The use of marble, common in Italy, and found in the French chimneypieces at the Tuileries and Versailles in the 1660s, was slowly adopted in England. Marble was used alongside stone, alabaster, stucco, and wood for overmantels.
The corner chimneypiece in England was first commented on by John Evelyn (Diary, 22 July 1670), who remarked that many of the rooms in Charles II's house at Newmarket 'had the chimnies in the angles and corners. a mode now introduced by His Majesty, which I do at no hand approve of. I predict it will spoile many noble houses and rooms, if followed'. Writing in the mid 1690s, Roger North set out at length his thoughts on Chimnys, Smoaking and Cures'. It is not to our purpose to repeat him but he made several interesting points. Firstly, corner chimneys had continued in use and could be appropriate when standing 'in a waste place, a corner' especially as they could serve four rooms by one stack. To their detriment, they were far from the light, whereas a flat chimney was placed 'in your eye at the entrance and is the best ornament the end of a room is capable of'. According to North, angle chimneys were therefore only suitable for small rooms, such as withdrawing-rooms or closets, and should have overmantels that rose in recessive steps, incorporating displays of oriental flowerpots.
Kedleston, Derbyshire. A late 18th Century Garden Urn.
Such chimneypieces became the favoured place for the display of oriental porcelain or Dutch Delft pottery during the reign of William and Mary in the 1690s. Porcelain collecting was one of the queen's passions and the practice of decorating a room with china was given some impetus by designs in the publications of William III's Huguenot architect and designer, Daniel Marot. As Jean Berairi s chief pupil, he had fled from France to Holland after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and entered William of Orange's service there. He then spent several short periods in England after William's accession to the English throne, and his engravings of the current French and Dutch styles of chimneypiece were obviously an important factor in the appearance of several chimneypieces at Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and in more distant houses, such as those of Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire, and Beningbrough, Yorkshire. Dyrham was built in 1692-1704, by one of William III's principal ministers, William Blathwayt, who had spent long years as a diplomat at The Hague, as well as travelling in Europe and Scandinavia. Beningbrough was built wall panelling and oak panelling from 1716 by a York joiner, William Thornton.
One of the most important changes, which led to trimming away the seeming bulk of great Jacobean chimneypieces, was the insertion of mirror glass in the overmantel. Although the innovation started in France in the early years of the seventeenth century, it was not common there until the 1680s and did not feature in engravings until the 1690s. With candle-light reflected in their silvered surfaces, they became a useful feature of a room's decoration. The entire mirrored room remained a Continental feature only.
Elaborate and wall panelling and oak panelling (and there are splendid sketches for them by Grinling Gibbons in the Wren portfolio in the Soane Museum) were intended, of course, for the grand house. They were 'continued' - that is, they had an upper structure of stucco, wood, stone or marble, instead of terminating as in the 'simple' type at a cornice or pediment. (These definitions are taken from Isaac Ware's A Complete Body of Architecture (1756).) Much attention to the use of carved and veneered wall panelling and oak panelling, as at Chatsworth, could make an attractive surround to a simple stone-moulded opening, focusing the eyes but perhaps overwhelming them with decoration in excess. At Ham House, Surrey, there are several of these simple bolectionmould marble and stone fireplace surrounds done in the 1670s. In the Queen's Closet there, the effect is grander as the fireplace surround is of scagliola or imitation marble. This is made from gypsum, earth colours, sand and water and is rolled out like pastry. It is then set as a 'plaster' skim over a hard base, often formed of rubble or brick dust. At Ham it is beautifully inlaid with the ducal coronet and cipher on both hearth-stone and lintel, surrounded by flowers and foliage. On the two jambs classical columns are bedecked with yet more flowers.
In lesser houses it was the simple surround of wood or stone which was common. In the early-seventeenth-century examples this was often still of four-centred Tudor wall panelling and oak panelling shape, as was many a doorcase. Gradually the bolectionmoulded surround became more common, having a bold outline of double curvature raised above the general plane of its surface. The chimneypiece and wall panelling and oak panelling in the drawing-room at East Riddlesden, Yorkshire, is dated 1648 but is outmoded, having a four-centred stone arch with three pendants above and an inlaid overmantel. A shelf in the modern sense was never used, but there are simple architectural forms of chimneypiece, common at the end of the seventeenth century, in which an elliptical arch and key block were prominent features. The opening could also feature Dutch blue-and-white tiles (as useful for fireplace as for dairy or alcove buffet) and a heavy, moulded iron Wealden fireback could bear the owner's proud arms, to flicker in the firelight.
Ashridge Park, Hertfordshire: The Monk's garden, designed by Humphrey Repton, circa 1810.