In the ordinary brown stone or brick house, and in most of the smaller country places, the mantelpiece is a conventional arrangement of marble or wood, enclosing a fire-opening and surmounted by a shelf. No attempt at architectural excellence has been attempted. But even this ugly affair is infinitely to be preferred to the horrors of "overmantels" with inlaid mirrors which seem to be entered on the list of specifications made by the builder of every modern apartment house or "villa" advertised "for sale or for rent." These over-mantels, as I suggested in another chapter, should be taken down at once. In almost every instance such a piece of construction is a monstrosity.
According to well-defined architectural laws the top of a chimney-piece must be carried to the cornice, as are the tops of the door and window openings. All the great fireplaces are designed in this way, whether the chimney-piece is made to project into the room, or the fire-opening is sunk in the wall. In building up over our conventional mantelshelves, therefore, we must be governed by the same laws. Thus a plain wall surface over the mantel which has no architectural features may be hung with a plaster cast, a mirror, or a picture, and still be made subservient to established rules. It is only necessary to preserve the proportions, to build up, as it were, toward the cornice. It makes all the difference in the world, for instance, whether the mirror that is hung over the mantelpiece is a couple of inches too high or too low. It makes much difference, too, even when the proportions are respected, if the mirror is hung so high that nobody can look into it or see one of its reflections.
When an architect has designed a fireplace there is little left for the householder to do. A certain conventional fashion must be followed, and the appointments of the period to which the fireplace belongs must be repeated. Louis XVI ornaments must decorate a Louis XVI mantel.
A Colonial mantel cannot be trifled with, neither draped nor overcrowded with trifles. Its formality and its simplicity of line must be respected. Things that are arranged above it must always show a balancing of ends, and a due consideration for the central point of excellence.
It is the every-day marble or wood mantelpiece that never ceases to be a subject of concern to a householder. It never seems right. It seldom is so. She thinks to remedy it to-day by a drapery, to-morrow by sweeping it clean of everything. She is never sure of what the drapery should be, whether it should tone with the upper or lower part of a room, whether it should be looped or "put on plain." It remains forever an unsolved problem.
The arrangement of a mantel must depend on the height of the mantel-shelf. A shelf on which an elbow can be rested as one stands by the fire invites certain touches of familiarity. Intimate relations are at once established, governed entirely by a question of its configuration. The elbow is the standard by which we measure much.
When a shelf lies just above the reach of it, the mantel instantly commands for itself a certain deference and assumes an air which alters our manner.
We can set out the lower shelf with a book or two; in some houses with a pipe; in some dining-rooms with a bottle of red wine; in any house with a flower, with things that we love, things that we can pick up and put down. But the high shelf demands a certain reserve. We can look, but we must not touch.
The first thing to be done in arranging a mantel is to choose what the over-mantel shall be. The perfectly plain wall-space may be treated with a simple moulding of wood or stucco in which a picture is set. It may have no moulding and be hung only with a picture, generally one's most important or most interesting or best-beloved picture. It may have a mirror, it may have a bas-relief hung against the wall, or if the lines be too sharp, against a piece of silk gathered in on a rod just under the picture-moulding, and falling straight to the shelf - not a looping of any kind, else the effect is destroyed.
The shape and size of the wall-space above the shelf must determine the shape and size of the mirror, cast, or picture-frame hung there. If the over mantel be square and the mirror or picture be long and narrow, the space above must be filled, and in filling it, in whatever is done, in fact, the laws of balance and proportion must be preserved. If, for instance, the space to be filled is square or nearly so, and the moulding makes a frame for a picture, one rule, that of centring the interest, is obeyed.
But if there be no moulding, a certain suggestion of building up toward the cornice, of making an apex, must be given. The central picture should be higher than the others, or something should be placed over the middle of the picture. This must not be done with too obvious a manner, as when one hangs a painted plaque over the very nail on which a picture is suspended. For the picture itself, taken in line with either side of the mantel, may suggest the lines which go to form the apex. Or again, an object placed on the shelf over the picture may suggest the same line of construction.
Nothing hung over the mantel should be longer than the mantel itself.
When one is in doubt about the appointments for a mantel-shelf, a pair of candlesticks and a plaster cast, and something to hold flowers will prove the safest investment. These may vary in character and quality. The candlesticks may be of brass, or glass, or silver, but whatever their nature they should always be filled with candles and lighted whenever possible. Candle-light conveys an impression of refinement that neither gas nor electricity can ever hope to emulate. Besides, it is becoming. People look best by candle-light; so do most stuffs and many pictures. A mantel-shelf with candles, then, and flowers, needs nothing else to be attractive and interesting and proper.