[From The Studio vol 6 No 32 Nov 1895]




So much of the comfort as well as the beauty of a room depend on a well-arranged fireside that few will underrate its importance. It is at the fireside that the interest of the room is focussed, and in our inconstant climate we may be driven, at almost any season of the year, to seek there that brightness and warmth which we fail to find in the outside world.

In the average house the treatment of the fire-place is painfully ugly, and the coarsely modelled cast-iron grate, with its mantelpiece of enamelled slate, are things which one can only try to obliterate with drapery, while the stock overmantel with its bevelled mirrors and flimsy construction is hardly less objectionable.

In order to start fair with the consideration of fireplace treatment, it will be necessary to dismiss all such atrocities from our minds and mentally picture the fireplaces of an earlier age, when the art of home-making was so well understood. The cottage ingle-nook, with its broad brick hearth, its wide settle and roughly hewn oak beam, if not quite achieving our modern ideas of comfort, will serve as an example of that simple homely dignity of style which should be aimed at, and so will make a very good starting-point in the consideration of fireplace treatment. A vision which may be helpfully conjured up whenever we are tempted to lapse into pettiness or flimsiness of treatment, or whenever the constant and quietly insistent influence of our surroundings lead us to insensibly adopt in some measure the ideal of Mr. Podsnap and his kind. For it must be remembered that at one time everything in connection with the making of a home was almost invariably done in the right way, so that to attain the degree of ugliness which marks the average house of to-day, it would have been necessary to have made a special effort. Now, however, the whole weight of custom and usage is in the other scale, and the beautiful in house decoration is necessarily the eccentric ; the common property of the many has become the special gift of the few.

Bedroom Fireplace

Bedroom Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

To return to the fireside: let it be borne in mind that its beauty will be mainly achieved in a negative way ; by adding nothing to the few essential features, nothing to the effect, by setting the right thing in the right place and then doing nothing more.

That acquisitive magpie-like tendency which results in the accumulation of ornaments which do not ornament, and furniture which does not furnish, must be held sternly in check, and the final result must bear the impress of a discriminating and thoughtful mind.

It is not enough that the things so acquired are beautiful-as few of them are in the true sense of the word-unless they possess the particular kind of beauty which shall be in harmony with the character of our home-unless they add their influence in enforcing that quality of inviting homeliness which is the one thing needful in home decoration.

In planning an ingle it is not desirable to construct it in the usual way-that is, forming a recess in the centre of one side of the room; for if this recess is made deep enough to secure a comfortable seat six or seven feet long on each side of the fire, the cosiness of the ingle-nook is gained at the expense of the room itself, which is left out in the cold. If, on the other hand, the recess is made shallower, the seats on each side become undesirably shortened.

In most cases it will be found better to avoid this symmetrical form of ingle-nook, and to make the recess so that one of its sides is formed by the end wall of the room. This will allow of a long seat on one side of the fire without removing the fireplace from the room itself.

Dining Room Ingle-Nook

Dining Room Ingle-Nook

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The seats in an ingle-nook are very important features, because, as they are fixed and immovable, it becomes a point for very careful consideration that they should be placed at exactly the right distance from the fire, and that they should be so proportioned as to be sufficiently comfortable ; otherwise one may be in the position of a man known to the writer who, finding the seats in his new ingle-nook severely uncomfortable, and yet feeling that they could not altogether be ignored, used them only for a certain time every day by way of penance before retreating to a comfortable armchair.

Drawing-room Fireplace

Drawing-room Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The use of brickwork gives a homely character to the fireplace, especially if bricks with some variety of colour are used with a good mortar joint. The action of the smoke from the fire on such brickwork will form beautiful tones of dusky red, and there is an especial charm about a sympathetic surface of this kind which takes the impress of the fire as compared with the uncompromising hardness of the glazed tiles.

The hearth is a very essential feature in the treatment of the fireplace. In olden times it was considered the symbol of the home-life, and even now we talk of the domestic hearth, although in the average house it has dwindled down to a few tiles with a steel fender. A broad brick hearth will be especially appropriate to an ingle-nook and will give plenty of space for piles of logs on each side of the fire, and impart a general air of hospitality to the fireplace.

Great care, however, will be necessary in selecting the bricks for such a hearth, for the builder with the best intentions will probably provide bricks which are perfect only from a mechanical point of view, and which do not present that characteristic surface which belongs to burnt clay and nothing else.

Bedroom Fireplace

Bedroom Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

Here as elsewhere we have to contend with that mechanical ideal which is the mark of almost all modern work, and which takes no account of textures or surfaces, but reduces everything to one monotonous dead level. Those who have felt the charm of an old beam with its adzed surface will be able to appreciate how all this is lost under the modern joiner's plane, and this is but one example amongst many of the degradation of modern craftsmanship in this respect.

Bedroom Fireplace

Bedroom Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The mantelshelf has now come to be considered almost the essential adjunct of the fireplace, and although its adoption is generally due to thoughtless and mechanical repetition there is much to be said in its favour. It affords a very suitable position for decorative specimens of china or metal-work which, if carefully chosen and arranged, will all help to give its due importance to the fireplace. It should, however, be specially borne in mind that a few good specimens will be far more effective than a number of inferior ornaments.

In choosing decorative articles for such a position, the general homely character which it has been our object throughout to attain should be specially borne in mind. The old brass candlesticks which are generally relegated to the kitchen, exactly enforce this homely note, and there are few things more inviting than the twinkling lights of the polished metal against a background of dark oak. So we may have recourse to the kitchen again for a few old willow-pattern plates, and then with a mug of flowers our mantelshelf may be considered complete. The term "mug" has been used advisedly, because vases are almost invariably so ugly in form and colour that the very name has become corrupted with evil associations, and suggests nothing but the mantelshelf of the lodging-house with its artificial flowers under glass and its bespangled vases.

It is a painful thing for the architect to design a mantelpiece for which he dares not hope to choose the ornaments, and which may become a resting-place for he knows not what atrocities in china and glass. The most satisfactory results are only obtained when the mantelpiece and ornaments are considered together. In designing a mantelpiece, for instance, in dark oak or ebony, much of the effect may depend on the extent to which the dark background is relieved by china plates or vases, and these things should be considered in the original design. The mantelpiece may not necessarily be complete in itself, and may be made, absolutely simple, to form a suitable foil to some superb specimen of china or metal-work.

Grates may be broadly classified under two heads, as movable or fixed ; the former including the various kinds of fire-baskets and dog-grates, and the latter the modern varieties of cast-iron grates. These latter have generally been of such phenomenal ugliness, that many art-loving people have acquired a prejudice against cast-iron. If, however, a cast-iron grate is designed with carefully modelled ornaments, it may be made a very artistic object, though it never quite attains to the simple homeliness of effect gained by the cast-iron fire-basket on the open hearth.

Most of the wrought-iron grates of the shops, however good they may be in design, all bear the mark of articles mechanically executed by the dozen for sale. That unique individual character which may be noted in old wrought-iron work dumbly expressing the love of the workman for his work, although it may seem a trivial matter, is just the little more which constitutes the essential difference between the lifeless commercial product and the vital work of art.

Dog grate


Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The dog-grate, which is here illustrated, was made by a local smith from a design by the present writer.

It will not be out of place here to suggest some improvement in the design of the kitchen range from an artistic point of view, for although we can hardly hope to attain to the exquisite picturesqueness of the old cooking apparatus, it may at least

be contended that the modern range is unnecessarily ugly, and might be treated with advantage in a simpler manner. The elaborate sham hinges and mouldings which form part of the oven-door might well be dispensed with, and the whole range might at least be made inoffensive in design.

Glazed tiles may be used in the fireplace, either in connection with a cast-iron grate or in lining the recess for a dog-grate. Perhaps the most effective, especially if used with red brick, are the blue and white Dutch tiles which present such a variety and quaintness of pattern. The average pattern tile cannot be recommended from an artistic point of view, but some very good effects may be obtained by using the plain glazed tiles in various colours. Of these, perhaps the best are those with what is called an antique ground and a rich peacock blue or green, will form a very good background to copper-work in the grate and dogs.

Coal box


Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The designing of coal-scuttles was so fully discussed in connection with the competition in THE STUDIO that little can be added here on the subject. The design which is illustrated consists of an oak box stained a dark purple and ornamented with hammered copper. The front opens downwards so that the coal falls forward and is kept in at the sides by pieces of sheet iron which move forwards with the lid.

This coal-box would be suitable for a seat, and ` although the writer has little liking for articles of furniture-which "contrive a double debt to pay," there is a special advantage in making use of a coal-box in this way at a fireside when the space is somewhat limited.

A corner fireplace is particularly adapted for a small room, and the illustration shows a suggested treatment for a homely entrance hall. It is difficult to realise the effect of the colour of this fireplace from a black and white reproduction. The general warmth of the tone is relieved by cool broad surfaces of white stone, which give a solid constructional appearance. The central keystone of dull red stone carries the shelf, on which is placed a copper repoussë tray.

A few words may here be added in description of the remaining sketches and photographs of fireplaces which form the illustrations to this article.

Dining room fireplace

Dining-room Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

The photograph of a dining-room fireplace on this page, and the sketch of a dining-room fireplace on page 104, depend for their effect on mellow tones of dark oak relieved by brilliant copper-work and china, and above by white plaster.

In the former, the principal note of colour is conveyed by the small stained-glass window which lights up a shady corner with a jewel-like effect of crimson, blue and green, in conjunction with white glass.

Dining room fireplace

A Dining-room Fireplace

Designed by M.H.B.Scott

In the latter, the cast-iron grate is flanked by broad spaces of blue and white tiles, which make a pleasant contrast to the copper repoussë work above and the red-brick hearth beneath.

Over the shelf a quaint cupboard shows gleams of homely china through its panels of leaded glass. At the sides, recesses and cupboards give a resting-place for favourite books, pipes, and other fireside treasures. The whole is dominated by the central portrait and the half-timber work panels.

The design for a dining-room ingle-nook, . on page 103, is an example of the unsymmetrical form which has been previously recommended. It is an amplification of a rough sketch which appeared in the January number of THE STUDIO for this year, as an illustration to an article on the suburban house.

The gaiety and brightness of colouring in the drawing-room fireplace, on page 104, is in marked contrast to the quiet tones of the dining-room. The white woodwork, with its broad surfaces and simple mouldings, gives additional value to the decoration in colour and gilding over the central cupboard. The couch is covered with dainty chintz, and the whole scheme of colour is high-pitched and brilliant.

The photograph of a drawing-room fireplace is somewhat lower intone and richer in colour. The woodwork is stained green, and the mouldings are enriched with gilding and quiet blues and reds. In the bedroom mantelpiece white woodwork is relieved by hammered copper and blue and white tiles, and in the general treatment a dainty and delicate character has been aimed at.

The fireplace is capable of such infinite variety of treatment, that this article cannot be concluded without some expression of the author's sense of the inadequacy of the illustrations in presenting a comprehensive view of the subject.

It will be enough if they convey some idea of that feeling of homely simplicity which has been insisted on throughout.

Good taste may be made evident in the simplest cottage as in the most luxurious palace; moreover, it is generally economical in the long run.




Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2001