More than a fireplace

The mantelpiece isn’t just part of the architectural context of the fireplace – it has taken on its own identity over the years and has acted as a showcase for how we want to be seen and all that we hold dear. Emma Clegg considers its evolution…

The mantelpiece was clearly invented many centuries after the open fire, so it’s perhaps justifiable to give it a circumspect role in the household annals. Fireplaces and their over-mantels are set against a wall, after all, and this indicates a level of domestic civilization, an ornamental postscript, as it were, to the primeval and life-giving force of a fire. The mantel is dependent on the fire, providing it with a frame. However it’s also true that mantelpieces very quickly took on a confident life of their own, one that continues to give them presence and sway in an interior, so that they have developed a cultural power and design authority that has an equal billing to the fire in the domestic environment.

To trace the mantelpiece’s story, let’s go back to the Middle Ages and the tradition of the Great Hall, which was the main room of a castle or manor house. This was a multifunctional living room, even in wealthy residences, where the household, including nobles and servants, would dine together and where many of the household would sleep, too. Here the hall would have had a central hearth used for heating as well as cooking, with the smoke channelled through a roof vent, later developing into a more formally constructed chimney.

From the 12th century onwards, the Great Hall started to be relieved of its centre-of-all-domestic-activity function, increasingly operating alongside additional separate rooms with specific uses, for cooking, dining and sleeping, at which point the central hearth was relocated against the wall. This was when mantelpieces first started to appear. The wall siting was just a more efficient, practical solution in houses where activities were more segregated – and where there is a vertical wall with a fire in it, a surround is needed.

Before central heating, the fire, as the main source of heat in a room, had emotional as well as practical connotations. It provided a reliable, reassuring, cheerful glow, a central focal point and a place to gather round in comfort with your loved ones, no matter how humble your background. From the 1500s, those who could afford it also used the fireplace and mantelpiece as an ornamental feature where the status, wealth and taste of the home owners could be clearly displayed. Those punching high on the impress-visitors stakes might choose to commission heraldry carved in stone or wood as part of the mantel, perhaps in honour of the reigning monarch, which might have been painted in bright colours to impress new visitors. This also gave a clear indication of the wealth and status of the home-owner.

There’s also the matter of what can be put on a mantelpiece. This is no casual shelf space – this is a centrepiece of a room, a design statement, the representation of the values and breeding (and wealth) of the family, and this could be further broadcast by the items chosen to sit upon it. From the 17th century the mantelpiece became somewhere to display your taste and show off your possessions, and in this period – for those with the means – mantels became larger. Here was a space to display the fashionable blue and white porcelain vases from China and Japan, which arrived in Europe in the 16th century, and were later made specifically for European export. Buying sets of china vases especially for the mantelpiece – called garnitures – was a standard practice.

Above: Time Transfixed, 1938, painting by René Magritte, showing a ‘Black Five’ locomotive steaming out of a fireplace in an empty room

Even those who didn’t have a budget for elaborate coats of arms or luxury china cared about the impression their fireplace gave and curated their mantels accordingly. In the middle of the 18th century beautifully carved mantels were a real status symbol, along with details such as dentils (small rectangular wooden blocks used as a decoration) and inset panels. Later you could also purchase pre-fabricated overmantels, with shelves at the side and a mirror in the centre.

By the mid-1800s, the Victorians – still dependent on the fire as the source of warmth in a room – retained the status of the mantelpiece with most rooms having one, used as a heavily laden family showcase. Symmetry was important then – something designers aren’t always so defined by nowadays – with, for example, pairs of Staffordshire figures and candlesticks, clocks and vases carefully weighted and balanced, a reflection of the confidence of a country with a large empire. Industrialisation meant that households burnt coal rather than wood, grates were smaller with iron baskets, and surrounds were made of iron cast in a horseshoe shape, adopting the flourishes of the Rococo Revival within the casting process.

Cleanliness was next to godliness in the Victorian mantra, so even a humble miner’s cottage in the late 19th century would have been immaculately clean and ornaments carefully placed and cared for. Scaling valuable items down according to circumstance, you might have seen a tea caddy on the mantelpiece (tea at this time was still an item of value) along with flat irons and polished brass. In the early 20th century, perhaps with only one main fire in the kitchen in regular use, mantelpieces might have seen collections of face powders, collar studs and other utilitarian household items alongside the more permanent objects on show.

We can see that the mantelpiece was carried along by the evolution of the domestic household, constantly adapted around the expectations and social fashions and niceties of the day. But the introduction of affordable central heating in the 1970s was a real threat to the cult of the mantel. With the arrival of early deep-set televisions with useful flat surfaces to put things on, here was a new shrine of light on which to gather your glass vases, brass dogs, piggy banks and china shire horses.

The key to the mantel’s survival was its proliferation; they were everywhere in the UK’s mass of Victorian housing stock, and they were built in, part of the domestic architecture. Assiduous developers in the 1960s and 70s did their fair share of ripping out or partitioning off of period mantels (and other vintage architectural details) in the name of modernism and clean living, but thankfully (for the vintage revival) many of them survived.

In our current age, we have enormous affection for our period houses and we use our mantelpieces with the love they deserve, once again a surface that’s part of a framed surround for a fireplace that tells the story of the family who live there. The etiquette has changed – symmetry may no longer be king, eclectic taste abounds, we’re not all obsessed with dusting, and global artefacts say more of our physical journeys than our ability to afford fashionable imported goods – but they remain a shrine and an expression of self.

Design historian Jonathan Glancey has commented on how mantlepieces can also be places of mystery, dreams and transition, and over the years that’s been a source of attraction to artists and writers. René Magritte’s painting Time Transfixed shows how the mantelpiece is a gateway to other worlds and Lewis Carrol’s story of Alice Through the Looking Glass sees Alice stepping into the mirror above the mantel and finding a new magical, eccentric world beyond. Of course, at this time of year Father Christmas needs a chimney to deliver his presents… so even if we’re not always burning the fire below, let’s keep the mantelpiece, and all it represents, in our nation’s history, and then we can keep all our dreams alive.

Written with reference to The Hidden History of the Mantlepiece broadcast, BBC Radio 4, 2020.

Featured image: illustration from the book Examples of Household Taste by Walter Smith, 1876, “A design which the most exacting household art critic will find no fault with”