Vintage Mantelpiece Buying Guide

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Vintage Mantelpiece Buying Guide

Mantelpieces generally take the form of fireplace surrounds, and are a key decorative and functional item in the living room or master bedroom. Depending upon the era of the house, or whether the home owner is blending modern and older styles, a vintage mantelpiece may be a central part of the interior design. The mantelpiece provides an opportunity for the home owner to display decorative or personal items that complement other room furnishings, while providing an ornate frame for the fireplace.

About Vintage Mantelpieces

Home redesign, renovation, or refurbishment of worn out items, may require a new mantelpiece to be installed. While the term ‘vintage’ means different things to different people, it is generally considered to refer to collectible items created between 1830 and 1930. Earlier than this, the item is considered to be antique. A vintage mantelpiece, therefore, can be classified as being of the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and the period from WW1 to WW2. During these periods, several influential architectural and decorative styles influenced the design and decoration of mantelpieces. These include the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco.

Mantelpiece Components

Mantelpieces, also known as fireplace surrounds and chimney pieces, can consist of many pieces. In the Victorian era in particular, the mantelpiece had many features as listed in the following table. This describes the mantelpiece parts from a top-down approach.

Arch

A decorative arched piece at the top of the surround.

Overmantel

Under the arch, an overmantel mirror was a common placement. In place of the mirror, there could be decorative wood panels or other art work. Shelves and brackets were often incorporated into the overmantel.

Side Shelves

Side shelves sometimes adorned the full length of the mantelpiece, and were used to display trinkets and other decorative pieces.

Mantelshelf

Next, under the overmantel, was the main mantelshelf. This area was used for displaying decorative items as well.

Supporting Columns

Decorative supporting columns for the mantelshelf.

Tile Surrounds

Under the mantelshelf was a decorative tile surround around the actual fireplace. This often extended into the hearth.

Firebox

Centred within the tile surrounds was the firebox (combustion chamber).

Fire Grate

A fire grate, also known as coal grate, was sited under the firebox.

Fender

A fender was a metallic raised boundary around the hearth and fireplace. It was intended to stop any burning embers from getting out onto the surrounding floor.

Hearth

The hearth on the floor of the fireplace was often composed of decorated tiles, though plainer materials such as stone and brick were also used.

Many of these features apply to later vintage periods, though some like the arch, overmantel and side shelves became much less common. Though free floating mantelpieces were occasionally installed, they were rare in comparison.

Choosing a Vintage Mantelpiece

Deciding upon the right vintage mantelpiece can be tricky. The homeowner needs to make a choice on whether to simply choose one that will complement the décor of the room, or go for as faithful a restoration as possible. Having the exact year that the house was built will help with that decision. It should be easy enough for the homeowner to match a mantelpiece with their house where the intent is to match the era. However this can be trickier where mixing modern with vintage style. A firm sense of the final look and feel of the intended room is necessary.

Victorian Era Mantelpieces

The Victorian period stretched from 1837 to 1901. There is no one definitive mantelpiece style for this period. Design and decoration differed quite radically within this era.

Materials

Family wealth dictates whether a Victorian mantelpiece is made from slate, marble, limestone, wood, or stone. White marble is favoured by the wealthier homeowners. As the era comes to an end, marble is too pricey for many homes. Wood and slate become more common and are sometimes painted to resemble marble. During the Victorian era, cast iron fire grates and surrounds also became a common feature.

Artistic Revival Styles

A number of artistic styles from periods before the Victorian era become popular all over again. These are reflected in mantelpiece styles as well. Revival styles in the early to mid-parts of the Victorian era include Elizabethan, Gothic and even Greek classical motifs and reinterpretations. In the later part of the Victorian era, Queen Anne, and Jacobean styles come into fashion. Many authentic Victorian mantelpieces actually combine different elements from different revival styles. Mixing and matching of different craft and ornamentation styles is common. There are also new arts movements that influence the decoration of mantelpieces in the Victorian period, these being primarily the Arts and Crafts movement, followed by the Art Nouveau period.

Arts and Crafts Mantelpieces

The Arts and Crafts movement stretches roughly over the period 1860 to 1910, though even into the 1930s elements of this style are being included in the interior design of homes. A focus of this movement is on simplicity, and patterns are often derived from wildflowers and wildlife. Patterns are reflected in the tiles and surrounds of mantelpieces, and wood is favoured as the dominant material.

Art Nouveau Mantelpieces

The Art Nouveau style is popular through 1890 to 1910. Curving lines, flowing patterns and floral motifs are dominant in this style of mantelpiece decoration.

Edwardian Era Mantelpieces

The Edwardian period roughly covers the period from 1901 to 1920.

Materials

During this period, there is a move away from black cast iron fireplaces. Tiled inserts and copper inserts become popular. Lighter colours start to take over. Polished and natural wood takes over from marble.

Art Styles

Some mantelpieces with Arts and Crafts styles are still being made. Art Nouveau mantelpieces are popular but fade towards the end of this period.

The First and Second World War Periods

The World War era covers the 1920s through to the early 1940s.

Materials

Wood is dominant for mantelpiece surrounds. Transparent glass, mirrors, and reflective metal surrounds are utilised. Bright and contrasting colours are features.

Art Styles

Art Nouveau is fading and Art Deco comes into prominence with its angular stylistic patterns.

Original, Restored, Reclaimed, or Reproduction Mantelpieces

The different mantelpiece styles and designs for the vintage periods discussed above have another dimension to think about. Many styles are available as reclaimed articles, or refurbished by either the seller or manufacturer. New reproduction models or custom crafted pieces can be obtained as well. Whether to buy an original mantelpiece or substitute item will depend upon the homeowner’s budget and interior design plan.

Conclusion

Many homeowners are restoring their period houses to bring character back into them, and vintage mantelpieces and fireplaces are key items in this process. Knowledge of the designs and styles for different vintage eras is essential to achieving faithful restoration. If the homeowner is looking to achieve the design aesthetic of the era, options for buying mantelpieces include hunting down original items, or buying reclaimed, restored or new reproduction items.

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