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The mythology of Ancient Greece records that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and brought it to mankind. Brought it to the fire pits scooped from the ground within the cave and later to the hearth in the middle of a hut with a hole in the ceiling providing the means for the smoke to escape. Fire was, and remains, a key to our survival as a species.
Today we can still relate to prehistoric man’s efforts to find comfort and warmth from a fireplace. Recognizable fireplaces begin to appear in 12th Century England. From being a vital source of heat and it’s role in food preparation, the fireplace soon began to take on a decorative function, with fireplaces and hearths becoming the focal point of many homes.
The development of the two story building with timber floors necessitated the relocation of the fireplace against the wall with a hood designed to catch and vent the smoke of these fires. Examples of the hood can be found among our French Provincial fireplaces. The addition of a second floor meant that stone and marble fireplaces were installed here as well and shared a common chimney structure. At first these hoods were purely functional and free of any type of any ornamentation.
In the 14th Century stone & marble fireplaces first came to be decorated – shields were a popular decorative motif. The early 15th Century saw the introduction of exquisite craftsmanship and unprecedented decoration of the stone or marble fireplace opening. Stone or marble fireplace surrounds came to be viewed as an element of the home having its own identity.
Architects began to consider the issue of limestone and marble fireplace design - foremost among them in England were Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Wren began the process of integrating the limestone and marble fireplace into the overall look of the room. Wren often framed the opening with simple stone & marble mouldings such as those found among our Architraves and Mouldings section. He also realised the significance of the mirror above the stone or marble fireplace.
Over time the hood developed into the chimney we recognize today and the decoration of the fireplace opening evolved from something driven by necessity to be something of visual interest. The fireplace evolved from being a mere source of warmth to being the centre of the home, to be the gathering place. The introduction of coal, which worsened the smoke problem, meant greater attention needed to be paid to the extraction of fumes. Considerable effort was also applied to improving the efficiency of the combustion process.
In 1678 Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles 1 introduced the raised grate in the fireplace, improving the airflow and venting system. The 18th century saw two important developments in the history of fireplaces. Benjamin Franklin developed a convection chamber for the fireplace that greatly improved the efficiency of fireplaces and wood stoves.
In the later 18th century, Count Rumford designed a fireplace with a tall, shallow firebox that was better at drawing the smoke up and out of the building. The shallow design also improved greatly the amount of radiant heat projected into the room. Rumford’s design is the foundation for modern fireplaces. The reduced depth of these fireplaces allowed for the fireplace to be incorporated into the wall of the home rather than being attached to an external wall. The fireplace soon came to be found in many rooms of the home and the need to decorate them in a variety of styles continues to this day. Fireplace design was now driven by aesthetic considerations.
The 18th Century Industrial Revolution also brought with it large scale housing developments and the standardization of fireplaces. Style manuals intended to educate the general public about aesthetics focused on the fireplace and were widely disseminated. The leading fireplace designer of the 18th century was Robert Adam (1728-1792).
During the 19th Century the mass production of cast iron fire grates led to the standardization of the sizes of fireplaces. Examples of such fireplaces can be found in our Georgian and Victorian galleries of stone and marble fireplace surrounds. In Victorian decoration the stone colour generally denoted the function of the room. Towards the end of the Victorian era (1837-1901) the influence of Art Nouveau brought a new focus to the cast iron grate and the tiles which adorned it.
Led by William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement also refocused attention on the medieval fireplace. Emerging after the First World War, the Art Deco movement brought with it a focus on function rather than form, a rejection of revivalism and an emphasis on modern aesthetic values. Our limestone Retro 1 fireplace design with the stainless steel ‘Manhattan’ fascia is typical of the style.
The destruction of the Second World War and the urgency of the needs for housing at its conclusion encouraged the development of prefabricated electric fires. Gas fires of the 1970s with their concern to create a ‘real fire’ refocused attention on more traditional fireplace designs. Contemporary fireplace design of stone and marble fireplaces is in large part driven by the evolution of sophisticated fires run on gas, electricity or ethanol. Much of the emphasis has been on minimalist design where the fireplace becomes merely a coat of paint around the fire opening.
Recognition of the profoundly symbolic nature of the limestone and marble fireplace and the need to acknowledge its place as the hearth of the family has however led to the creation of more elaborate stone and marble contemporary fireplaces.
At Lasting Impressions we believe that many of the marble & limestone fireplace designs in our catalogue recognize the significance the fireplace and the hearth as the focal point of the home.
Mirrors & the Development of the Fireplace Surround
Invented by 16th-century Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano, the method of making mirrors out of plate glass was to have a profound influence on the role of the fireplace. Full-length mirrors sitting above the marble fireplaces served to emphasize the importance of the fire. The fire itself was also a source of light and the mirror with candle sconces on either side brought considerable light to the rooms.
For over 100 hundred years Venice retained its monopoly of the secret of the mercury process used to produce these mirrors and Venetian mirrors decorated the palaces of Europe. As with all things, industrial espionage resulted in the secret of the process arriving in the workshops of Paris and London. The French, in particular, succeeded in developing a large scale process that ultimately resulted in mirrors being affordable by the masses. The toxicity of the mercury used in the process remained a considerable problem.