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.
At the same time, while the spirit of classic purism was dominant, there were numerous successful and acceptable adventures into the realm of Baroque design, as witnessed, for instance, by some of the creations of James Gibbs, but it was restrained and chastened Baroque, conceived and executed in the light of classic severity. Notwithstanding the rigidity of ideals and the conscientious exactitude with which the foremost architects held themselves to precedent, a great proportion of the early Georgian work possessed merit of an high order and exhibited both dignity and charm. It is an enduring memorial to the skill and good taste of the designers and also equally a striking testimony to the intelligence and appreciation of a clientele that made possible the realisation of such designs. It was, indeed, a golden age of appreciative interest and liberal patronage on the part of wealthy laymen in the persons of the great nobles and landed gentry, who found that the "court of the first two Georges offered" them few attractions and that there was little "scope for compe-tion in politics during the long and all-powerful sway of Walpole." Furthermore, in the entire absence of foreign hostilities, there were no openings for gaining distinction in military or naval careers and, consequently, 'it would seem that numbers of these great nobles and men of leisure embraced the study of art as the principal occupation of their lives. The particular branch of art which interested them most keenly was the pure classic architecture of Ancient Rome," and their extensive diversions in this field of research rendered them both capable critics and enthusiastic patrons.
The interiors of the great houses then erected displayed a sense of architectural composition that has never been surpassed in English domestic building and even the less pretentious dwellings of the period clearly reflected the prevailing sense of symmetry and architectural amenity that had permeated all ranks of society. So thoroughly had Palladianism and a feeling for elegant proportions taken hold of the popular imagination that they may truly be said to have become endemic among English-speaking people of that day. 3
Both inside and out, houses were planned to convey the impression of symmetrical balance and the same care for symmetrical composition was observed in the treatment of the individual rooms, which were, as a rule, approximately square and high-ceiled. Structural features, that is to say, doorways, windows and fireplaces, were symmetrically placed so as to emphasise the effect of balance (Plate 9) and were given such architectural adornment that they constituted an important item in the decoration of the room and to a great extent dominated the placing of the movable furnishings and determined their character.
The details were vigorous in line and classic in fashion - fluted pilasters with appropriate capitals, correct architectural entablatures, pediments of several types, accurately designed friezes and cornices and bold, well-considered mouldings. Doorways frequently were graced with superimposed pediments (Plate 7), either straight, or interrupted with a central urn or bust, and the same motif was apt to be echoed in the chimney piece which extended all the way or almost all the way to the ceiling. When there was no pediment above the doorway, the note of decorous architectural formality was often sustained by a fitly conceived panel with suitable embellishments. The overmantel panel with its imposing architectural setting was made a central feature for the reception of a portrait (Plate 7) or a decorative painting or, when the chimney piece was less structurally elaborate, a mirror in a frame of strongly architectural design, perhaps with the additional decoration of a painting in the head or in side panels, might be placed directly above the mantel shelf. The mantel-piece itself was of wood or of marble (Plates 7 and 137), often elaborately carved with devices inspired by designs of classic provenance pourtrayed in the works of the Renaissance exponents of Greek and Bo-man antiquity.
About the middle of the century, under the influence of Sir William Chambers, the elaborate chimney piece, reaching nearly to the ceiling, which had received the sanction and best efforts of previous architects, gradually fell into disfavour and gave place to a newer mode of Continental fashion (Plate 9).
"When he [Sir William Chambers] returned to England in 1755 [from the Continent], he was accompanied by Wilton and Cipriani, afterwards so well known as an artist and decorator. He also brought Italian sculptors to carve the marble mantel-pieces he introduced into English houses.
These were made from his own designs, and the ornament of figures, scrolls and foliage was free in character. Strange to say, these mantel-pieces, designed and made by an architect, were yet the means of taking away this important part of interior decoration from the hands of the architect altogether and causing it to become quite a separate production, made and sold along with the grates.
In former times it had been an integrant portion of the room, reaching from floor to ceiling, balanced and made part of the wall by having its main lines carried round in panelling and enriched friezes. It was the keynote of decoration, and the master builder of the times grew fanciful and exerted his utmost skill upon its carving and quaint imagery, centralising the whole ornament of the room around the household shrine.
Mantel-pieces had gradually come down in height, though still retaining much of their finer proportions and classic design. Many causes had contributed to this, the chief being the disuse of wood panelling and the preference given to hangings of damask, foreign leather and wall-paper. In the reigns of Queen Anne and the Little Dutchman the custom of panelling was partially kept up.... At this time the upper half of the chimney piece was still retained, but only reached about half way up the wall [in many instances]. Gibbs, Kent, and Ware kept the superstructure as much as they could, but Sir William Chambers dealt it the most crushing blow it had yet received by copying the later French and Italian styles and giving minute detail more consideration than fine proportion. He discarded the upper part altogether and helped to make 'continued chimney pieces' things of the past." - (Warren Clous-ton's "Treatise on Chippendale")