The secret life of fireplaces, and the fascinating tales they tell about the houses which host them

Fireplaces have all manner of wonderful stories to tell, as Amelia Thorpe discovers.

Whether it has a simple marble surround or a grand chimneypiece dreamt up by one of Britain’s most celebrated architects, a fireplace plays a pivotal role in a room. Compared with other architectural features, many of which have fallen foul of fad, fashion or demolition, chimneypieces tend to survive in larger numbers because owners have been aware of their significance and value.

Sometimes, they have simply found it impossible to part with them. One of the most memorable discoveries by Owen Pacey, founder of Renaissance London, had belonged to a man who had lost his home and fortune and transferred a George III fireplace to the incongruous surroundings of the basement of a London terrace.

Some fireplaces are one of the few parts of a house’s structure to survive. Paul Chesney, founder of Chesneys, recalls a beautifully executed mid-18th-century chimneypiece that had been removed from Norfolk House, one of the last of the private palaces to be demolished during the great early-20th-century clearance of major aristocratic houses in London’s West End.

Norfolk House. ©Alfred E. Henson for the Country Life Picture Library

The house had witnessed all kinds of fascinating events, including a three-day reception for Cardinal Newman in 1879, and it was the Earl Marshal’s office for the Coronations of Edward VII, George V and George VI. ‘The chimneypiece had been removed from the saloon before its demolition in 1937. I happened to read an article in Country Life about the palace, saw a grainy black-and-white image and realised I had the fireplace in the picture,’ Mr Chesney recalls.Yet not all significant and interesting examples have grand origins. ‘It wasn’t the most important or expensive find,’ he adds, ‘but I will always remember the fireplace reclaimed from a modest house where Capt Cook is believed to have spent his childhood.’

Credit: Westland

Another story of a fireplace that has survived against the odds is recounted by Laura Dadswell, of Westland London, as she describes the fate of Ayrshire’s Dalquharran Castle, built in 1785–90 and regarded as one of the finest examples of Robert Adam’s castle style.

Auctioned off in the 1930s, it became a youth hostel and a school and, finally, a home again, which proved too expensive to maintain. ‘In 1967, the fate of the building was sealed. To avoid paying rates, the lead roof was removed, leaving water to penetrate the interior, and it now stands as a ruin, with only the shell of the building intact,’ Ms Dadswell explains. Two original fireplaces survived, surprisingly unharmed, as ornate plaster cornice fell around them, and are offered for sale by Westland.

‘Adam designed the fireplaces in a soft-hued Portland stone, and commissioned Dutch stonemason Pieter Mathias Van Gelder to carve them,’ she continues. ‘They are restrained, very much embodying his Classical style, with antique motifs.’

When advising on the choice of a period chimneypiece for a house, Will Fisher, of Jamb, takes a relaxed approach. ‘I’m keen on the “evolved interior” of the country house,’ he explains. ‘It is more important to ensure that the chimneypiece is sympathetic to its environment rather than an example of period accuracy.’ Although he agrees that, if one is found to be missing from an immaculate Queen Anne house, it would make sense to replace it with an historical match, other situations may be different. ‘In a way, there’s nothing nicer than places where you can feel the input of different owners and their tastes,’ he notes.

Chimney detail can be exquisite. ©Jamb / John Hammond

For Mr Fisher, an antique fireplace can reveal much of the past, as well as imparting a sense of romance and wonder. He cites current pieces for sale that include a Gothic chimneypiece of about 1840, with ‘Waste not, want not’ carved across its frieze, and a neo-Classical example carved by the British sculptor John Bacon, with a pair of Bacchante figures derived from a work Bacon exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1777.

It also bears a finely carved central tablet, which commemorates peace between Great Britain and the United States of America after the American War of Independence. According to family tradition of the previous owners, it belonged to Governor Morris, one of the Founding Fathers of the US. ‘So many chimneypieces have wonderful stories to tell,’ adds Mr Fisher.