The Victorian era spanned a period of nearly 70 years, and was a time of breathtaking advancement and invention. Unsurprisingly then, defining the Victorian style is rather problematic. What is striking, however, is that when they weren't looking abroad for artistic inspiration they were often looking back. This may seem odd in a society that was otherwise riding the great wave of progress generated by the Industrial Revolution, but it can be safely argued that the Victorians were in fact afforded the luxury of looking back by the very sophistication of their technology.
They adopted and reinvented a bewildering diversity of historic and exotic fashion, without sacrificing anything of the comfort and practicality of their homes. Moreover the advent of mass-production meant that home decoration was both affordable and available to a much wider spectrum of society. This universality has certainly contributed to the enduring appeal of Victorian style, and much is owed to the practical ease with which Victorian artefacts can be incorporated into modern living. However, mass-production was not celebrated by all. There was a sense that the availability of goods undermined the appreciation of artistry, this disaffection spawned a number of movements, most notably the Arts & Crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris.
The search for ever more authentic or exclusive ways of describing ourselves through our environment, our homes, still goes on today, but what is certain is that whether your sympathies lie with the Arts & Crafts Movement, the eclectic exoticism of the Aesthetic Movement with artists like James McNeill Whistler as its champion, or with the arresting stylistics of Art Nouveau there is some feature of Victorian design that appeals to everyone.
The Anatomy of the Victorian Fire Surround and Fireplace
The fireplace was still at the heart of the domestic interior, as the only means of heating it. Fireplace design is, therefore, a fascinating showcase for the different schools of Victorian art and architecture, with often more than one genre evident in a single piece.
To identify universal characteristics is not easy; however, there are a few common features. Increased production meant increased possessions- the Victorian style is generally associated with abundance of belongings. This is reflected in the introduction of a wider mantel shelf on the fireplace surround, providing another surface on which to display ornaments. The sense of abundance was also translated into the decorative motifs, the cornucopia being popular as either a carved relief on the frieze, or cast into the hood of the grate.
Fireplace surrounds tended to be of marble or wood. Marble was favoured at the beginning of the period, indicating a respect for ever-cautious fire regulations, but towards the end of the 19th century marble was proving too costly for the average home and was replaced by wood, particularly painted pine, and slate - also painted, sometimes, to imitate marble. The late fashion for wood owed something also to the preference for simple, natural materials with a particular delight in the warmth of wood that was owned by purveyors of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and to the celebration of the essence of natural forms that typified Art Nouveau. Victorian mantel shelves commonly appear to be supported by decorative corbels at either end of the frieze. Generally curved and fluted they performed a practical function of supporting the wider heavier shelf, but they also add visual interest and serve to emphasise the preponderance of objects gracing the mantelpiece.
Victorian interiors had inherited the Regency love of detail, and whilst some Neo-Classical motifs were retained, particularly in the use of egg and dart moulding in the actual cast-iron grate alongside sundry floral and foliate patterns, prominence was now given to an angled pair of tiled cheeks flanking the grate which performed the dual function of reflecting more heat into the room and afforded yet another opportunity for decorative expression. The beauty of the tiles, which allows for their popularity, is that they could be lent to any decorative scheme. There are tiles that illustrate the strong colours and abstract shapes of Moorish influence, the more delicate Japanese patterning, Grecian urns, even the heraldic insignia of Neo-Medievalism. Thus it is possible in a single Victorian fireplace to find Neo-Classicism in the form of a pair of columned jambs, a highly decorative frieze depicting, perhaps, a bacchanalia owning much to the Rococo tradition, oriental or Moorish inspired tiles and a hob-grate which made its reappearance despite certain inefficiencies during the Queen Anne revival, notable from the 1860s onward.
Hob-grates are, of course, not typical of the Victorian period, having been superseded some time before by the register grate. Where the hob-grate did appear it tended to have narrower plates; as it was essentially a piece of nostalgia the plates did not need to perform the practical function of heating food. Register grates were ordinarily cast out of a single piece of iron, with an adjustable plate at the mouth of the flue to adjust the draft.
Many Late-Victorian grates boast an integrated ash-pan which allowed for easier cleaning and subsequently effected a narrowing of the hearth. Most Victorian grates had hoods, often tiled, sometimes adjustable, almost always decorated, which were again both nostalgic and functional. They alluded to larger historical fireplaces, namely of Tudor and Jacobean fame - a habitual feature of Victorian design was the interest in celebrating other episodes of national confidence- and they effectively channelled the smoke in the right direction, particularly with wood fires which had a resurgence in popularity. Many Victorian aesthetic developments were inspired by a desire to be disassociated from the effects of industrialisation and indeed to counter the physical effects of it, such as the later predominance of strong colours as less vulnerable to the urban environment than delicate ones, but the popularity of the aesthetics was dependent on their practical application, on the convenience inherent in the design.
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