A fireplace properly describes the grate or hearth for a fire in a room. Early fireplaces were in the centre of medieval halls, with the smoke drifting upwards to a slatted louvre in the roof. When a recessed fireplace and chimney became more common in the late fifteenth century, the mantel of wood, stone or marble around this was called the chimneypiece. By the early sixteenth century, the chimneypiece had become an important feature of a room, although it still had a medieval look because of its flat fourcentred stone arch and simple Gothic-style wall panelling and oak panelling ornament in the slight corner spandrels. These early survivals are rare, and the principal change as the sixteenth century advanced was the abandonment of the Tudor arch for a rectangular opening and the decking of the best examples with caryatids, columns and lavish carving in alabaster, stone, wood or moulded plaster.
During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the wall panelling and oak panelling chimneypiece became an object for flamboyant display, with coats of arms carved prominently alongside an array of Renaissance-inspired ornament. Two of the most spectacular examples of this trend are the drawing-room chimneypiece at Loseley Park, Surrey, c. 1565, but perhaps brought to the house c. 1680, and one at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire, in the Star Chamber, c. 1554. Both derive from chimneypieces in Nonsuch Palace and may well have been done by the group of artists working there under the decoration of Niccolo Bellin.
The exact story of both fireplaces is obscure. That at Loseley has been described as 'an Anglo-Flemish hybrid of the late 1540s', but the Loseley archives also contain a petition of c. 1562 from the London plasterer Thomas Browne, which may indicate that he at least set up this piece. Whatever the truth, it is a two-storeyed wonder, with wall panelling and oak panelling coupled columns, elaborate rustication, strapwork ornament and four caryatids in various stages of rest or action, all to match the wall panelling and oak panelling carved with great skill. That at Broughton" has a panel within a cartouche based on an engraving by Boyvin of the dance of the dryads taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Boyvin's depiction was based on a fresco of this subject by Rosso Fiorentino in the Galerie Francois Ierat Fontainebleau, which would have been known to the artists journeying from France to serve the king at Nonsuch.
Lansdowne House:A Country Mansion which recently adorned a London Square. The Dining-room. Robert Adam, Architect, 1766
At Reigate Priory, Surrey, there is a so-called 'Holbein' chimneypiece dating to just after the 'Nonsuch period', c. 1550-60. The stone fireplace is simple enough but has a most elaborate frieze. All of this is dwarfed by the great wooden surround with wall panelling and oak panelling with niche seats, surmounted by high canopies and Clanked by coupled Corinthian columns resting on corbels fashioned as giant paws. This use of coupled columns had been anticipated only by Holbein in a drawing of the 1540s after he had visited Lyons and perhaps even Fontainebleau.'" The centre of the overmantel is a cartouche with a strapwork frame bearing the royal arms and abundant Tudor roses. Many sources are given as to its origin but the most likely suggestion is that it came from Bridewell Palace in London which was being built from 1515 for Cardinal Wolsey, and which belonged to the king for a few years in the 1520s. As a chimneypiece, it has nothing to do with Holbein and it was only given this appellation on 11 August 1655 when John Evelyn saw it in situ at Reigate Priory and said that it came from Bletchingley in Surrey. t is crazily imitative of many styles without revealing any particular one as dominant.
One of the most flamboyant wall panelling and oak panelling room of the Renaissance-style stone chimr eypieces is that in the hall of Burghley House, Lincolnshire, c. 15 70, which contains a fireback dated '1571' bearing Lord Burghley's arms. This had been taken at some point from the house but was returned to the 9th Earl of Exeter in the late eighteenth century. The rectangular opening of the ower stage is flanked by enormous volute consoles. The chimneybreast is of tall concave (and Classical) shape, terminating in a pediment. A circle round the coat of arms is connected by flat bars to the four sides and seems to derive from the extensive use of Serlian motifs at Old Somerset House, which was built for Protector Somerset in the years immediately following Henry VIII's death in 1547. It should be remembered that William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley, had been the Protector's private secretary during the building of Old Somerset House.
The finest chimneypieces of the 1590s, using Derbyshire alabaster and blackstone, are those fashioned by Thomas Accres at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. He had started work for Bess at Chatsworth in 15 76, and went on to work in 1585 for her architect Robert Smythson at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham. Accres arrived at Hardwick Hall in 1594 when it was being roofed; he worked easily in both stone and marble and was principally responsible for the two chimneypieces in the long gallery, which are again allusive to woodcuts in Serlio's Architettura. Smythson expected his masons to be able to work from Continental engravings and Accres had already done this with the wall panelling and oak panelling screen in the hall of Wollaton, adapted in part from the engravings in Vriedeman de Vries's Das Erst Buch (1565). In the upper stages of each chimneypiece there are two alabaster statues of 'Justice' and 'Mercy' respectively, backed by an oval frame set against a strapwork ground and with twin half-Doric columns at each side. Above it all, is the painted frieze which John Balechouse executed in 1598 and which runs the entire length of the wall panelling and oak panelling gallery.
31. Detail of the oakpanel al),'the hall fireplace,
c. 1585, at Benthall Hall, Shropshire,
showing heraldic details of the Catholic Bent hail family
The availability of motifs in the repertory of skilled masons may explain some of the simpler stone chimneypieces such as that in the great hall Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire. It bears shields commemorating Ferrers family marriages, placed around a central achievement that quarters Ferrers with three other families. Dating from the 1580s, it shares its overall design of curiously shaped pilasters either side of the opening with the lower stage of the chimneypiece in the gallery at Arbury Hall, also in Warwickshire -The Arbury chimneypiece is grained to resemble marble and has a late-Elizabethan painted wood overmantel which does not fit the chimneypiece exactly. Nevertheless with the wall panelling and oak panelling it makes a dominant statement that here was an ox'. who wanted things Italianate, or at least 'foreign', around him.The two chimneypieces in the long gallery at Cobham Hall, Kent, Corinthian columns and caryatid figures, as at Loseley, but the large of arms on one is dated '1599'. The second chimneypiece, less robust in pale mottled marble, has an overmantel relief of three Fates.
The chimneypieces in smaller houses and farms usually had simple stone surrounds, but even in remote country districts they could be given some additional importance by carved panels or by crude plasterwork overmantels. There are many such examples, particularly in Devon and Cumbria, and it should be remembered that many of the masons who erected the smaller church monuments were capable of dressing stone for domestic use with the same skill.