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.
(3) Propriety of Scale means that the size of the objects composing the garniture must be of a scale to accord with the whole mantel and overmantel composition - neither too large nor too small. In other words, upon a large mantel do not put small, attenuated candlesticks, vases or the like, nor above it hang a small and insufficient mirror or picture. In extreme violations of the scale principle, whatever merit the individual pieces of garniture may have in themselves is wholly lost and the dignity of the mantel, which, under the circumstances, looks about as foolish as a very large fat man with a little pee-wee head, is destroyed. Conversely, do not overpower a small mantel with things too large for it. This principle ought not to need special insistence, and yet flagrant disregard of it offends the eye daily.
(4) Symmetry must be maintained in disposing the different objects both with respect to each other and with respect to the overmantel behind them which is symmetrical in its architectural or decorative expression and which also ordinarily divides the whole wall space symmetrically. If the balance is broken, a onesided, incoherent effect follows. Symmetry does not necessarily imply stiffness, but it does imply a decorous and agreeable formality. It is plainly necessary, therefore, if there be a central object, that the arrangement of the garniture be triple - candlesticks, candelabra, vases or jars at the ends, with incense burner, porcelain bowl, bronze or other single object in the middle - or, again, in the case of a long mantel, that it be quintuple as, for instance, in using one of the old Lowestoft garnitures consisting of three jars and two vases or vice versa. In any event, the use of a central unit requires for the whole composition an odd number of reciprocally balancing units; when there is no central unit the total number of units is even. A quadruple arrangement, for instance, may consist of four similar, equidistant, balancing objects or of two pairs of ornaments. The character of the overmantel decoration will largely determine the appropriate number, placing and spacing of the garniture units, but, as a rule, the triple scheme works well and, on general principle, it is safe to place the larger units - candlesticks, candelabra, jars, figures, vases, or whatever else - at the ends as flanking elements. The value of pairs in mantel garnishing is plain to be seen.
(5) Concentration as a principle applied to mantel treatment focuses the chief interest at one point. The interest should be centred either in the overmantel decoration or else in the mantel garniture. It is a mistake and a waste of decorative ammunition to make the overmantel decoration a feature of dominating interest and then detract from its emphasis by the character of the mantel garniture which, under the circumstances, ought really to be an auxiliary factor. The gilt sunburst wall clock, previously alluded to, is a good example of overmantel decorative interest. If, on the other hand, the overmantel treatment is in the nature of an intensified background and plays the part of a foil, then the garniture must have sufficient force of harmonious contrast (v. Plate 56) to make it interesting. Always beware of scattering interest too much. Settle upon the one or two points to be emphasised and make everything else play up to them. Too much diffusion perplexes the eye and muddles or even destroys the character of the decoration which, so far as ability to enjoy it is concerned, might just as well consist of a congeries of the incoherent convolutions of old Maya temple carvings.
(6) The principle of Contrast requires that the effect of the mantel garniture be direct and not muddled in its appeal to the eye. And remember that an effect may be direct and distinct without being abrupt
There must be enough contrast in colour, material, texture or contour (v. Plate 120) between the background and the garniture or else the effect will be diminished and one-half of it sink into the wall. Jangling, riotous contrasts that squall aloud are neither desirable nor necessary, but one can always secure an agreeable result like one of the following: a small carved oak dole cupboard, flanked by plain silver candlesticks, against a full-coloured old brocade, embroidery or bit of verdure tapestry; or, again, bronzes against a dull, grey plaster wall.
Do not attempt to have any kind of draperies attached to the mantel shelf. The principle is bad. They are unnecessary; they are cluttering and fussy; and they are impracticable when there is a fire going in the fireplace. The utmost that is permissible in that direction is to have a narrow piece of material as a foil when its colour and texture are necessary to produce desirable definition of contour or contrast of hue. The one glimmer of intelligence displayed by the Victorian mantel designers was when they shaped their manjtel shelves so that draperies became difficult, and in this they were probably blindly following the precedent of eighteenth century French practice.
With reference to the movable furniture in the room, the mantel and fireplace should serve as a centre or focus for the formation of an interesting and logical group arrangement either at the sides of or in front of it. The importance alone of the mantel with its chimney-piece decoration requires that it be the centre of a grouping, and the fascination of the fire suggests the convenient disposition of comfortable seating furniture with a suitable accompaniment of tables and lights.