"Chimneypieces were considered by the Georgians, and indeed the Victorians, as decorative features, to be installed or moved as fashion or convenience dictated."
- Neil Burton & Lucy Porten
A rare Robert Adam stone chimneypiece available at Westland London
A Georgian chimneypiece is a splendid embodiment of the elegance and refinement that characterised the Georgian era. Designed by skilled masters, forged from the finest marble, and adorned with intricate carvings, they are a testament to a bygone era of opulence and taste.
Also referred to as mantelpieces, chimneypieces reflected the evolving tastes and architectural trends of the long 18th century, showcasing a range of distinctive styles that marked this period.
The early Georgian period, characterised by the reigns of George I and George II, saw a continuation of Baroque and Rococo influences in fireplace design. These fireplaces featured ornate carvings, asymmetrical scrolls, and shell motifs, often crafted from richly veined marble.
Fireplace at Holkham Hall
The earlier elaborately ornate chimneypieces that were so popular in the grand houses gradually became simpler over the course of the century. According to Steve Parissien in The Georgian House, the transformation was complete by 1790, the Regency chimneypiece being "both simpler and more reticent than its Palladian predecessors".
1780 - 1790 Timber chimneypiece with applied ornaments in papier mache
Image The Georgian Group
Neo-Greek, neo-Egyptian, Gothic, and Jacobethan styles became popular again in 1800 when the eclecticism of early 19th century architecture could be seen in the chimneypieces of the grand houses of the time.
The drawing of a gothic fireplace below is from Rudolf Ackermann's Repository of Arts. Today, The Repository (published in London from 1809 to 1828) is seen by historians as one of the most important sources of furnishings and dress of Regency society.
The basic materials used for chimney pieces during this time were stone, wood, and marble, embellished with precious stones, metals, and papier-mâché. In ordinary homes, cheaper materials were used to create the grand designs made popular by the architectural pattern books of the time, as marble was too expensive and mostly seen in the grander houses of the time. In small dwellings, the fireplace would have been faced with slabs of stone or slate and a wood or slate shelf above this. The rising middle classes preferred something more stylish and wooden surrounds became popular as it was both cheap and easy for woodcarvers to create the delicate Rococo decoration that was so popular during 1720's and 1730's. However, according to the Georgian Group, there is no evidence that the Georgians left wooden chimneypieces unpainted. They were painted to match the paintwork on doors and windows or painted to look like stone or marble. For cheaper mantel pieces, "compo" ( this was a mixture of glue-size and whiting) was used to shape ornaments which were applied to the wood.
British chimneypieces were seen not as furniture, but as architectural decoration and they often referred to architectural proportion as governed by the Five Orders.
The Five Classical Orders according to Sebastian Serlio (1475 - 1554) Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite
The sides of the chimneypiece represented the classical columns and the lintel represented their entablature. Georgian architects would have designed a mantelpiece to reference the correct ornaments of the Five architectural orders, or the door and window mouldings as well as the height of the skirting in the room.
Georgian fireplace designed with reference to the rest of the room
The overmantel was always carved separately from the chimneypiece due to manufacturing reasons. Mirrors were often placed above late Georgian chimneypieces, but these were items of moveable furniture and were not seen as part of the chimneypiece. The chimneypiece and overmantel (below) in the Long Library at Holkham Hall is by William Kent. The overmantel frame has been infilled with a mosaic rescued from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.
Chimneypiece in the Long Library at Holkham Hall
A fender, a low metal guard made of iron or brass, was used to protect the floor in front of the fireplace from flying sparks or embers that may fall from the fireplace.
Late Georgian English solid brass fender available at 1st Dibs
The famous English ‘Club Fender’ only came later and was introduced in the Edwardian era – this was a taller fender with cushioned seating pads. Originally, it was used as a means of providing additional seating in billiard rooms and libraries.
When the fireplace wasn't used during the summer, a freestanding grate would have been removed and substituted with a vase of flowers or decorative urn. Where the grate was fixed, the vase would have been placed inside the grate, or a decorative chimney board would have been fixed over the fireplace opening.
The Robert Adam chimney board at Osterley Park (below) was painted on canvas and glued to a wooden frame.
Robert Adam fire board at Osterley Park © National Trust / Christopher Warleigh-Lack
Restoring your Georgian Fireplace
Fireplaces serve as the focal point in Georgian drawing rooms and should you be lucky enough to inherit an original mantelpiece, it definitely deserves careful restoration and preservation.
Restoring his late 18th century house in North Yorkshire, Rupert Cunningham - you can find him on Instagram @georgianhouse_yorkshire - came across an interesting find in his library. According to Rupert, the existing chimneypiece was installed in the 1850s probably replacing a simpler one made of local stone.
"This Victorian chimneypiece was given a faux ‘marble’ paint effect in the 1980s. I have stripped it with a chemical stripper called Kling strip to reveal the Carrara marble beneath. Over the years we have revealed some outstanding stone chimneypieces under layers of paint, however, this is the first time I have seen faux marbled marble. I’ve never understood why stone chimneypieces were painted, sometimes there is excessive soot staining or badly repaired damage beneath, but often they’re perfect. The only other explanation that I can think of is that, in tenanted properties in less fashionable areas, the landlord painted them to protect them and allow them to fly under the radar a bit and prevent them being fenced."
Before and After: The first two images show the faux marble paint before the surround was stripped and the rest of the photos show the original Carrara marble. Images courtesy of Rupert Cunningham @georgianhouse_yorkshire
Sadly, some old properties have lost their original chimneypieces and if this is the case, you will have to decide whether to buy a modern reproduction or a salvaged original.
Valuable advice from The Georgian Group when you have to replace your Georgian chimneypiece:
"...make sure that the chimneypiece is wholly appropriate for your own home. Oversized and over-elaborate chimneypieces can look ridiculous in a small space. Remember, too, that the position of the fireplace was governed largely by the function, not the appearance of a room. Thus the less important a room, the smaller and plainer the fireplace. Unfortunately, this basic common sense is often forgotten today.
If you do buy a reproduction, ensure that the style as well as the size is applicable to your own home. Many modern 'period' products are sad, clumsy pastiches of genuine historical precedents. Many, too, are in bare pine - in stark contrast to Georgian (and Victorian) practice. Georgian woos or plaster chimneypieces were always painted; stripping historical paint layers away to reveal the basic structure reveals inferior woodwork that was never intended to be seen."
If your original mantelpiece is still in place but you're unsure about the condition of the fireplace or if it's obvious that it needs repairing, it is important to consult a professional. A discoloured marble surround can easily be cleaned and polished professionally. The same is true for a rusty grate or fireback, which can also be professionally blackened.
If you detect any of the following signs, even if the fireplace looks in a good enough condition, you should contact a professional immediately.
Smoke flooding the room
Rust on the firebox or damper
Cracked mortar joints and other damage to your chimney
Any sign of animals
Slow burning fires Rust on the firebox or damper
Dirty or clogged flues will definitely reduce the performance of fireplaces, and can be potentially dangerous if left untouched. Professionals recommend that you get your chimney swept once a year and if you’re unsure about the condition of your fireplace or chimney, it’s best to consult a professional before a small problem leads to a very expensive one!
Stone chimneypiece in a fairly modest house in Cumbria 1700 -1710 (ornamental grate inserted later)
Image - The Georgian Group
Georgian Statuary and Brocatelle marble fireplace from Westland London