The Victorian fireplace was one of the most important symbols of the design aesthetic of the age since it served the purpose of both decoration and function. At that time, it was the only means of heating the house, and enjoyed a focal position in the domestic interior. This was the time of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and a "time of plenty" for the new middle class. Mass production meant more works of art could be acquired, and above the fireplace seemed like a trendy place to display these cherished possessions.
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The early Victorians preferred brick and stone for the construction of their fireplaces. They were inspired by the manorial fireplaces in huge old houses with the inglenook or "chimney corner." The Victorians liked the bricks in their fireplaces laid in the traditional herringbone style. But this was the age of industrial progress and a new material called cast iron was beginning to be used extensively. This catered to the demands of the burgeoning middle class, who wanted fuel economy. The average homeowner wanted his home to be heated without spending too much on coal or wood. Gas was also used in the houses of the upper middle-class. Cast iron fireplaces had an additional advantage. The cast iron was malleable enough to have mouldings and relief designs carved into it. This made the newly rich, middle-income population happy. They could now indulge their aspersions to grandeur yet remain within a budget.
The grate, used to hold solid fuel like coal or wood, was made of cast iron. It was also detailed and carved with "egg and dart" moulding. There were also flower and foliage patterns carved onto grates. Early Victorian grates were angled at the cheeks, to allow better dispersal of heat in the room. Grates were decorated and inlaid with tiles, which were not only popular due to aesthetics but also economised fuel by reflecting more heat into the room. The early Victorian grate was as much an object of beauty as the mantel piece and the fire surround.
The Fire Surround
Marble was used initially, as it was the most effective fire-resistant material available, but later on when cheaper options were demanded, wood and even slate were used. The fire surrounds would be painted to look like marble by artisans in the interest of frugality. The early Victorian mantel shelf would be supported by corbels, which were fluted or inlaid with decorative tiles or moulded relief. Even brass relief plates were in laid in the corbels. The fireplace surround could be carved like statutory. It could be rectangular, or follow the sinuous curve of the "art nouveau" style. The Victorian love for the exotic was indulged and a full reign was given to artistic expression in this focal point of the home. The right fireplace could lend elegance to the room.
Eminent designers of the early Victorian fireplaces include Robert Adams, who was a master of intricate detail. He designed fireplaces that aspired to the grandeur of palatial fireplaces but with the requisite modesty of means appreciated by the middle class. Robert Adam's fireplaces included embellishments with Wedgewood ceramic plaques or Etruscan gold leafing. There was fine "faux marble" statutory with lyres, flutes swags and vines. The frieze was also highly decorated with classical Greek and Italian Rococo designs and themes.
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