This section is from the book "The Practical Book Of Interior Decoration", by Harold Donaldson Eberlein, Abbot Mcclure, Edward Stratton Holloway. See also: The Victorian House Book: A Practical Guide to Home Repair and Decoration.
THE mantel began as architecture and ended, in its final development, as furniture. This is unqualifiedly true, so far as the historic styles of decoration, with which we have to do, are concerned. In modern practice the mantel is treated sometimes as one, sometimes as the other, with rather a leaning, perhaps, to the architectural interpretation. For the sake of brevity, in the present discussion we shall use the term mantel in its broadest acceptation, that is to say as including both the fireplace with its surrounding members and also the chimney-piece or overmantel. A mantel without a fireplace (a phenomenon one sometimes encounters) is an anomaly and has no more significance or use than a waggon without wheels or a plum pudding without plums. When such a case exists, common honesty, as well as common-sense, demands that a fireplace be made or else that the mantel be altogether eliminated. The fireplace-less mantel, therefore, requires no consideration whatever.
Whether we choose to regard the mantel as architecture or as furniture, there are two facts we cannot dodge! (1) By its very position and the space it occupies it is usually a dominating factor in the composition of a room. (2) As a focal point and important item of the fixed decoration, it naturally serves as an intermediate link between background and furniture and affords a point of departure from which to attack the composition. The different methods of mantel treatment, ranging all the way from the strictly architectural conception of the Renaissance period when the overmantel structure extended either all or most of the way to the ceiling, to the mantel's treatment as little else than furniture in certain aspects of the Neo-ClaSsic style, are duly set forth in the first part of the book and may be studied in the illustrations.
Wfien the mantel with its attendant chimney-piece or overmantel decoration is wholly architectural in character, there is less opportunity for the injudicious to treat it with contumely and spoil its effect. It is when there is no fixed overmantel or chimney-piece that the greatest care must be exercised. It. is perfectly obvious that the overmantel space demands a suitable decorative handling. That decoration may consist of a picture, preferably a portrait, or else a subject of distinctly decorative character such, for instance, as some of the eighteenth century fruit or flower pieces; a mirror, which is generally a legitimate substitute for a picture and is susceptible of considerable engaging embellishment; a bas-relief or a carving, perhaps one of the old Japanese polychrome carvings or one of the curious Chinese carved and inlaid shop signs; a decorative map or, perhaps, a decorative treatment of a plot of the grounds on the estate adjoining the house; an eighteenth century wall clock, such as one of the "sunburst" clocks of English or French design or one of the old Dutch clocks with ornate case and free hanging weights; an Oriental screen of proper size with panels laid back flat and fastened against the wall; even a well-designed and mellow but full-coloured poster - the writers have in mind a wonderful bird's-eye view of London poster got out by the tramways corporation mounted on canvas, shellacked and set in a suitable flat frame; or any one of the various other devices that afford a suitable decorative emphasis and a point of central interest.
If the object selected as the overmantel adornment is not of sufficient size to create a proper balance, a hanging of some sort - a piece of tapestry or an old Italian, Chinese or Japanese brocade, for example - may be placed back of it or else some appropriate subsidiary decorations, such as sconces, may be used to flank the central object and complete the composition of the grouping.
Due contrast is a desirable quality to impart emphasis in the overmantel scheme. Such contrast may be attained, for example, by using a pre-Raphaelite picture in a Florentine frame against a background of dull, greenish, loose-woven old brocade, or by a Chinese painting in reverse on glass in a teak-wood frame against a rough grey plaster wall. The mantel shelf is one of the chief sources of decorative peril. It is almost as seductive a temptation to decorative indiscretions and overloading as the broad top of a sideboard. Only the firmest resolve and devotion to the invaluable principle of restraint will save it from a cluttering accumulation of things that had far better be elsewhere. Sedulously shun a number of small, trifling gimcracks and refrain from displaying photographs thereon.
When there is no mantel shelf the danger is entirely obviated. When there is a shelf, one must carefully study the nature of the overmantel treatment before venturing to place any movable garniture on it. Some overmantel treatments demand that very little be placed in front of or beneath them - such as the Stuart overmantel in Plate 3 or Plate 4, and the intrusion of conspicuous garniture would be an unpardonable impertinence; others, again, admit of more latitude in the disposition of movable garniture. In any event, six unalterable principles must be faithfully observed - Restraint, Suitability, from which Dignity follows as a corollary; Propriety of Scale, Symmetry, Concentration and Contrast.
(1) Restraint must be most scrupulously exercised in determining the number and nature of the objects of which the mantel garniture is to consist. Have but few things on the mantel, but let each one of them be deserving of attention. Don't choke the legitimate garniture with a weed growth of trivial things and don't be afraid of empty spaces; they are restful and dignified and act as foils to lend appropriate emphasis to objects of decorative worth.
(2) Suitability demands that the garniture comport with the character of the overmantel decoration and the general structural environment. Good taste, for example, will forbid elaborate Louis Quinze ormolu candelabra upon an early Georgian mantel with its severely architectural overmantel background; the fundamental conceptions of the use of line are utterly at variance in the two styles which mix just about as well as oil and water. There is no reason, however, why garniture of contemporary date or of obviously close stylistic affinities should be chosen. It is enough if there be some common point of contact, some harmony by either analogy or contrast of design, some basic affinity between the lines of the background and the lines of the garniture, to put garniture and background in the same or in a related decorative key.