It is an axiom of the art of furnishing that when the chimneypiece has ceased to be the centre of interest in a room the art of decoration is at a low ebb. The "Punch" pictures of that time show the insignificant chimney-pieces of the early Victorian era. In this, which was noted as a period of bad taste in things pertaining to the house, it was little more than a shelf. At the present time - a proof of our growth in good taste - it is daily becoming of more and more importance.
To attempt to do justice to the subject of chimneypieces from the historic point of view would demand more space than is at the command of the writer. Moreover, it would hardly have the practical result of conveying ideas for the beautifying of our own homes, which is the purpose of this article. On the other hand, we are so versatile in our liking for styles of many varying periods, and so anxious to avoid anachronisms, that it is almost impossible to treat of any subject connected with decoration without touching on the historic side.
For quite a long while we were content that our Adams' and Louis XVI. rooms should have mantelpieces left over from a former time, when the elaborate etagere style of chimneypiece, with shelves and cupboards backed by looking-glass, was in vogue. But as we became more and more particular in our ideas as to correctly carried-out schemes of decoration, these erections were seen to be quite out of place, and about three years ago a revival was made of a style of mantelpiece that had sunk into such disrepute that it had seemed to be impossible again to excite public interest in it. This was the marble chimneypiece, of which the owner at one time felt positively ashamed.
The Revival of Marble Chimneypieces
There was, however, a good deal of reason for this general dislike, for when marble came into general use in the nineteenth century the market was flooded with cheap imitations of the lovely originals. Large quantities of marble mantels were shipped over from France and Italy. They were weak in design, and were hollow, and in sufficiently bad taste to account for the revulsion of feeling against them, and to cause people to turn with relief to the simple carved wood chimneypiece which followed. The dislike of marble was so great for a time that mantelpieces made of it were often painted over with enamel. The writer has one such instance in mind where the marble was dirty, and, partly with the idea that it could not be restored, it was, to the horror of the builder, covered with white paint. It is, however, quite easy to have marble cleaned, and a mason will make a chimneypiece look like new after a morning's work. There are also various preparations sold for cleaning it when it is not very dirty. Even if a chimneypiece has been painted over, the paint can easily be removed, and this had certainly better be done in a room furnished after the Adams', Georgian, or French period, when marble mantelpieces were the correct thing. Even if the decoration on the marble is not absolutely in keeping, the chimneypiece is sure to add dignity to such a room.
At present marble is almost more used than anything else, and those who are choosing chimneypieces for a new house will find that they can get charming, simple designs for about nine or ten pounds for the best rooms. A decision should be made as to how these rooms are to be furnished before the chimneypieces are chosen. If the dining-room is to be in the Georgian period, something in the rather massive style of that time will easily be found. For an Adams' or French room the designs are very light and effective. The essential difference in the actual form is that in the French work the shelf is deep and generally absolutely straight, and in that of Adams it is much narrower. The Georgian models being rather heavier, and having a greater projection at the sides, result in a somewhat wider shelf again. The old-time gilt clock is the correct centre ornament for such a chimneypiece, and very little else is put on it; perhaps a couple of ornaments or a pair of candlesticks. Below will be seen an example of a very beautiful French chimneypiece of Louis XVI. period. It is made of statuary marble decorated with ormolu. Others are inlaid with marble, and lovers of the antique give enormous sums for original chimneypieces of this kind taken from old houses. These, especially when inlaid with gold-coloured Sienna marble, are very beautiful. Plain white marble is, however, lovely, and has the advantage that it does not in any way limit the choice of colour in the room.
The Pine-wood Chimneypiece
The same period which saw the introduction of the marble chimneypiece was also responsible for that of pine-wood ornamented with carton-pierre, a kind of composition. These are now rather less costly than marble, are very much used, and can be had in very beautiful designs to go in rooms of the various periods. A lovely example after the Georgian period is seen in Fig. 3. Fig. 2 gives an equally good design in the Adams' style. Both these are quite inexpensive. Those who prefer the wider shelves found in the French models need not hesitate to combine French and Adams' styles in the same rooms, as this is often done.
Fig. 1. A very beautiful chimneypiece of the Louis XVI. period. It is of statuary marble decorated with ormolu
Fig. 2. A beautiful chimneypiece of pine-wood and carton-pierre, in the Adams' style. Very few articles should be placed upon the mantelpiece, an old-fashioned gilt clock being the correct ornament
There is one thing which is very important to remember with regard to either marble or carton-pierre chimneypieces, and that is that the grate and its surroundings must be in plug. A hob grate or a dog grate is the correct thing, but if one of the low modern grates is preferred, it can be d. Tile honk] not be employed. Some people however, insist on them, and if they a: choscn they should be white, cither the small size, three inches square, or the six-inch square size. The iron panels seen in the illustrations are, however, the proper thing. These may be very ornate or quite simple. Some of the simplest, such as a reed-and-bead pattern, often are the most pleasing; and there are many other new and very good designs.
It is well to look out for something that has a soft, not too decided effect, so that it does not clash with or overpower the decoration of the chimneypiece itself
In a subsequent article will be given various developments which are an evolution of purely modern times.
Fig. 3. A chimneypiece in the Georgian style, in pine-wood and carton-pierre, materials less costly than marble and much in vogue