 fire­place.   Everything about the hearth should not only be, but look,

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fire-proof. The chief objection to wood is that its use neces­sitates the displacement of the architrave, thus leaving a flat in­termediate 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 ar­chitrave is a necessity; but, curiously enough, the practice has be­come 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 archi­trave defines the opening. In France, also, the use of an inner facing (called a retricissemenf) 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, espe­cially in England and America, where the absence of the architec­tural over-mantel left a bare expanse of wall above the chimney-piece.

The use of the mantel as a bric-a-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 super­fluous 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 dra­pery 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 can­not 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 pres­ent to the design and workmanship of these and like necessary appliances; yet if good of their kind they add more to the adorn­ment of a room than a multiplicity of useless knick-knacks.

Andirons should be of wrought-iron, bronze or ormolu. Sub­stances 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 introwoables; 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 andi­rons: 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 con­stant 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 cassoni, 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 substi­tute for such a chest is a plain wicker basket, without ornamen­tation, 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-deco­ration 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 td 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 background.

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-boards are now associated with old-fashioned boarding-house parlors, where they are still sometimes seen, covered with a paper like that on the walls, and looking ugly enough to justify



                   FROM  THE CHATEAU OF ANET.

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their disuse. The old fire-boards were very different: in rooms of any importance they were beautifully decorated, and in Italian interiors, where the dado was often painted, the same decoration was continued on the fire-boards. Sometimes the latter were papered; but the paper used was designed expressly for the pur­pose, with a decorative composition of flowers, landscapes, or the ever-amusing cbinoiseries on which the eighteenth-century designer played such endless variations.

Whether the fireplace in summer should be closed by a board, or left open, with the logs laid on the irons, is a question for indi­vidual taste; but it is certain that if the painted fire-board were revived, it might form a very pleasing feature in the decoration of modern rooms. The only possible objection to its use is that it interferes with ventilation by closing the chimney-opening; but as fire-boards are used only at a season when all the windows are open, this drawback is hardly worth considering.

In spite of the fancied advancement in refinement and luxury of living, the development of the modern heating apparatus seems likely, especially in America, to do away with' the open fire. The temperature maintained in most American houses by means of hot-air or hot-water pipes is so high that even the slight addi­tional warmth of a wood fire would be unendurable. Still there are a few exceptions to this rule, and in some houses the healthy glow of open fires is preferred to the parching atmosphere of steam. Indeed, it might almost be said that the good taste and savoir-vivre of the inmates of a house may be guessed from the means used for heating it Old pictures, old furniture and fine bindings cannot live in a furnace-baked atmosphere; and those who possess such treasures and know their value have an ad­ditional motive for keeping their houses cool and well ventilated.

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No house can be properly aired in winter without the draughts produced by open fires. Fortunately, doctors are beginning to call attention to this neglected detail of sanitation; and as dry artificial heat is the main source of throat and lung diseases, it is to be hoped that the growing taste for open-air life and out­door sports will bring about a desire for better ventilation, and a dislike for air-tight stoves, gas-fires and steam-heat

Aside from the question of health and personal comfort, nothing can be more cheerless and depressing than a room without fire on a winter day. The more torrid the room, the more abnormal is the contrast between the cold hearth and the incandescent tem­perature. Without a fire, the best-appointed drawing-room is as comfortless as the shut-up "best parlor" of a New England farm-house. The empty fireplace shows that the room is not really lived in and that its appearance of luxury and comfort is but a costly sham prepared for the edification of visitors.

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