The term Louis refers to the name of 18 French Monarchs who reigned from 1300 to the French Revolution. The Louis Mantelpiece should more rightly be called a Louis revival mantelpiece as it was the product of the 19th century when French architects and interior decorators sought to produce styles, which mimicked the type of fireplace which was popular during the reigns of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. In reality the fireplaces of this era were a lot more elaborate than the revival designs, which were made in France and England during the Victorian era. A typical Louis revival projected around 9 inches from the wall. The front was flat and box like with a wide rectangular opening. The designs were more graceful than the British marble fireplace of the era and were often made by Italian craftsmen with extra detail and finishing undertaken by French artisans.
The revival Louis XV surrounds have graceful curves and the designs which are popular today are much more likely to be from this origin. Louis XVI fireplaces are square and much more masculine and could be mistaken for many traditional English designs which have been popular for 200 years or more. The small and feminine Louis XV Pompadour has probably been the most successful of all the Louis designs.
The Georgian era spanned the years 1714 to 1820, although the latter period is more correctly called Regency. It was during this time that many of today’s stately homes were being built or remodelled as the landed aristocracy flourished. Inigo Jones, an architect during the previous century, was the inspiration for the early Georgian period up to 1760. His pattern books were available to landed gentry throughout the country and, filled with designs incorporating elements from Greek mythology, they inspired designer’s like William Kent to provide fireplaces which formed a voluptuous centrepiece to grace grand rooms.
The history of the fireplace now falls conveniently into two halves. Immense, ornate designs characterised the earlier part, while the latter half saw mantelpieces with a more subtle, classical influence.
In middle class households designs were altogether simpler – faux imitations of marble or expensive hardwoods replaced the real thing. More reserved, and cheaper, fireplaces would also be seen in the less important rooms of stately homes indicating that the pockets of even the richest landowners were not limitless! These designs did not percolate down at all to the farmers and yeomen who made up the majority of house owners. Their fireplaces were often the inglenook designs with large wooden lintel that we see in thatched cottages today.
The second half of the century is, without doubt the age of Robert Adam and the fireplaces that bear his name. With his brother James, Robert Adam produced pattern books covering all aspects of architecture but it is probably for the fireplace that he is best known. Adam was a master of detail – his designs, although smaller and less extravagant than were common in the previous fifty years, included beautifully finished detail, almost all taken from classical mythology. This could include a gold-leaf Etruscan motif or even a Wedgwood ceramic plaque.
Important rooms featured designs in fine white statuary marble embellished with swags, ribbons, lyres and urns, whilst less important rooms, and the vast emerging middle class, would be supplied by scaled down copies of these designs in a variety of imitation designs and materials. In the never-ending change that is furnishing fashion, the designs became more classical and less ornate in the dying years of the Georgian period and influences, such as the Chinoiserie (Chinese influenced design) favoured by the Prince Regent, George IV, became more evident. In many ways this period was the heyday of the fireplace, the design dimensions and features still copied in a myriad of imitations for today’s market.
Like every décor trend over the last four hundred years the Regency period cannot be seen in isolation. In fact, it is incorporates elements and inter relates with trends, social differences and politics both before and after the period. Regency fireplaces tended to be much less elaborate than those of designers such of Robert Adam. Gone were the small inset pastoral scenes so beloved of the mid 18th century aristocracy. In their place came very rectilinear designs with the typical reeded leg. The leg itself might be flat with the reeding as an inset or even in the form of single or double Greek columns apparently supporting the fireplace header. The reeded panel might be taken across the header but other designs included twin parallel lines, Acanthus leaves or other Greek images – Medusa’s head or Roman triumph images were also popular.
Marble was a popular material for fireplaces although, at times, supplies from Italy, Spain and Portugal were blockaded by the Napoleonic wars. Statuary marble (the variety used for sculpting statues) was preferred, although its cost tended to limit its use to the main, public rooms. Other ‘reception’ and ‘retiring’ might have fireplaces in faux marble, manufactured in wood or toughened plaster and painted, by highly skilled but low paid artisans, to resemble marble.
In France fireplace style had developed separately from that of Britain. During the French Revolution, many of the extravagant chimneypieces installed throughout the reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI were ripped out and shipped abroad. In their place came fireplaces, still influenced by the empires of antiquity but with less decoration and grander mantelshelves than examples within the UK. With France’s close relationship with the fledgling USA this influence can also be seen in New England homes of the period including the White House (which is only white because the Brits burnt it in 1812 and it had to be repainted – white!).
Regency influence has remained popular to this day. Many town houses from this era survive in London although the largest houses were demolished for their land during the late Victorian housing boom. Where Regency houses had been stripped of their original fireplaces by subsequent generations keen to modernise their homes, modern reproductions have been used to fill the gaps and recreate at least some of the splendour of that period. Indeed, the simpler design of Regency fireplaces has proved easier to reproduce than the elaborate splendour of its predecessors which are regarded as ‘over the top’ by the present generations.
Victoria was on the throne for such a long time, 1837 – 1901, that it is impossible to regard her reign as a single period. In the early years, up to Albert’s death in the 1860s designs were still influenced by the classical themes so obvious in Regency design. However, as the age progressed other movements began to influence design with the two main designs schools being Arts and Crafts & Art Nouveau It is also worth mentioning the Louis design, made popular by the availability of original fireplaces ripped out of the châteaux of French nobility at the time of the Revolution.