‘ … to remove the fireplace from the English home would be to remove the soul from the body.’ (Hermann Muthesius, The English House. Part III. 1904-05 )
Often when I visit country houses, it’s the fireplaces which hold little interest to me. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s the emptiness of the black dusty mouth-like thing that should be giving warmth. It is apparently an instinctive characteristic of humans to need a focal point in a central living space. This is an obvious statement when we consider that a fire also provides heat and light, but in modern life this focal point has shifted to entertainment centres and huge televisions. So much so, that many builders will throw up houses without any semblence of a fireplace; where do we sit to converse and keep cosy? Of course, there is more to heating a home these days than a burning fire, we have central heating systems which can be fixed into corners and walls, under floors, and under cupboards. We have the freedom to move about our homes without passing into cold hallways. The concept of setting timers to ignite boilers would be intriguing to many of our elderly relatives, nevermind ancestors of long ago!
In the country house, these developments have not gone unnoticed. As residences it is necessary to keep warm; this is beneficial to the humans inside as much as it is to the fabric of the building. As places of historic value and as tourist attractions, the country house has to be warm a great deal of the time. Lighting a fire has the added attraction of nostalgia for visitors, and in winter offers a depth of living history to the static exhibits. In most country houses the developments in heating exist all over the building. Some will be very obvious, others not so much and might be well hidden underneath panelling and eras of later alterations or simply not accessible to someone coming in through the ‘front’ door.
Heating materials. Coal and charcoal, peat, wood. All are early fuels, and where one was used, it was probably supplemented with another. Surface coal deposits were used by the Romans to help with their hypocausts, but wood was the most common fuel to the point where laws had to be passed prohibiting the felling of trees to make charcoal. Coal in the Middle Ages was viewed as crude because it was used by blacksmiths, but with shortages in wood, coal became the choice of many in towns and cities. Prejudice over the use of coal was also bourne out of its heavy smoke and strong smell neither of which were favourable to the expensive country house interior. Clever devices within the hearth as well as in the flue reduced some of the smoke but cleaner methods of heating were not available in Britain until the 18th century.
Location of heating. From generous to stylish – the fireplace.
In the Medieval predecessors to the country house – the castles and manor houses – a fire would have been placed at the upper end of the communal area but the fireplace as we know it was established once a hood or alcove became part of the architectural design. In early country houses, especially those of the 16th and 17th centuries, these large fireplaces held a dual purpose for those who had profited from good relations with the king and had gained landed wealth which once belonged to the Church or ‘wrong-doers’. Grand rooms like great halls and chambers were now fantastically embellished with family mottos and coats of arms; devices that aimed to promote the supposed ancient heritage of those who now owned the property. What better interior place to position these things other than the fireplace and overmantle? Afterall, this is the focal point of the room.
Christina Hardyment notes of this period,
Open fires remained far more popular in Britain than they were on the continent. At a time when the Dutch, the Scandinavians, the Russians and the Germans were constructing tiled room -stoves [see left] … the Elizabethans were building chimney pieces like elaborate altarscreens around huge open hearths. (Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, 1992, p. 156)
The example above from Reigate Priory in Surrey is relevant to this development simply because it reflects the status of the ornamental fireplaces in large establishments. The massive carved oak surround was originally commissioned by Henry VIII for Nonsuch Palace, and is believed to be to the design of Hans Holbein. It was later installed at Bletchingley Place by Henry VIII perhaps as part of a ‘gift’ for his divorced wife Anne of Cleves. As Bletchingley fell into decline in the 17th century, the surround was removed to its present position at Reigate Priory in about 1655. The Reigate Priory estate was (as the name suggests) once monastic lands, but with the Dissolution of the Monasteries the land was granted to Lord William Howard – uncle of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s unfortunate 5th wife. It is the Howard coat of arms which can be seen on the stone section of the surround. The wealth and status these magnificent pieces conveyed was important to their longevity. They would go out of fashion in the late 17th century, but their dark splendour proved inviting for the romantic sensibilities of the early 19th century. If you see something on this scale be sure to check its provenance!
The evolution in architectural styles of fireplaces from the earliest country houses onwards changed significantly, eventually becoming an important fashionable feature in any living space. Yet, such style evolution would require discussion in an altogether separate post. The size of hearth and overmantle generally grew more compact as spaces became recognised as more private interiors. In the older houses this evolution in style might be evident under layers of more modern decoration. Clearly, the fireplace remained a key element in design. The sought after architects of the time like Inigo Jones, Daniel Garrett, William Kent (see first image above) and Robert Adam in the 18th century, or Augustus Pugin and Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century, all incorporated elegant versions for their commissions. However, there came (somewhat overdue in Britain) to be more sophisticated methods of heating the country house than the open-hearth from the 18th century onwards, and architects were more than happy to accommodate designs for these amenities and their structural requirements.
The stove and cast iron elegance.
The open-hearth is messy, and needs daily attention (prepatellar bursitis is an inflammation of the kneecap brought on by kneeling for prolonged periods, it’s more common name is Housemaid’s Knee). The cold, hard floor of the hearth was one of the more uninviting areas demanding a thorough clean. A free-standing method of heating in the country house became popular in the early 18th century, and was much cleaner. This was the hall stove, and was designed to provide a certain degree of warmth to communal areas, and although they were regarded as less cheerful than the fireplace, the stove could be equally stylish.
There are several types of stove to be found in the country house; the anthracite stove, the paraffin stove, and the coal stove are the main types. Early models would certainly be free-standing with a section for the coal, a grille or grate and pan. There are some fantastic examples in most country houses (see image above left), but may not initially be very obvious to the eye. Decorative art museums
will no doubt have some too, like this one from the V&A in London (right). The British take on the stove was nothing compared to what the northern Europeans had been installing in their houses, as size alone simply dwarfs the Wyatt and Adam models (see especially the Gallery at Kuskovo ,Moscow and Tullgarn Palace, Stockholm). Interestingly, cast iron provided a great tool for decorative pieces and many stove makers were based in Scotland where iron industries already existed, and yet the tiled stove afforded better luxury and more surface area for aesthetic display. This was probably symptomatic of British taste from the 18th century which though flamboyant by modern standards was restrained compared to Europe at the time. As developments in heating and comfort continued, Britain would always be slow to catch on.
The introduction of centralised heating systems to the country house was really only the next step from the static stove which pushed heat through floors and wall voids. Some houses made use of their gas supply for fires or had free-standing gas heaters, but these were generally reserved for the service and staff apartments. The Roman hypocaust is a very obvious predecessor to central heating, but technological advances, materials and industrialisation offered something more powerful. Initially, central heating was installed in larger houses in order to warm the air and cure damp in open spaces like the hall stove had done. The radiator as we know it came later in the 19th century, as earlier systems would have included a central heating apparatus which pushed heat through pipes laid in existing gaps and underneath fixed items of furniture like bookcases, or through elaborate floor grates in usually drafty areas like doorways and staircases.
A heating system like this had been in use in hothouses, but there was some debate about whether steam heating was as reliable as hot-water heating for interior warmth. By the end of the 19th century, most country houses had some sort of central heating system which incorporated stylistic models used in previous centuries. Newly built houses had central heating put in as a matter of course throughout. Cragside, Northumberland is the most obvious example again, and there are some brilliant images here of how massive the system of pipes are underneath the house. A much older house like that of Coughton Court, Warwickshire (which will have seen every form of heating in its 600 years history) sought sleek ways of placing hot pipes within its walls and interior spaces (see left).
Many houses will still use their 19th-century heating systems, and find them just as efficient as purely modern ones. Of course, there will have been up-to-date repairs and modern fittings added, but the clanking sound of an elderly boiler reminds us that there is a mechanical presence keeping us warm and providing hot water. Once the province of the gardener, these boilers now need certified/registered plumbers and engineers to check and repair them. And this is only right, these boilers are monstrous things and require a lot of room. Even the old coal fuelled things have been connected to the electrical supply whilst their redundant units sit staring stoically at those passing through.
As for the fireplace, and its supposed primeval role in the hearts and minds of the English, it does seem to be making a comeback. More so in the smaller domestic property and countless property programmes will have their presenters ripping out plywood boards or ill-fitting bricks in old fireplaces to see what lies behind it all. In the country house, the fireplace still takes pride of place whether it is ornate or otherwise. Often it is an essential part of a restoration project that sees hearths, surrounds and mantles returned to their original setting, whilst Victorian radiators are left needing a new coat of paint.
Elizabeth Burton, The Georgians at Home, 1714-1830 (1967).
Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House, (1978).
Christina Hardyment, Home Comfort: A History of Domestic Arrangements, (1992).
Judith and Martin Miller, Period Details: The Definitive Source Book for House Renovation. (1997).
Temple Newsam Country House Studies, (text by Anthony Wells-Cole and Christopher Gilbert) The Fashionable Fireplace 1660-1840. (1985).
John Vince, The Country House: How it Worked (1991).
Merlin Waterson, The Servants’ Hall: A Domestic History of Erddig (1980)
Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, Creating Paradise: The Building of the English Country House 1660-1880 (2000)
Country House Technology project at the University of Leicester http://tiny.cc/0vrbhw
Commercial site with general history on fireplaces and heating the home http://www.fireplace.co.uk/text/texthistory.htm#intro
The European stove, its advantages and disadvantages http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2008/12/tile-stoves.html
Extremely useful website dedicated to engineering heritage at CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers) http://www.hevac-heritage.org/homepage.htm
Castle Coole, Enniskillen, Ireland http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castlecoole/
Coughton Court http://www.coughtoncourt.co.uk/
Coping with the Cold at Colonial Williamsburg http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter09/cold.cfm
Ode to Abraham Buzaglo and his stove (with good references) http://stovehistory.blogspot.com/2010/12/early-stove-poem.html