The Duke of Richmond’s fireback

On Monday 23rd May 1732 The Daily Journal reported the following unfortunate accident that befell Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond:

Two days later The Grub Street Journal enlarged upon the incident, reporting that the fireback weighed nine hundredweight and that His Grace’s leg had been set by five eminent surgeons and that he was on the road to recovery. Apparently he had rested his foot on the upper bar of a stove, to put his spurs on, causing the back to fall on his leg. The duke was a keen cricketer, indeed an influential promoter of the game, but the accident to his leg may well have put paid to his active involvement, for while he is on record as a player in his younger days, his name is absent from the records of matches after 1732.

Richmond House, beside the River Thames, looked out over the Privy Garden towards Whitehall. In the early 1730s it had just been built and was the duke’s principal residence. His father, the 1st duke and illegitimate son of King Charles II, had acquired a hunting lodge at Goodwood in Sussex but it was yet to be enlarged to its present extent. In fact part of that enlargement was to be prompted by the destruction of Richmond House by fire in 1791. Much of the contents of the house were saved and taken to Goodwood, where a new wing was erected to house the rescued library.

A group of firebacks now at Goodwood House, all of which date from the 1730s, were in all probability cast for Richmond House and will have survived the fire; that was what they were made to do, after all. Among them may well be the one that had broken the duke’s leg. Two of them can now be found in opposing fireplaces in the main entrance at Goodwood. A third appears in a 1905 photograph of the Oak Bedroom, and a fourth in a photograph taken in 1932 of the dining room. In the 1990s the present duke, who was then Earl of March, had the decoration of the dining room restored to its former state in the Egyptian style, the fashion that had been inspired by Napoleon’s campaign there in the 1790s. The fireback was removed.

The Dining Room at Goodwood House as it was in 1932 (Country Life)

That fireback may well have been the one that appeared at auction in Islington in 2019, seen here on the right and dated 1732. All the firebacks that I have seen in this group have an inscription in relief that states that they were cast at Sowley Furnace, near Beaulieu in Hampshire, together with the dates when they were made, which range from 1730 to 1732. Sowley Furnace was owned by the 2nd Duke of Montagu and it may be no coincidence that, at the time the firebacks were being made, he was having Montagu House erected next door to Richmond House. One is tempted to speculate that the duke of Richmond, wanting some firebacks for his new house, was persuaded by his new neighbour to have them cast at Montagu’s ironworks.

The shield, Garter and coronet of the 2nd Duke of Richmond

The firebacks all follow the same design, only the proportions varying according to the sizes of the fireplaces they were intended to fit. The principal device is the shield, coronet and Garter of the duke of Richmond. Because of the descent from Charles II, the shield comprises his arms, which are quarterly, first and fourth, France Modern quartering England, second Scotland, and third Ireland, but with a bordure compony – alternately Argent (white) charged with red roses, and gules (red) – a heraldic difference indicating bastardy. Around the edge of the firebacks is the Greek key pattern, an unusual feature on firebacks.

A garland for putti in Restoration London

A typical fireback made in Germany for the Dutch market (Nymans, Handcross)

The emergence, in the second half of the 17th century, of a distinct style of fireback produced for the Dutch market by ironworks in the German principality of Nassau-Siegen gradually influenced the design of firebacks in Britain. Particularly in London, after the devastation of the Great Fire in 1666 and the consequent rebuilding of a substantial area of the city, the progression from the use of wood to that of mineral coal for domestic heating led to narrower fireplaces being installed in new houses. The wide firebacks familiar in inglenook downhearths were no longer suitable and the ‘Dutch’ style of backs, which were narrower and taller, began to be imported and adopted. English pattern-makers started to produce imitations of the German types. This style is characterised by a central illustrative compartment within arched rectangular edging surrounded by a decorative border and sometimes surmounted by a pair of sea serpents.

The earliest manifestation of this change can be found in what I have termed the Carolean ‘Dutch’ series, a small number of which have columns forming the border at the sides of the central compartment, echoing Mannerist paintings often of biblical scenes. An example of this style of English fireback is one depicting the Stocks Market statue of Charles II erected in 1672. The fireback’s date of 1674 usefully narrows the period for the production of firebacks in this style.

Fireback with garland and putti (Ham House, Richmond)
Fireback with garland and putti (Petworth House)

Two firebacks from this series, also with columns on each side of the central panel, each depict a swag of fruit with putti disporting themselves upon it. While the designs differ in minor details the inspiration will have been the same and they are likely to have been the work of the same pattern-maker, who indeed may also have been responsible for the Stocks Market firebacks.

One artist in particular is known for his paintings of such scenes. Jan Pauwel Gillemans the Younger (1651-1704) was born in Antwerp. His father was a still-life painter, now best known for scenes of table tops covered with arrangements of fruit and vegetables, and sometimes of vanitas subjects incorporating memento mori. To begin with, the younger Gillemans followed his father, but he gradually moved away from those subjects to the production of ‘garland paintings’, which had been pioneered by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Gillemans developed the garlands, which Brueghel had used to enclose other scenes and, collaborating with other artists, placed them in landscapes populated by putti and small animals, notably guinea pigs, then recently introduced from South America.

On one painting by Gillemans the inscription ‘Londini’ and the date, either 1673 or 1678, can be made out, which seems to indicate that the painting was executed in London in one of those years, which is the same period which saw the production of one or both of the Stocks Market firebacks. Gillemans had become a Master of the painters’ Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1673-4 but had moved to Middelburg by 1675. It is thus more likely that he was in London in 1678, where he may have remained until 1680.

Gillemans’ London painting indicates that he was already established in the genre of garland subjects at that time, so he could have collaborated with, or inspired, a wood carver in the production of patterns for the two firebacks. Given the close correspondence between his paintings and the image on the firebacks it is difficult to contemplate that they could have been produced without either his participation or influence.

Continental Tudor firebacks

The 1548 fireback formerly at Libramont in Belgium (Carpentier, Plaques de Cheminées, 1912)

Hans Schubert wrote the above note in 1953 when he was researching for his history of the British iron and steel industry. In it he made clear that he regarded the fireback of 1548 as the earliest dated fireback made in England. However, his own evidence of the examples in continental museums – the one he illustrates is in Düsseldorf – strongly suggests that, despite an example being in the late-medieval house of Ockwells near Maidenhead, this is not an English fireback. I have already set out the reasons for this in the Introduction to this website, but Schubert’s observation that an example formerly at Libramont in Belgium, and illustrated in Henri Carpentier’s great catalogue of French firebacks, Plaques de Cheminées, differed slightly from the one he illustrated has prompted me to put forward some other variations of the same basic design which, while very similar, differ in small degrees.

Fireback fragment, Anne of Cleves House, Lewes, East Sussex

Schubert mentioned a fragment in the collection at Anne of Cleves House in Lewes, East Sussex, shown here on the left. Close examination reveals several differences: the crown over the rose in the top left corner is not the same, nor is the rose itself; the portcullis in the top right corner is in a different position; the head of the greyhound, the supporter to the right of the shield, is at a higher angle than on Schubert’s example; and, most curiously, the inscription on the Garter is arranged in the opposite direction – rotating anti-clockwise on Schubert’s and read from the outside, but clockwise and read from the inside on the Lewes casting. This can be seen more clearly on a largely complete example of the same design in a private collection at Consuegra, south-east of Toledo in Spain, shown above on the right.

There is a similar fireback in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. Again there are minor differences in the proportions and in the form of the decorative elements, notably the crown which this time has a circlet of stylised fleurs-de-lys instead of acanthus leaves, the use of coronets instead of crowns over the rose and portcullis, and the shield which has a more elaborate outline. But the Garter motto, this time, while still written clockwise, has to be read backwards and from the outside! Whoever carved the pattern clearly did not realise that the image on the pattern will be the same as on the finished casting, and that only in the mould is the image reversed; the craftsman also reversed the letter ‘N’ in both instances.

The same reversed Garter motto can be seen on a fireback of almost the same design that appeared at auction in Paris in 2023. Once more there are minor differences in the proportions and in the positions and forms of the coronets over the rose and the portcullis, and in the outline of the shield (even more elaborate on this design). Like most of the other firebacks illustrated, the detail of the casting, and therefore of the original pattern, is of exceptional quality.

Apart from the Libramont casting illustrated by Carpentier, which is effectively the same as the ones in Düsseldorf and at Ockwells but without the extended ‘shoulders’, this final example, the location for which I have no information, shares many of the features seen on them. It is not the same casting though because, again, there several minor differences to the proportions of the crowns (not coronets this time) and to the supporters. The motto is in a sensible orientation and the shield outline is plain.

The style of the execution of the patterns from which these various firebacks were made is so similar that there is a strong probability that they were all the work of the same individual, perhaps fulfilling orders from different ironworks for a pattern depicting the Tudor royal arms of England. But why the differences in the Garter mottoes? The two fireback designs that have the reversed inscription are also the ones that have the more elaborate shield shapes. The Paris casting also has a partial date, which was probably 1570 before the 7 was damaged. However, this may not have been the date of the original pattern as it would have been easy enough to add a date to the mould before casting. There is also a faint date on the Consuegra casting, possibly a 28 in the bottom right corner, suggesting 1528. Two of the castings have initials, GC and GP respectively. Were these the initials of the pattern-maker? If so it negates the supposition that they were all the work of the same person. Or were they added to the moulds before casting to identify the founder or the person for whom the fireback was being made?

At the beginning of this note and in my Introduction to British Firebacks I argued that these were not English firebacks, citing the styles of the crowns and of the supporters in particular. Simple arched firebacks are most frequently encountered in the products of the ironworks in the Spanish Netherlands, in what is now southern Belgium and Luxembourg and the adjacent parts of modern Germany and France, and the connections between Spain and England, through the marriages of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and later of Queen Mary I and Philip II of Spain, offer a possible motive for the production of these designs. The portrayal of the dragon and greyhound supporters links these firebacks to the earlier of those two alliances, both Henry VIII and his father having them on their achievements of arms. But these castings could, instead, have been designed and made for export to England by continental ironmasters, the importation of 230 firebacks to London from Antwerp in June 1567 being previously noted.

Some firebacks from Waldron

Sir Thomas Pelham (1597-1654) owned the iron furnace at Waldron in Sussex and it had been in his family since his grandfather’s time. Sir Thomas was a hands-on owner although he left the day-to-day running of the works to his founder and to a clerk who kept the accounts. Most of the iron made there was pig iron that was sent to the family’s two forges to be converted into wrought iron and sold to blacksmiths and ironmongers. But periodically other pieces of ironwork were cast, with firebacks among  them.

In 1642, for what reason we do not know, a distinctive fireback began to be produced at Waldron. Of simple ‘Palladian’ shape, it bore the date, together with Thomas Pelham’s initials, and two straps each with a buckle at the top end. The buckle was the Pelham family’s badge, earned, it was said, by one of Sir Thomas’s ancestors at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 when he played an important role in the capture of  the French king, John II. The buckle was subsequently incorporated into the family’s coat of arms.

A Pelham fireback in the collection of Brighton Museum

The pattern for the fireback would have been formed from two boards battened together, the top one shaped with a central arch, and the two parts edged with ovolo moulding. It can be seen from the casting on the left and from the faint outlines surrounding their images that the date was separately carved and fixed to the  top board, as were  the initials. The straps with buckles were also carved from wood in imitation of leather and metal and fixed across the two boards. In this form the pattern could be used over and over again producing as many identical firebacks as were needed. And in that basic form a number of examples still exist.

A modified Pelham fireback

The lower parts of firebacks were often left undecorated because when situated at the back of a fireplace it was that part that was most affected by the heat from the fire and was often hidden by the inevitable accumulation of ash. However, customers who turned up at Waldron Furnace wishing to purchase a fireback and offered the standard pattern from which they could have a casting made, might have wanted something that differed a little from the plain original. In this example a larger fireback has been made by impressing the original pattern into a wider bed of casting sand and adding two extra initials. The basic pattern need not have been damaged despite the apparent removal of the edging from three sides, as all the founder needed to do was to fill in where the edging had indented the sand bed and smooth it over.

The fireback with extra stamps, in the collection at Hastings Museum

As well as having extra letters available, the furnace evidently had a stock of small carved stamps that could be used to decorate firebacks to their purchasers’ choosing. This heavily worn and cracked casting had a stamp of a small bird impressed four times along the top and a stamp of what appears to be a deer added a couple of times below Sir Thomas’s initials.

Mr Hughes’ sketch

In the late-19th century a Mr Edward Hughes of Heathfield in Sussex sketched this fireback at a farmhouse in Waldron, less than half a mile from where the furnace had stood. Obviously of the same type, it had been decorated enthusiastically with the deer stamps as well at least two other different stamps, which were repeated several times. Alas, an enquiry at the farm where it had been recorded by Mr Hughes revealed that it was no longer there.

The photograph in the auction catalogue

A chance email from a fellow fireback enthusiast led me to an auction where this fireback was going under the hammer. Its sorry state was reflected in the estimated price of £5 but clearly some of the stamps with which it had been decorated were those on the example Mr Hughes had seen and sketched. The only way I was going to be able to record it properly was for me to buy it and as the only bidder I paid the estimate plus the usual buyer’s premium. A friend generously fitted the two parts together by screwing a plate onto the back and, cleaned up and with stove polish applied, its detail can be seen in its full glory.

Restored, cleaned and polished

The deer stamps and small bird stamps are the same as those on the casting in the collection at Hastings Museum, although the birds were not on the Hughes sketch. In addition, however, are a dog stamp and a circular stamp resembling a fleur-de-lys, which may have been a recycled butter mould; both of these were recorded by Mr Hughes. Finally there is another round stamp but with a symmetrical arrangement of a square and four small fleurs-de-lys, not seen on any of the other 1642 firebacks but which was something like one I had seen on another fireback. Could they be the same and, if so, would that indicate that the other fireback had also been made at Waldron Furnace?

The fireback in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The fireback in question is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is of an altogether earlier style, more typical of the 16th century and has an ‘M’ or two inverted ‘V’ shapes formed by impressed lengths of twisted rope; these are likely to be an apotropaic, or evil-averting, symbol associated with the Virgin Mary. The circular stamp is in its clearest form at the top of the fireback. Its diameter is 10.5cm. This compares with 10.2cm for the equivalent stamp on the 1642 fireback, a matter of a mere 1.5mm on each side, which can easily be accounted for by the condition. Although not as well-defined on the 1642 back the decorative pattern on the stamp is the same on both firebacks, which leads me to believe that the V&A casting was made at Waldron and that this circular stamp had been part of a stock of stamps available for the decoration of firebacks made there.

Barry Lucas’s sketch of the fireback in Catsfield Place (Sussex County Magazine XXIV, no. 11, Nov 1950, p. 515)

By way of a postscript, Barry Lucas, an old friend of my father, made sketches of three firebacks he had seen at Catsfield Place in Sussex and in 1950 published them in a short note in the, now sadly defunct, Sussex County Magazine. Catsfield Place had been the home of Sir Nicholas Pelham, Sir Thomas Pelham’s youngest son. One of the firebacks he sketched, seen here, has nine round stamps and I wonder if they might be the same stamps that are on the V&A fireback. One day I hope to obtain permission to verify this.

In the Picture

The Lenard fireback, 1636

Firebacks are, themselves, pictures, with their decorative elements often framed. Some, like those produced in Germany in the 16th and 17th century, and in England in the 18th century, are deliberately pictorial, with images copied from religious, mythological and other contemporary engravings and etchings. The well-known Lenard fireback of 1636, which portrays the founder at Brede Furnace in Sussex even includes a fireback among the domestic articles placed around his figure – a fireback decorating a fireback.

But firebacks have also, occasionally, been featured in other works of art. Their inclusion has usually been incidental, as part of the background of a scene in which other elements have been the main subject. In the earliest example I have found, however, the presence of firebacks in the composition has been deliberately intended to provide detail in support of one of the principal elements of the painting.

The Tower of Babel; Marten van Valckenborch 1595 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden)

Marten van Valckenborch (1535-1612) and his brother Lucas were Flemish artists who followed the example of the famous Pieter Breughel in painting landscapes populated by scenes of vernacular life. Both portrayed the countryside in which they had grown up, in present-day Belgium, and which frequently included the rugged scenery of the Meuse valley and the ironworks that were to be seen there. Sometimes the ironworks were incidental, such as in Marten’s painting of the biblical Tower of Babel (a popular subject for artists of the period) in which a furnace and forge can be made out in the bottom left corner, presumably making castings and forgings for the construction of the Tower. In others the industrial scene formed the subject itself, as in this painting of 1612.

A river valley with iron mining scenes; Marten van Valckenborch 1612 (Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee)

In most of these and other paintings by the van Valckenborch brothers the arrangement of the furnace, forge and mining activity follows similar lines, probably worked up from first-hand sketches of an actual ironworks and used over and over again with slight variations. Examination of the detail of this picture, however, reveals firebacks and either stoveplates or memorial slabs propped against the wall of the furnace stack from which ironworkers are running molten metal to form an ingot or sow that will be taken to the forge nearby. The painting itself is evidence of the production of firebacks in Wallonia in the early-17th century.

Detail from A river valley with iron mining scenes; Marten van Valckenborch 1612 (Grohmann Museum, Milwaukee)
Fireback of the style illustrated by Pieter de Hooch, below

Many firebacks from the near continent were imported into England later in the 17th century. Most came from the Netherlands where their placement in houses began in earnest once politically more settled times followed the Peace of Münster in 1648 which brought the Eighty Years War to an end and gave the Dutch independence from Spain. It is in the genre of Dutch interior paintings that firebacks begin to appear as part of the domestic scene. The principal creator of such pictures was Pieter de Hooch (1629-after 1684) and the example below shows the group sitting by the fireplace where a fireback of a distinctive shape can just be seen.

Two women and two children in a kitchen with a dog; Pieter de Hooch c.1670 (North Carolina Museum of Art)

Another painting of a very similar subject is this one by Cornelis de Man (1621-1706) in which the fireback can be seen more prominently. In both of these and others by Dutch artists of the same period, the settings are much the same and the firebacks are no more or less important than the tiles on the wall or the furniture, ornaments or paintings in the rooms portrayed. Firebacks were clearly common features of Dutch homes.

Lord W. G. Armstrong relaxing; H. H. Emmerson 1880
Detail of the Cragside fireback

As much as two centuries later is an English interior which features a fireback. Pictured is the great Victorian engineer William, Lord Armstrong relaxing at Cragside, his house in Northumberland in a painting by H. H. Emerson. At the back on the right a fireback reflects the glow of the fire. Now a property belonging to the National Trust, the room has remained as it is shown in the painting and the fireback is still behind the fire grate. It is one of the EB series and shows a mounted figure in classical dress, possibly intended to be William III.

Firebacks appear in one or two paintings by the Surrey artist Ernest Christie (1863-1937) whose favourite subject was timber-framed buildings and the things associated with them, such as firebacks, hearths and water pumps. The Surrey History Centre at Woking has a large collection of Christie’s paintings given to the Surrey Archaeological Society. In the pictures the firebacks are significant features of the interiors.

Still life before Sussex Fireback; Cedric Morris

Finally, a painting specifically of a fireback. Cedric Morris (1889-1982) was an influential artist, teacher and plantsman who was based for much of his life in East Anglia. One of his students was Lucian Freud. The painting is undated and the fireback which is the subject is intriguing with its two dancing figures and the sun and wreathed mask. So unlike any other fireback I had seen, I was tempted to dismiss it as not from Sussex at all until I was shown a letter dated 1981 received by the Sussex Archaeological Society from a correspondent in London, who apparently was its owner. Attached to it was this photograph of the very same fireback and the information that it had been dug up in a garden at Wilmington in Sussex in the 1930s and that it measured about 3 ft (91cm) wide by 2 ft 6 in (76cm) high. It would be interesting to discover where the fireback is now.

Charles Blount’s fireback

Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy (unknown artist)

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has, in its metalware collection, this boldly detailed armorial fireback on which are depicted the shield, Garter, supporters and crest of Charles Blount (pronounced Blunt), 8th Baron Mountjoy and, from 1603, 1st Earl of Devonshire. Born in 1563, he was a courtier and soldier, having a distinguished career in royal service, serving successfully as Lord Deputy of Ireland under Elizabeth I and Lord Lieutenant there under James I. Previously he had been an MP before inheriting the barony in 1594. Somewhat usually for the time, Mountjoy openly had a mistress who was the former Penelope Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex. She had been unwillingly married to Robert, Baron Rich whom she left for Mountjoy, and she and Mountjoy had six children. Eventually, Rich divorced Penelope though she and Mountjoy were forbidden to marry. However, in 1605 they did so secretly, causing them to be banished from court. Mountjoy died the following year and Penelope the year after. As none of his children were legitimate, his titles died with him.

The Garter stall plate of Walter, 1st Lord Mountjoy (1420-1474), in St George’s Chapel, Windsor

The shield on the fireback shows quartered arms: in the first quarter, Barry nebuly of six Or and Sable (Blount); second, Argent, two wolves passant Sable on a bordure of the first eight saltires Gules (Ayala); third, Or a tower Azure (Mountjoy); and fourth, Vair (Gresley). Mountjoy was created a Knight of the Garter in 1597. I have not found an image of his Garter stall plate but the one for his ancestor, Walter, 1st Baron Mountjoy, shows the same arms, albeit with the quarters in a different arrangement. Above the helm the crest is ‘Out of a ducal coronet a crescent gold’. The supporters are not as described in Burke’s General Armory but are male and female figures, the male in armour but wearing a cap and the female dressed with a cloak and wearing a coronet. The fireback is slightly unusual in that the armorial is incomplete, the strap-end of the Garter being missing, indicating that either the strap-end was cut off before being used as the pattern for the fireback, which could suggest that the armorial was a pre-existing decorative carving, or that the fireback itself had been cut down from a larger original.

Badge of Charles Blount, Earl of Devonshire (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
The Clandon fireback (photo courtesy of The National Trust)

Recently I received an enquiry about another fireback with the same armorial on it that had been discovered in an outhouse at Clandon Park in Surrey. This National Trust property had been badly damaged by fire in 2015, but the outhouse had not been affected. Although clearly the same design as the casting in the V & A there was more to this fireback than on that version. Above the crescent crest is another Garter enclosing a sun charged with an eye, and above it another coronet. This appears to have been a badge of Charles Blount for it is noted on the website of the library of Toronto University where there is a collection of armorial insignia on the bindings of books. The badge had apparently been stamped on a book bought with money Mountjoy had given to the Bodleian Library at Oxford while he was in Ireland.

The next question was why was a fireback with the arms of Blount at Clandon Park in the first place? The probable answer is that in 1636 Sir Richard Onslow, of Knowle in Cranleigh, who was to acquire Clandon five years later, had purchased the manor of Dedisham, between Slinfold and Rudgwick in Sussex, from the heiress daughters of Sir Richard Blount. He had inherited Dedisham from his father in 1564 and the connection with Charles, Baron Mountjoy was that Richard Blount was descended from Thomas, the younger brother of the Walter Blount, 1st Lord Mountjoy, whose Garter stall plate is illustrated above. Also, included in the manor of Dedisham was an iron furnace and forge, one of many in Sussex at that time, making it possible that the Clandon fireback was cast at Dedisham. A distant connection with an aristocratic branch of the family could explain the presence of the Clandon fireback there, and it could have been removed to Clandon by one of the Onslows at a later date.

The Mountjoy armorial on the Clandon fireback is poorly defined and lacks the sharp detail seen on the V & A casting. However, the crowned Garter and sun badge are somewhat sharper. This suggests that the Clandon casting was made by using a worn casting of the V & A version as the pattern for a new casting to which an extension was added bordered by a flowing design in low relief and including the crowned Garter and sun badge. An easy thing to carry out if you happen to have an iron furnace and ironworkers in your employ.

Unusual sources of fireback decoration

When I wrote British Cast-Iron Firebacks I drew attention to several everyday objects that had been used as decorative stamps. These included butter and pastry moulds, wool spindles, fragments of furniture, daggers and cutlery. Since that book was published in 2010 I have been able to identify the sources for the decoration on some of the other firebacks that I illustrated, as well as recording more firebacks on which everyday objects feature. The most recent discovery has been this fireback, which I illustrated in my book.

Probable late-16th century iron fireback (Photo: Hastings Museum & Art Gallery)

It is in the collection at Hastings Museum in Sussex, and came from a house in Burwash in 1910. The rope pattern in the middle of the fireback has striking similarities with some rope patterns on other firebacks that are part of what I call the Pounsley series, because all the decorative devices on them can be linked to the fireback bearing the name of John Harvo, who ran the furnace at Pounsley in the mid-16th century (see Made in Sussex by John Harvo).

What puzzled me were the panels on either side of the rope design. Although they stand out in relief on the surface of the back, as one would expect with something that been pressed into the sand mould, the ornamentation on them is intaglio, or in-set. This meant that the ornamentation would have been in-set on the actual panels, and suggested to me that they might have been some form of mould. I solved the problem by cropping the photograph to isolate one of the panels and then used my computer graphics software to invert the image, and this was the result:

Inverted image of the decorative panel showing how the plasterwork would have looked

The impressed panel was a plasterwork mould, my identification being confirmed by Dr Claire Gapper, a leading authority on the subject. Her opinion was that the style of the plasterwork design dated from the late-16th or early-17th century, which tied in with the style of the fireback. The design includes a feature known as rinceau, which is a continuous stem motif with smaller leafy off-shoots. There is also a serpent and one side of a vase. There would have probably been a companion mould with the design in reverse to join onto it. The mould, which measured about 15½in. by 5½in., would have been made of wood which, presumably lined with a medium such as light cloth, was filled with plaster. When set, it was pressed against the wall where adhesive would attach the plaster, the mould then being lifted away. Pressing the mould into the casting sand need not have impaired the mould, any sand adhering to it being easily brushed away. One wonders if the house for which the fireback was intended was where the same plaster decoration was also to be seen.

The next fireback is in the possession of the Weald and Downland Living Museum at Singleton in Sussex (well worth a visit if you have never been there). Cast in 1594, it has a rather haphazard arrangement of decorative stamps of which small loops feature repeatedly. But those are not what interested me in particular. Stretching across the width of the back is an undulating vine design, of which a complete section is positioned left of centre, and which is repeated on each side though mostly on the right. It must have been impressed from a narrow panel onto which the design had been previously carved. Given that it is not as wide as the fireback it would seem to have been made for another purpose.

Fireback of 1594 at the Weald & Downland Living Museum, Singleton
16th-century English stool (Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Most probably, I surmised, it had come from either interior panelling or furniture. For a long time the answer eluded me until I came upon this photograph of a late Gothic stool in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (acc. no. 1974.28.18). Is not the carving on the panel below the seat very similar in style and form to the decoration on the fireback?

The stool measures 514mm wide overall, so the panel will be a bit less. The part of the decoration on the fireback that shows a complete example of the undulating vine measures about 420mm, which is comparable with the approximate length of the panel on the stool. So it seems likely that the iron founder had made use of part of a, probably broken, stool to decorate the fireback he was making.

Two firebacks have identical Gothic panels that must also have been derived from redundant furniture.

Gothic fireback at East Grinstead Museum
Gothic fireback at Nymans, Handcross

In both instances the panels are rather crudely arranged. On the left, the example on loan to East Grinstead Museum belongs to the Sussex Archaeological Society from its collection at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes. Within an edging of rope that was probably wrapped tightly round a narrow rod or dowel, the three panels each have a fleur-de-lys inserted at the top between what appear to be a pairs of roses. On the right the example that is in a publicly inaccessible room at Nymans, the National Trust property, does not have fleurs in the same position but has a line of six fleurs (were there seven originally?) of a different design below the panels. The whole arrangement has been rather inexpertly done with the panels lined aslant. But what was the origin of the panels?

With several potential examples of the reuse of parts of broken or redundant furniture on firebacks I have taken every opportunity to look out for pictures showing designs that could have been made use of by founders while not expecting to come across matching pieces. So a browse through The Age of Oak, the first in a four-part study entitled A History of English Furniture by Percy MacQuoid, that was published in 1904, brought me to this photograph of a hutch table. While none of the panels on the front face of the table exactly matches any of those on the firebacks, the one on the right has the same sort of rotationally symmetrical design as the right-hand panel on the backs, and does suggest that this type of furniture is a potential source for the panels on the firebacks.

I did not pay much attention to the fourth decorative stamp, which has been noted on two very similar firebacks. One is in private hands somewhere, but the other is in the collection of the Sussex Archaeological Society in Anne of Cleves House, Lewes.

16th-century Wealden fireback in Anne of Cleves House, Lewes
Late-15th century Easter sepulchre at St Michael’s church, Cowthorpe

Across the top of this back is a stamp, about 237mm long, comprising three large trefoils with interspersed smaller ones mounted on a bar. The stamp has been placed five times with other stamps in between. The bar on which the trefoils are fixed appears to taper slightly to the right as if it might have been cut from something. Features like these are described as cresting and are usually found on the ridges of roofs. They were popular in Victorian times, but these are on a fireback cast in the 16th century. A great deal of searching eventually led me to the image of a wooden Easter sepulchre in a redundant church in North Yorkshire. In St Michael’s church in Cowthorpe stands this remarkable relic which dates back to 1494. On it is a wealth of cresting of a similar form to the fireback decoration. The sepulchre at Cowthorpe is a unique survival but there will have been many others in churches all over the country in the past, and when they fell out of fashion or fell apart the cresting from one of them might have become an unusual decorative feature that an iron founder used when designing a pair of firebacks.

“Where there’s a Will…”

Back in 2009 I obtained photocopies of some notes that had been made by a Sussex antiquary, R. Garraway Rice, of entries in wills that related to the Sussex iron industry. Among them were some references to bequests of firebacks. This was clearly an interesting source for the appreciation of the significance of firebacks in the lives of those who owned them in the past, but the prospect of reading lots of wills in the hope of finding similar bequests was daunting. Associated with wills were the inventories that were compiled of the possessions of the deceased. These are rather more accessible and I had been seeking out transcriptions of them on the internet, noting the occurrence of firebacks in them when I could.

However, an opportunity presented itself whereby I could research both types of historic document in an area where firebacks were likely to have been found in people’s homes. The probate copies of wills and inventories filed by the Diocese of Gloucester are held in the Gloucestershire Archives and, as well as being accessible at the Archive’s office in Gloucester, they have been made available on the internet to subscribers of Ancestry.co.uk. Thus I have been able to examine these records from my own home rather than having to make several round trips of 260 miles, which I probably would not have done anyway.

Map showing the Gloucestershire parishes where inventories with firebacks were noted. For a key to the names of the parishes click here

To make the study more than just a snapshot I chose to examine the 50-year period from 1651 to 1700. From observations I had already made elsewhere I knew that this period was before coal began to replace wood for domestic heating and therefore before integral grates began to supersede down-hearth fireplaces and firebacks. My method was to read all the inventories for each calendar year, noting these details where one or more firebacks were recorded in a property: how many, in which rooms, and their value if individually assessed (they seldom were). I would take a copy of those inventories. Firebacks were variously described, most being simply termed backs or iron backs, but occasionally plates in the chimney. Then, for each inventory where firebacks were included, I would read the associated will to see if the deceased had made a bequest of them. In several instances there was no will. I read 6,099 inventories and, of them, 197 (3%) mentioned one or more firebacks. There were 18 wills for the whole period in which the testators left the firebacks in their houses, and in every instance it was a relative who was the beneficiary. Out of the people whose wills I noted (and kept a copy) nine described themselves as yeomen, i.e. freeholders whose wealth lay primarily in physical possessions and the land they worked. Five were women, all widows; married women effectively owned no property until they were widowed. Of the remaining four, one was a vicar and the others were a baker, a nailer and a (wood) corder.

Although the inventories had been searched from 1651 the earliest will in which a fireback was mentioned was not until 1675, and most were concentrated between 1684 and 1690. In none of the wills or inventories was any description given of the firebacks mentioned. In western Gloucestershire lies the Forest of Dean, where there were several iron furnaces at which firebacks could have been cast. It is not surprising therefore, as the map shows, that the greatest concentration of parishes where inventories included firebacks was in the western part of the county.

One of the inventories in which I noted firebacks was that of Avis Skinn, a widow from the parish of Newland. She had died in 1684, and in her will, made two years earlier, she wrote:

I give devise and bequeath unto my Grandson William Skynn my two Iron Backes, the one standing in the Hall Chimney, and the other in the Kitching…

The name Skinn rang a bell. Some of my ancestors had also come from Newland and in 1679 my great6-grandfather, John Worgan, aged 16, had left his home in the Forest of Dean to be apprenticed to a John Skinn of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers in the City of London. There he was to remain for seven years learning the trade before he could gain his Freedom ‘from servitude’, which he did in 1686, thereafter settling in London, in Bishopsgate, where he raised a family, some of the descendants of whom were still there more than a century and a half later.

Avis Skinn had been widowed for 20 years. In the inventory of her husband William, when he died in 1664, the fireback in the hall of their house at Clearwell was mentioned; the one in the kitchen fireplace was evidently acquired later. As well as the firebacks left to her grandson, she made bequests to her five surviving children (eight had been named in her husband’s will) and one in particular drew my attention:

I give devise and bequeath unto my son John Skynn, of the Citty of London the sume of twentie shillings in money for a Toaken of my love…

Was this John Skinn the same man to whom my ancestor had been apprenticed? I rather suspect it was.

The evidence of a torse

The fireback from Huddington, Worcestershire
The rose and crown stamp, showing its backing

In my book, British Cast-Iron Firebacks (pp. 89-90), I briefly mentioned a small, worn fireback that I had recorded at Huddington in Worcestershire. It probably had not originated in the west Midlands but, with some of the other firebacks in the same collection, had been acquired by a previous owner from sales in south-east England in the early 20th century. It is decorated with a crowned rose between two fragments of a torse* that had been used to decorate the much larger back, below, which dates from 1584. This associated them with several other firebacks that I have recorded in what I call the ‘Royal series’ on which the same crowned rose can also be found. It will have been part of a stock of stamps stored at the furnace where they were all cast, probably in the mid- to late-16th century.

Fireback of 1584 formerly at Marle Green Farm, Hellingly, Sussex; now in the Victoria and Albert Museum

The 1584 fireback has, in each upper corner, a stamp depicting a torse, or crest wreath, of simulated, overlapping, twisted fabric, frayed at the edges, within an eight-pointed, fillet-edged star. Enclosed by each torse, and at a slight angle, is a crest of a standing dog, or talbot, upon a horizontal torse. It is evident that this is a stamp and not part of the base board with its moulded border, for it has been impressed differently on each side, overlapping the moulding more on the right and rotated slightly on the left. Stray lines indicate that the base board itself was repositioned before the star-shaped stamps and the date were added.

The base board in Hastings Museum

In the 12 years since writing about those two firebacks three other examples have been noted which shed a bit more light on how and when the small backs might have been cast. The first of these is this plain, pedimented base board with moulded edging. From the collection at Hastings Museum, its dimensions match the decorated examples, indicating that it was probably used to form the primary sand mould into which the decorative stamps would be pressed. Its unadorned surface meant that it could be used more than once, each arrangement of stamps placed within it forming a unique design.

The fireback from Mayfield, Sussex
The separated parts of the torse

The design on a fireback I recorded at Mayfield in Sussex was assembled using this base board and has the same star-shaped stamp and dog crest as the 1584 back, together with repeated fleurs-de-lys. Because the star shape is complete it is likely to be closely contemporary with the 1584 back. On the fireback from Huddington, the star shape has been split and only the outer parts used to enclose a fleur-de-lys of the same style as on the Mayfield fireback. There is no indication on the 1584 casting that the star shape is anything other than a single stamp; there are no evident lines to suggest that it might have been assembled from vertical sections.  So at some later date it must have been damaged or deliberately cut up, for on the Huddington fireback a central slice of the stamp, together with the dog crest, is missing. It is, of course, conceivable, indeed quite probable, that the dog crest had been carved separately and attached to the star stamp, thus making it easier to detach it when the star shape was split up.

The fireback from Slaugham, Sussex

I noted a third fireback of similar design at Slaugham in Sussex. It is in very poor condition but the basic elements of its design are still apparent: the sections of the star shape, this time widely separated; the crowned rose; and the fleurs-de-lys. It also has the initials ‘IT’, which are also just evident on the Huddington back, albeit in a different position, and a cross in the pediment. Could ‘IT’ refer to the same person? It seems likely. Clearly, the Huddington and Slaugham firebacks must have been cast after 1584 and after the Mayfield back had been made. Does the presence of the crowned rose, a Tudor rose, suggest that these firebacks were cast before the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign in 1603?

*Torse: in heraldry, the wreath of two bands of coloured silk by which the crest is joined to the helmet.

Free-standing firebacks

An unusual fireback from Poynings in Sussex

In the April 1915 edition of Volume 41 of The Connoisseur, which described itself as ‘An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors’, a correspondent submitted to its ‘Notes’ section this photograph of an iron fireback that had been found, of all places, in a brook at Poynings in Sussex, a few miles north-west of Brighton. The picture had evidently been cropped from a larger one which had included a pair of fire dogs, parts of which were still visible. The correspondent wanted assistance in identifying the family to which it had originally belonged. A search of the following issues of the magazine failed to reveal an answer to the enquiry.

When I first saw this photograph, as part of a trawl through early publications in search of firebacks, it struck me that it looked like no other back that I had seen. It appeared to have in-turned side edges and the panel on top was unusual with what I guessed were a lion and a unicorn with a crown between them. On the main panel was a tree with a smaller tree apparently growing out of the top of it, and some unreadable text on each side of the tree’s trunk. All rather odd. I contacted the publisher of the village newsletter in Poynings and asked them to insert an appeal for anyone who might still possess this fireback, but I too have had no response.

The free-standing fireback in Herefordshire

Then, a while later, a fellow fireback enthusiast in Herefordshire contacted me asking for my opinion of this unusual cast-iron fireback he had acquired. While not the same as the Poynings back, it bears striking similarities to it: the lion, unicorn and crown on top; the curious tree and text below. This time the first part of the inscription can be deciphered; it seems to read ‘SILVESTR…’, a fragment of a Latin word relating to wood or woods, which complements the arboreal design on the main panel. The forward-facing, in-turned sides are much more prominent and they include two opposed piercings, one on each side at a low level, presumably for the insertion of a rod or bar across the front of the fireback. No measurements were given for the Poynings back, but the Herefordshire one is 45.5cm high and 38.5cm wide. The in-turned sides allow it be free-standing and to some extent portable, although it is not of a light weight. This is not surprising given the material it is made from, nor given its presumed purpose, which would have been to form a back against which logs and ash could rest in a more open location than a typical fireplace.

The fireback advertised in the Netherlands
The example sold in Norfolk

A third example then turned up on the website of a Norfolk antique dealer. Its form is similar – the in-turned sides and tree-related decoration – but no inscription this time, and no lion, unicorn and crown. Instead at the top is a scallop shell, more characteristic of continental firebacks. It is of similar size, at 49cm high by 43cm wide. A fourth example was advertised on the website of a fireback dealer in the Netherlands. At the top, there appears to be a crown between animals (possibly the lion and unicorn again), but this time the main decoration is a humorous bucolic scene of a standing shepherd apparently playing a pipe opposite a seated dog holding the shepherd’s crook. In other respects the form is the same as the first three, and the size, at 52cm high by 46cm wide, a little larger than the other three but comparable nevertheless.

The appearance in the Netherlands of the last of these raises the question as to whether free-standing firebacks are British or continental. The crown between what are more clearly a lion and a unicorn on two of them leads to the conclusion that they are British in origin. So how did one turn up across the Channel? While continental firebacks and copies made from them are common in Britain, British firebacks are not frequently found in French, Belgian, Dutch and German collections, but a few are and in some cases I have encountered they are mistaken for continental designs, especially when British firebacks, at the end of the 17th century, were aping the German backs made for the Dutch market.

As to their date, the lion and unicorn rules out them being from the Tudor period, and they are unlikely to be from the 18th century or after, when coal was increasingly being used for heating and cooking in domestic situations and burnt in iron grates. That leaves us with a likely 17th-century date for this unusual type. They are undoubtedly rare and I shall be most interested to hear of any other examples, and particular situations where they might have been used, that anyone reading this can let me know of.

UPDATE – 5TH JULY 2023: Today I visited Bramshill House, a 17th century ‘prodigy house’ in north Hampshire, which for part of its recent history was a police college. There are 14 firebacks in the building but this one in particular was of special interest because it was another of these free-standing firebacks. Sadly it had been attached to a more recent iron grate but it is very similar to the one illustrated above that had been advertised in the Netherlands, while having the stylised tree motif on the main panel and, this time, what appears to be the ostrich feather badge of the Prince of Wales at the top. Which Prince of Wales? one wonders.

Queen of the Nile

As English firebacks go this is an unusual one. The central figure appears to be lying on a couch, although the couch itself is absent. The snake held in the subject’s left hand suggests that this is Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, about to commit suicide by allowing the snake – traditionally an asp – to poison her with its bite. In her right hand is either a sceptre indicating her royalty, or a hand mirror alluding to her legendary beauty. The image is within an elliptical border decorated with plant tendrils. In the spandrels above the border are angels, while in those below are simple foliate designs. The figuration is naïve and the anatomical detail of Cleopatra’s arms and legs is unnatural. The faces of the angels are crude. Whoever designed the pattern for this fireback was not a skilled artist. It is not a large casting; at 59cm wide it is less than two feet across, but the pattern from which the mould was formed was evidently constructed from five boards battened together, four distinct horizontal lines on the fireback’s surface indicating where they abutted.

So what was the inspiration for this design? In the late-16th and early-17th centuries there was a growth in print-making in the Low Countries, with engravers such as Hendrik Goltzius and Jan Sadeler producing sets of prints of paintings by Mannerist artists. Such seems to have been the case with the picture of Cleopatra. Although I have not been able to track down the original source, the closest images I have been able to find that might also have been inspired by the scene also reproduced on the fireback are three tapestries. The first is in a set of tapestries of the story of Antony and Cleopatra now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in the United States. It shows her seated with a small sceptre in her hand and a snake emerging from a basket held by a handmaid that is entwining itself around her arm. It dates from the early- to mid-17th century. Although the composition on the tapestry is not identical to that on the fireback, one can see how the design of the fireback may been derived from the same source that influenced the design of the tapestry. A second tapestry, in the collection of the Patrimonio Nacional in Spain, shows a very similar scene. This one is thought to have been part of a set made for the Swedish royal court in the 1640s. They were both based on a design by Karel van Mander the younger (1579-1623), a Flemish artist and tapestry maker. The third tapestry, which is in private hands is very similar to the other two and from the tapestry workshop of Pieter de Cracht in about 1650. Quite clearly it derived its inspiration from the same source

The dates of the tapestries suggest that the fireback was probably made towards the end of the first half of the 17th century. The naïve style has parallels with other firebacks of the period, particularly in the depiction of faces. And features that compare with other elements of the design of the Cleopatra fireback, such as the small details on the four oval buttons around the border surrounding the figure of the queen, can be seen on other firebacks, suggesting they may have been the work of the same craftsperson whose initials, IM, are to be seen on some firebacks. This fireback is an early example of a design for an English fireback being derived from a continental source. It was a practice that was to be employed to a much greater extent at the very end of the 17th century when English fireback designs aped Germany styles made originally for the Dutch market.

Fireback dated 1652, probably designed by the same pattern-maker as the Cleopatra fireback
Fireback dated 1650, probably designed by the same pattern-maker as the Cleopatra fireback

Some firebacks at Petworth

The letter seen here on the right that Mr W. Slade Mitford of Petworth in Sussex wrote to the countryside and outdoor pursuits magazine, The Field, was published in its issue of 17th April 1940. When, about ten years later, the Mitfords sold Pitshill, which is in the next-door parish of Tillington, the collection of firebacks that he was writing about were loaned for display in Petworth House. They are still there and can be viewed in the Servants’ Corridor where an illustrated guide to them that I have written is available for visitors to find out more about them.

German fireback at Petworth illustrating Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John ch. 4)

It is interesting that he wrote that the collection had been assembled from local farms and cottages, for more than two-thirds of the firebacks in the Mitford collection at Petworth are of continental designs, although it is probable that at least some of them had been cast in Britain, copied from German originals. The designs of ‘Water into Wine’, ‘Susanna and the Elders’, ‘Woman at the Well’ and ‘Adam and Eve’ that Mr Mitford mentioned are all typical of designs that found their way into England from the Netherlands in the second half of the 17th century. The fireback of ‘King Charles’s Oak’ is a common English type, and the ones with the motif illustrating ‘Killing the Golden Egg Goose’ are of English origin too, but they also have a particular connection with Petworth House.

Noted as having been among items from the Cowdray estate, near Midhurst, that had been sold in 1898, these two firebacks both date from earlier in that century and although they were cast with a motley group of stamps the presence of the ‘golden goose’ group at the top of each indicates that they had a common origin. The early-19th century was a lean time for the production of firebacks. Improvements in the design of fireplaces and the general reliance on coal for heating in domestic situations, a trend that had begun as far back as the late-17th century, meant that few can be dated to this period.

Æsop’s fable tells of the farmer whose goose laid a single golden egg every day, and who, greedy for more, thought that by killing the goose he would find more such eggs inside its body, only to discover that it did not, the eggs magically appearing one at a time. The stamp portraying the killing of the goose was an iron mantelpiece ornament, about nine inches (23cm) wide, which shows a table on which the dead goose has been laid surrounded by a family of adults and children distraught by the sudden realisation that they have deprived themselves of a fortuitous source of untold wealth. Quite why the ornament was chosen to decorate the two firebacks is not known for it is the only stamp that is common to both castings.

‘Killing the goose that laid the golden eggs’; early-19th century iron mantelpiece ornament (photo: G. Smaldon)

The connection with Petworth House is that the same mantelpiece ornament was used to decorate the iron casings that support the roasting spits in front of the fire in the kitchen just along the corridor from where the firebacks are now displayed, and were thus products of the same foundry. Most of the cast-iron kitchen equipment at Petworth was supplied in the 1870s by the firm of C. Jeakes & Co. of Great Russell Street, London, and the royal coat of arms of Queen Victoria features on some of the panels. However, the small royal coat of arms in the centre of one of the firebacks with the ‘golden goose’ group is of an earlier date and, although the detail is poor, the inescutcheon of Hanover can be discerned in the centre of the shield; this dates it to between 1801 and 1837. Also on the same fireback is a repeated stamp of a pineapple plant in a pot. This stamp also appears on the same kitchen casings as the ‘golden goose’ stamp, indicating that the cast-iron spit assemblage must also date from before 1837. At the bottom of one of the casings is the word ‘CHORLEY’, identifying it as having been cast at Robert Chorley’s iron foundry at Cocking, south of Midhurst. The foundry had been in existence since at least 1818, and it can be presumed that the firebacks had been cast there as well.

Of the other stamps on these two firebacks little can be said of the motive behind their inclusion as decorative elements. If anything, one has a more formal theme, with a repeated George and Dragon stamp as well as the royal arms and pineapples, while the other has a more leisurely theme with its jugs and glasses and churchwarden clay pipes, and a couple of small stamps portraying farm animals.

Made in Mayfield

‘Dutch’ fireback, late-17th century, showing a Biblical scene from the Second Book of Samuel

At the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century English firebacks were undergoing a significant change. The importation of backs from the Netherlands, influenced by the accession of William of Orange to the British throne, and the coincidental migration of Protestant craftsmen and women from France following Louis XIV’s Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, will have contributed in no small way to the creation of several series of firebacks that aped the styles of the Dutch imports. In fact the Dutch backs did not originate in the Low Countries but were products of ironworks in Nassau-Siegen, a principality east of the River Rhine that was ruled by a branch of the Dutch royal house of Orange-Nassau.

Like the Dutch firebacks they emulated, the English types were typically taller than they were wide, reflecting new tastes in fireplace design that were beginning to make use of coal instead of wood for domestic heating. And they too had pictorial decoration drawn from classical and iconographic sources, although religious themes, that were common on the continental firebacks, were notably absent.

Late-17th century English fireback of the SHR series showing a monarch riding over a bridge; the same flying heron can also be seen on the 1724 fireback below

Several series of these new designs of fireback are identifiable from initials or monograms that feature beneath their central pictorial panels, and these suggest individual craftsmen or workshops that were responsible for the production of the wooden models or patterns from which they would be cast. The sources for the illustrations, however, do not seem to have been confined to particular series but were instead used by several different carvers, suggesting that these craftspeople may have worked in close proximity. Huguenot wood carvers specialising in furniture and picture frames are known to have had premises in the Soho area of London, and it is likely that the carvers of models for these types of firebacks had their workshops in the same area.

The same period at the turn of the 18th century also saw the emergence of a small number of foundries in London in locations close to the River Thames. While the newspapers of the time show these works advertising ‘backs for chimneys’ which may have included the new styles cast from patterns possibly made nearby, the only actual evidence for their casting comes from Sussex.

Fireback cast from the pattern at Rottingdean Grange
Late-17th century fireback pattern at Rottingdean Grange, Sussex

In Rottingdean Grange, near Brighton, is a wooden fireback pattern which, together with a collection of firebacks and other historical artefacts, was given to Brighton Museum by Henry Willett (1823-1905). On it is an image of a personification of the continent of America shown riding a chariot drawn by a pair of armadillos. On the reverse of the pattern it states that it came from Mayfield in Sussex, where, it can be presumed, the iron furnace had been that cast firebacks from it. And a couple of other firebacks have been recorded that have the same design elements that characterise this one (see the Mayfield ‘Dutch’ series).

As to where in Mayfield these firebacks might have been cast the most likely candidate is Coushopley Furnace (also called Cursey Platt or Combe Furnace), which was the only furnace still operating in the parish at the turn of the 18th century.

The design also has a distinctive style of beaded border around the central image, in the form of an arched rectangle with the top corners canted and slightly concave. The same stylistic feature has been noted on a small number of larger firebacks which bear the monogram ‘EB’, and it may be that the pattern that Henry Willett acquired in Mayfield had been a product of the same workshop. Whoever ‘EB’ was, he carved the pattern for this fireback illustrating the Greek myth of the Rape of Europa, one of two backs with his monogram at Hampton Court, made in the time of William III and Mary II.

1724 fireback cast from the pattern illustrated in the watercolour (left)

In Hastings Museum, in Sussex, is a watercolour of another fireback pattern also said to have come from Mayfield. The pattern itself appears not to have survived but firebacks cast from it have and are from a series first made in 1724, some of which have an inscription in Welsh along the bottom. The pictorial design on the pattern is of a fountain, adapted from an illustration of one formerly in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. The inscription, which, together with the date, must have been removed from the pattern before it came to be the subject of the watercolour, is a religious one: DVW Ydyw, Ein Cadernid, which means GOD is Our Strength. Clearly the fireback was not intended as a devotional object for the central picture has no particular religious connotations, but it and the five other different firebacks with the same text must, nevertheless, have been originally destined for Welsh homes. By 1724 there were no furnaces remaining in Mayfield so the pattern must have been used elsewhere. The painting shows the pattern lacking the Welsh incription. Perhaps it had been removed to make the firebacks more saleable in England? That said, I am not aware of any castings of this design where the inscription is absent.

Fireback cast at Ashburnham Furnace from the pattern (left)
18th century pattern of a fireback showing Phaeton on Apollo’s chariot

Two more patterns from this late period can be specifically associated with a Sussex furnace. Both were part of the stock at Ashburnham Furnace, the last to operate in the Weald, and surviving firebacks suggest there must have been at least two other patterns, stylistically the work of the same craftsman whose monogram ‘TAN’ or ‘JAN’ adorns some of them. The pictorial designs on these backs are not seen on others so perhaps the carver was working to a specific commission, probably from the Ashburnham family. For the other surviving pattern from this furnace see My Ashburnham Fireback.

Where is this?

I came across this photograph on the internet several years ago but the person who displayed it knew nothing about it, there being no annotation on the original image. It intrigues me and I would love to know where it is, who the man is on the right and why he has a group of firebacks leaning on what is, I assume, his garden wall.

There are a number of clues. The building that has the window with the leaded panes has a thatched roof, and appears to be timber-framed with an infill of flint nodules. That indicates that the property lies in one of the chalk upland areas, such as the North or South Downs, the Hampshire or Berkshire Downs or Salisbury Plain, or the Chilterns. Behind the thatched building there seem to be one or two brick chimneys, and on the left is a greenhouse which has been there long enough to have creeper growing over one end.

What of the man? Is he wearing a clerical collar? He looks as though he may be in his 70s but this photograph may well have been taken in the late 19th- or early-20th century, and people looked older for their years in those days than they do now.

With the exception of the fireback on the far left, they are mostly in good condition, with few signs of having been stood in fireplaces. For the most part they are of English design. The large one with the elaborate vase of flowers on the right, and its broken companion, date from the second half of the 17th century and copy the style of firebacks that were then beginning to be imported from the continent. They may well have been cast from patterns designed by craftsmen from across the Channel. The two to the left of the entrance to the garden are from Germany. The one with the figure in the chariot and the initials IL above is new to me but I have seen the one with the figure of Fortune before. It was probably made in about 1700 and designed by a craftsman whose initials were GK. The other two are both Wealden backs. The coat of arms is that of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, one of the livery companies of the City of London, while the fireback with the gadrooned vase and the human figure emerging from among the tendrils spewing from its spout can be associated with several firebacks that may have been designed by someone whose initials were IM and who was working in the 1630s to 50s.

Was this display part of a larger collection, and why were they propped against the garden wall? Is that where they were placed normally? I suspect not as they seem to be in too good a condition to have been out in the open for long. Nor have they ended up in one of the big collections of firebacks, at Lewes or Hastings or at the V&A.

If anyone reading this can identify the location on this photograph, please contact the Editor.

Some personal Tudor firebacks (revised)

There is a small group of firebacks that were all cast in the same year, 1582, and on three of them there are lengthy, personal inscriptions that were formed in a sand mould by impressing individual letters. Below the main text on each of them are the letters I and A, which it can be assumed were those of the person, probably the founder, who assembled the design. Whoever IA was their level of literacy was some way from being perfect, but to my eyes that is part of the charm of these ancient artefacts. Unfortunately, at the time of first writing this, I had only been able to record two of these firebacks in person. My knowledge of two more rested solely on illustrations that Mark Antony Lower included in his pioneering paper on the Wealden iron industry that was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1849. To his great credit, they are well drawn and a comparison between the detail on the drawings and on the two firebacks I had seen made it clear that they are all from the same series.

This is the first of the two in Lower’s paper. Drawn by F. F. Figg, the inscription had been copied as THOMAS VNSTE ADIS FILD AND DINIS HIS WIF ANO DOMINO 1582. Each letter S is reversed, as is each letter N although the latter form was not unusual in those days. The fireback was said to have been at ‘Misfield Farm’ in Worth, Sussex, near where I live. This should be Miswell, but enquiries there failed to locate it. Nor had I been able to trace any record of a Thomas or Denise Unstead of Isfield. So the trail seemed to have gone cold.

It has turned out that looking for a Thomas and Denise Unstead was a false trail because in January 2024 I received an email from a correspondent in Yorkshire telling me of an article in the Journal of the Gwynedd Family History Society that had revealed that the fireback had been discovered ten years earlier walled up behind a later fireplace in a hotel near Ffestiniog in north Wales. The photograph of it reveals that the inscription in Lower’s illustration had been copied incorrectly and that it should read THOMAS VNSTE ALIS FILD AND DINIS HIS WIF ANO DOMINO 1582. My correspondent had interpreted this as Thomas Anstie alias Field, with which I was happy to agree (the surname Anstye or Anstie occurs in Sussex in two forms with aliases, Field and Holcomb). And I have been able to identify them as probably Thomas Anstye and Denys Joyner who were married at Wivelsfield in Sussex on 5th June 1564. My conclusion that this fireback was one of a series with three others of the same date because it also bore the initials IA, a crowned Tudor rose supported by a dragon and a lion, and four, small crowned shields each bearing a fleur-de-lys, has, I am pleased to write, been confirmed.

The 1582 fireback in Haslemere Museum

Those same badges decorate the only fireback in the series that does not have an inscription, apart from the additional initials TM and I, which are probably those of whoever the fireback was made for. It is in the Haslemere Museum and its unusual shape meant that it was probably intended to fit into a specific fireplace. The small crowned shields, the rose and crown and supporters and the I and A are clearly the same as on the Anstie fireback.

The descriptive caption that used to be placed below this fireback on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, claimed that the water bougets, the three heraldic devices in the arch at the top, indicated that it was connected with the Ross family of Helmsley in North Yorkshire. However, the presence of the date 1582 in the same form as on the Haslemere back, as well as the I and the A, strongly suggested that it is also from this series and therefore cast in south-east England. The inscription reads: THES IS FOR WILAM BRON AND ELISABTH HIS SISTR. Who they were I have yet to find out, but the shape of the letters and in particular the tiny fleurs-de-lys between the words, also seen on the Anstie back, reinforces this view. The mirrored tassel design on each side is curious. It was evidently mounted on a flat surface but I have not seen anything like it elsewhere. Incidentally, there were Sussex families whose arms included water bougets: the Roos or de Ros family of Easebourne, near Midhurst, and the Meeres family of Glynleigh, near Hailsham. The V&A caption has since been amended.

James and Joan Hyde’s fireback
The Hyde fireback at Sutton Hurst, Barcombe

Lower illustrated the fourth fireback in this series and also drew it. The same decorated devices seen on the other firebacks are present: the crowned rose and supporters, a single shield with fleur, the fleur word separators, the date and I and A. Also there are two, star-shaped arrangements of rope lengths with fleur terminals. The inscription is: THES IS FOR IAMES HIDE AND ION HIS WIF. When Lower published this drawing the back was at Sutton Hurst, later Sutton Hall, a house in Barcombe, Sussex, and a photograph from some sale particulars of the house in 1893 shows the fireback still there, in the hall fireplace; alas, neither the house nor the fireback are there any more.

We do know something of the people mentioned on this back. A James Hyde married Joan Blackefane in the church at Horley in Surrey on the 11th of October 1579. They went to live across the county boundary in Worth, then the largest Sussex parish and when, nearly 40 years later and ‘sick in body but in good remembrance’, James Hyde made his will in May 1617 he left legacies to his two sons, Benjamin and Henry, and his three daughters, Mary, Joan and Elizabeth, as well as to his 12 grandchildren. The rest of his estate went to his wife Joan who survived him. I do not know where in Worth their house was but presumably their fireback stood prominently at the rear of their main fireplace. James Hyde was buried at Worth church on 27th January 1618 Old Style*.

If anyone who reads this knows of the whereabouts of the fireback previously at Sutton Hurst/Hall, or any others that might be from the same series (or any other firebacks, come to that) I would be delighted to hear from them. There is a link to my email address on the Home Page of this website.

*Old Style: Before 14th September 1752 Great Britain used the Julian Calendar and before 1752 the New Year began on 25th March, so dates from 1st January until then were written as in the previous year; thus if the Gregorian Calendar which we use now had been in use on 27th January 1618 it would have been written as 27th January 1619.

A pre-Reformation fireback?

Warbleton Priory, pictured in 1861

Sir John Pelham (d.1429) had grown up in modest circumstances in Warbleton in Sussex, but rose to become a senior figure in the governments of Henry IV and V and constable of Pevensey Castle, so he was in a position to provide 100 acres of land in his home parish for the canons of the Augustinian Priory at Hastings when their premises became uninhabitable. The new priory was dedicated in 1417. One hundred and twenty years later it would be closed down as a result of the dissolution of religious houses during the reign of Henry VIII. The priory was destroyed but a farmhouse which was constructed soon after, using stone from the demolished buildings, survives to this day.

Rev. Turner’s image of the fireback stamps

In 1861 a lengthy paper was published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections tracing the history of the priory at Hastings and its successor at Warbleton. In it the author, the Reverend Edward Turner, noted an iron fireback in one of the fireplaces and included an illustration of the repeated markings on it which were a cross and a Pelham buckle. The use by the Pelhams of a buckle as their badge dates back to an alleged incident at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 when John de Pelham was among those who captured King John of France, the buckle representing the surrendered sword of the French king.

A branding iron, of the sort that might have been used for the buckle stamp

Pelham buckles appear in a variety of forms on buildings, coats of arms, firebacks (see Pelham family firebacks) and even milestones. The ones on this fireback are unlike any of the others; they are formed of very thin lines, which would be hard to carve as a wooden stamp. The crosses are a bit more substantial and could have been impressed into the casting sand simply as two lengths of wood. My suggestion is that the buckles could have been impressed using a cattle branding iron, a tool that could have been fabricated by a blacksmith and which would necessarily have slender lines to minimise contact with the animal being branded.

What of this fireback’s age? The association of the priory with the Pelhams goes back to the early-15th century but smelting to make cast-iron was not introduced into England until about 1490, so if the fireback had been in the priory buildings before dissolution it would have to have been cast in the early-16th century. It could, of course, have been brought to the priory from another Pelham property elsewhere but the combination of crosses and buckles suggests that it might have been intended for a religious house that was associated with the Pelham family and, as such, could be one of the oldest English firebacks.

I first came across the fireback in 2009. It had been acquired by Ripley Forge and Fireplaces Ltd. of Robertsbridge. I immediately recognised it as the one Turner had illustrated. Having suffered considerable corrosion since the photograph above was taken, it was no longer in a state suitable for resale. They offered it to me in 2015. I cleaned it up and in so doing discovered a mass of iron slag on the reverse of the plate. This had resulted from slag floating on the iron in the furnace hearth not being tapped off completely before the metal was cast, causing some of it to end up on the upcast side of the fireback. Following basic restoration, I gave the fireback to the Sussex Archaeological Society for their museum at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes.

An early Sackville fireback

This heavily-worn fireback is in a house near Horsted Keynes in Sussex. The house was built in the late-Tudor period but part of it was demolished in the 1780s and then considerably restored in the 1930s. It seems likely, though, that there was an earlier house on the same site so it is not known whether the fireback was original to the property.

Firebacks with armorial shields are always intriguing and the small size of the shield did not make identification easy, but the dexter (or left) side had a distinctive feature – a bend vair – i.e. a diagonal stripe with a pattern representing squirrel pelts. In heraldry these are customarily coloured blue and white alternately, though other tinctures can also be used, as with the arms of the Farnden family which I showed on my note, ‘It’s not as old as it seems’. I had seen the bend vair before on the arms of the Sackville family which are widely found in eastern Sussex and Kent. The shield on this fireback seemed to belong to one of the Sackvilles, impaled with that of a couple of other families.

In the past the Sackvilles were a very influential family in east Sussex and west Kent, owning large numbers of manors and estates which included Ashdown Forest. They have, for many centuries, been based at Buckhurst in Withyham, although they also came to own Knole, outside Sevenoaks, now a National Trust property.

The arms of Fane impaling Colepeper in Mereworth church

The clue as to the identity of the two other families on the fireback shield came from one of the many magnificent stained glass windows in the church of St Lawrence in Mereworth, Kent. The window in question, in the Despencer Chapel, shows the arms of John Fane, 7th Earl of Westmoreland, who had the church rebuilt in the 18th century, surrounded by arms of his forebears. Among them is this small quarry (a diamond-shaped pane of glass) with the arms of Fane impaling Colepeper. In the top row are two ‘quarters’ with the same arms as on the right, or sinister, half of the shield on the fireback. Consulting Papworth’s Ordinary of Arms I found that they were the arms of Colepeper (Argent a bend engrailed gules) and Hardreshull (Argent a chevron sable between nine martlets gules, six and three). From that I was able to find out that Christopher, one of the sons of Richard Sackville of Withyham, had married Constance, daughter of Thomas Colepeper of Bedgebury in Kent.

The arms of Hardreshull

But where did Hardreshull come into this? Apparently, some seven generations earlier, in the 14th century a John Colepeper had married Elizabeth Hardreshull who was an heiress, entitling her family’s arms to be quartered with those of Colepeper thereafter.

The arms on Christopher Sackville’s fireback c.1541-59

So what do we know about Christopher Sackville and his wife? He had been born by 1519 and probably brought up at Chiddingly in Sussex. After his marriage to Constance, which had occurred by 1541, he gained a place at Court and also served in Henry VIII’s campaign in France. In 1558 he became MP for Heytesbury in Wiltshire. He was present at Queen Mary’s funeral in December 1558 but must have died shortly after. When he made his will in August of that year he was living in Worth, Sussex. Constance, with whom he had at least three children, survived him. Her family had been influential in Kent for several centuries, firstly at Bayhall in Pembury and later at Bedgebury in Goudhurst. Her father’s younger brother, also (curiously) named Thomas, was executed in 1541 for his romantic entanglement with Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Katherine Howard.

Christopher Sackville’s connection with Horsted Keynes is somewhat tenuous. His older brother Richard owned the iron furnace there, leasing it to Sir William Barrantyne, so it is possible that the fireback was cast at the local furnace. Wherever it was made, it would have been a unique casting and since Christopher and Constance Sackville were only together as husband and wife between about 1541 and 1559 the fireback must date from then, making it one of the earliest datable British firebacks.

The Last Duel

Having a keen interest in firebacks I am wont to peer into the recesses of fireplaces wherever I come across them in the hope of spotting some unrecorded gem. This even extends to historical documentaries and dramas on television and in films, in the hope that if I spot one I might be able to visit the place where it was filmed and add it to my ever-expanding database.

I did not expect to be doing so when I went to the cinema a few weeks ago to see Ridley Scott’s latest film, ‘The Last Duel’, which is set in late-14th century France. I enjoyed the film and it was evident that, for the most part, the production manager, Arthur Max, the art directors and their teams had striven to recreate a convincing medieval ‘feel’ to the film in the choice of locations and in the lighting and costume. Several historic sites were chosen to represent the places where scenes from the story occurred, as well as some interiors being created on sound stages at Bray in the Republic of Ireland.

However, I could not help but peer behind the characters talking on camera into the adjacent fireplaces, and what did see? firebacks! But this was supposed to be 14th-century France and cast iron, from which firebacks were made, was not introduced into France until well into the 15th century and certainly could not have produced the styles of firebacks that were being illuminated, some of which were of 17th-century date. A press release put out by Disney on 21 October 2021, the day the film opened in the USA, made much of the film’s authenticity but was this mere inattention to detail or something worse?

I began to research the locations used for filming and found one named in the press release where there was a fireplace with a fireback I could identify in several scenes. It was in the hall of one of the principal characters, Jean de Carrouges (played by Matt Damon). Chateau de Beynac is in the Dordogne and in its Great Hall is a grand fireplace with a fireback displaying three doves with olive branches, typical of those made in Germany for the Dutch market in the mid-17th century. How can the presence of such a specifically identifiable object be in any way authentic to a 14th-century setting? Could they not move the fireback, or was leaving it deliberate?

I searched other locations mentioned in the press release and on other websites but could find none of the other fireplaces visible in the film. I am guessing that they were in scenes with settings recreated on sound stages, for the press release made much of the ‘attention to detail’ that included replicating the texture of stonework. One such scene was the hall of Pierre d’Alençon (played by Ben Affleck), where there was another fireback. The Disney Company’s website disclosed that this was constructed in the studio, so the fireback must have been deliberately brought in as a prop. But why choose one that probably dated to 1653?

Scene from the film in the Carrouges’ bedroom
Scene from the film in Jacques le Gris’ room

I spotted two other firebacks in the film: one in the bedroom of Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer); the other in the room of Jacques le Gris (played by Adam Driver). Neither, of course, could have conceivably been present in 1386. Deliberately including firebacks when they are not of the period is an avoidable error and inevitably diminishes the claims made by the film’s producers of its ‘attention to detail’.

John Knight’s fireback

Chawton House, Hampshire (photo: Charles D. P. Miller; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

A distinctive, but rather worn, fireback is one of the features of Chawton House, near Alton in the north of Hampshire, that was noted in both of the articles that have been written about the place in Country Life. Best known now for its association with the novelist, Jane Austen, whose brother Edward inherited it, the house was built in 1580 by John Knight and passed down through the family, and various distant relatives and in-laws who all changed their names to Knight, until sold on a long lease in 1992 to a charitable trust as a study centre for early women’s writing.

The fireback is a variant of one of the forms of the frequently copied ‘Armada’ back; so-called because of its decoration with one or more anchors and the date 1588. These firebacks come in several versions because, unlike most others, their moulds were formed from the assembly of a number of interchangeable panels. The Chawton fireback would have started off in the version seen here which comprises a repeated outer panel showing a vine and bunches of grapes, a single central panel with an anchor with a coil of rope, two fleurs-de-lys and some roses, and a semi-circular panel on top which contains the date and the initials, IFC. In Domestic Metalwork 1640-1820 (1994), Belinda Gentle’s compendious revision of Rupert Gentle and Rachael Feild’s English Domestic Brass, she asserted that the letters stood for In Factiem Concepta, or ‘In Commemoration of the Dead’ but the phrase does not mean that, if indeed it means anything at all. Instead the initials probably relate to the person or people for whom the original fireback was made.

The casting at Chawton, however, has two significant differences: firstly, the initials have been replaced by IK; secondly, the back has been extended to each side and below, with a saltire of twisted rope on each side. This last feature was apotropaic and would have added a perceived measure of protection from malign forces that might enter the house down the chimney. What seems to have happened is that, early on in its history, the original fireback with the IFC initials was used as the pattern to make a larger casting and the opportunity was taken to alter the initials to IK in honour of John Knight. In its original form the fireback would not have been large enough for the fireplace where it stands to this day, so it is perhaps understandable that an easy solution would have been to make a larger copy and to personalise it in the process. Over the years, and it is probably the fireback noted in the inventory of Sir Richard Knight in 1679, constant corrosion from the flames of the fire wore the detail of the decoration away and caused the metal to crack badly.

In his recollections of changes at the house made since he was a boy, Montagu Knight related in about 1910 that his father, Edward Knight (1794-1879), had a new casting made from the older fireback because it was in such a poor state, but that this had later cracked and Montagu had the older back repaired and put back where it remains to this day. The nineteenth-century replacement fireback survives in two pieces and I was shown it in the stables and have been able to reunite the two pieces digitally. A further extension had been added with four more saltires, and it was evident that in the time since the earlier Chawton fireback had been used to cast the later one the former had suffered even more wear.

Every dog has its day

What seems to be a feature unique to English firebacks is the use of andirons, or firedogs, as decorative stamps. I have come across eight different examples, on the complete ones of which they are arranged as pairs or trios. This may be for the purposes of symmetry but the trios may also have an apotropaic, or evil-averting, function, trios being suggestive of the Holy Trinity. Andirons, of course, date back to much earlier than firebacks, blacksmiths fabricating them out of wrought iron, which they continued to do after cast iron ones were introduced in the sixteenth century. Only the cast dogs were used to decorate backs, often, no doubt, because they incorporated decorative elements in their own right, such as initials, shields or dates, and enabled their owners to complete sets of personalised hearth furniture.

One or two have been quite elaborate in their design, such as the examples seen here on firebacks in houses near Rogate and Wisborough Green. The latter may have included some elements of brass as well as iron.

It is very satisfying, therefore, to encounter andirons of the type that have been noted on firebacks and, so far, two have come to light. The first can be seen on two slightly different backs, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see below) and the other in the Sussex Archaeological Society’s collection at Anne of Cleves House, in Lewes. They are varied only by the number and placement of fleurs-de-lys. The dogs displayed have distinctive twisted stems and a shield that bears the crossed staple badge of the Nevill family who, as Lords Bergavenny or as a cadet branch from Berkshire, operated ironworks in the Sussex Weald in the 16th century.

One of a pair of andirons at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes, Sussex

While I have yet to find an exact example of the firedog, a pair survives that differ only in that on the shield they bear the initials ‘RH’ instead of the staples (see right). It would be tempting to ascribe those initials to Ralph Hogge, the pioneering Wealden gun founder, but there will have been plenty of other people to whom those initials could have applied.

The burning of ten martyrs in Lewes in 1557

A fireback in Hastings Museum, that has been illustrated in several articles in the past, has a trio of andirons on which is a small shield with the initials ‘RW’ (see below). The back came to the museum from Cralle Place, at Warbleton in east Sussex, which had been the home in the 1500s of Richard Woodman. He was a yeoman farmer and ironmaster, but most famously was a martyr to his Protestant faith during the reign of Queen Mary I, being burnt to death with nine others in Lewes in 1557. It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the initials on the andirons could have been his.

The ‘face’ on the ‘RW’ andirons on the Hastings fireback

Excavations in 2017 at Bridge Cottage, an old house in Uckfield, Sussex, turned up a single casting of an andiron of almost identical design down to the same initials, though with one minor difference. The rounded knob on the top of the dog shown on the fireback has a primitive face, while the excavated one does not.

Whose fireback, whose arms?

The arms of Pierrepont

This fireback came up for auction recently and it is a bit of a puzzle precisely whose arms are displayed on it. The auctioneers described them as those of the Duke of Kingston but that is incorrect because the coronet above the shield has alternate strawberry leaves and balls along the top of the circlet which denotes it as that of a marquess. If it had been the coronet of a duke there would have just been a row of strawberry leaves. In fact the arms are those of the Marquess of Dorchester, who was a member of the Pierrepont family of Thoresby Hall near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire. Wittily their motto, Pie Repone Te (In pious confidence), is a pun on their name. The date on the fireback, 1728, seems to pin down when it was cast although whose the initials AH were is not known.

But the date is not when the original fireback was made for there is another casting of the same back which has the earlier date of 1722, and different initials, although as the second letter is again an H members of the same family may have been involved. This casting, which has used the same pattern as the first one, has been made into a larger fireback by extending the mould all round (rather crudely it must be admitted) and adding a date formed from small individual numerals lopsidedly across the top. The fact that the initials are clearly added – they are placed askew and were pressed a little too firmly into the mould so that the backing can be seen – indicates that the original fireback had no date and no initials, and is better represented by the 1728 casting.

In 1722 the Marquess of Dorchester was Evelyn Pierrepont who had succeeded his brother as 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull in 1690 and had been created marquess in 1706. However, by 1722 he had been elevated even further as Duke of Kingston since 1715. So if he had had a fireback cast with the arms of the Dorchester marquisate it would only have been between 1706 and 1715 when it was his senior title.

The 1728 casting dates from when Evelyn’s grandson, also Evelyn, had succeeded to the titles as 2nd Duke, 2nd Marquess (and 6th Earl). His mother, Rachel Baynton, had been born Rachel Hall, and it is possible that the initials on both firebacks could relate to members of her family.

Why the solution to whose arms are actually on the fireback is confused even further is because a previous member of the Pierrepont family had also been created Marquess of Dorchester. Henry Pierrepont succeeded to the title of 2nd Earl of Kingston on the death of his father in 1643 and was created Marquess of Dorchester two years later. However, he died without male heirs in 1680 so the marquisate became extinct. Therefore the original fireback, from which the two castings under discussion were moulded, could have dated from between 1645 and 1680.

The question therefore remains: was the original fireback cast for Henry, the first member of the Pierrepont family to be created Marquess of Dorchester; or was it cast for Evelyn Pierrepont, Henry’s great-nephew, for whom the marquisate was revived in 1706?

The Stocks Market statue

Two versions are known of a seventeenth-century fireback on which is portrayed an equestrian figure trampling a supine victim. The statue is mounted on a plinth on each side of which a ‘herb woman’ is seated with a basket of fruit or flowers. The pictorial panel is surrounded by a bead edging of arched rectangular or ‘Palladian’ shape, on each side of which stands a Solomonic column with trailing vine decoration, supporting a fillet-edged border surmounted by a crown between two reposing figures. On one of the two versions of this fireback, seen here on the right, are the letters ‘ƆC R’, with the ‘Cs’ interlocked, representing Charles II and his queen, Catherine of Braganza. The ‘R’ is significantly larger than the other letters, and is evidently from a different font stock, the letters probably having been impressed independently of the original design before casting.

The other version differs in that there is only one letter ‘C’, the plinth appears to be slightly smaller and in a different form, and it has the date, 1674 (with the 7 and 4 reversed), placed on the front of the plinth. Again the letters are from different font stocks and would have been separately impressed on the original casting. The proportions of the two firebacks differ slightly, the dated example being slightly narrower. Although in similar form to continental firebacks of the mid- to late-seventeenth century, their rather more squat proportions are different, and the scene has a quality which is more characteristic of some English firebacks. This is borne out when the source for the equestrian figure is known.

The statue in Stocks Market c.1720

In the late 1660s Sir Robert Vyner, Bt., goldsmith, banker to Charles II and soon to be Lord Mayor of London, acquired an unfinished marble statue. Purchased from a stonemason’s in Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy, and originally intended as an equestrian statue of Jan Sobieski, the then commander of the Polish armies in their war against the Tatars, and who was crowned king of Poland in 1676. He was portrayed seated on a charger, riding down the figure of a Tatar or Turk. Shipping the statue to England, Vyner had the face of Sobieski altered by the sculptor Jaspar Latham to look like King Charles II, and the face of the Tatar changed to resemble that of Oliver Cromwell, albeit with the Tatar’s turban still in place. Vyner then had the statue erected on an 18-foot-high plinth in Stocks Market, Poultry, at the eastern end of Cheapside, on 29th October 1672. The erection of the statue was the subject of a satirical poem, ‘On the Statue in Stocks Market’ by Andrew Marvell, which drew attention to its less than flattering likeness to King Charles as well as to Sir Robert Vyner’s questionable motives in donating it. It continued to attract opprobrium, James Ralph, in his Critical Review of the public buildings, statues etc. in London in 1734 commenting that it was a thing “so ridiculous and absurd, it is not in one’s power to look upon it without reflecting on the taste of those who set it up”.

The statue stood in Stocks Market for 65 years until it was decided that the location should be redeveloped for the construction of a residence for the Lord Mayor. After some debate as to whether Leadenhall Market would be a better location, the statue was taken down on 17th March 1737/8* and, for want of anywhere else to put it, stored in a builder’s shed. The Mansion House was built in its place. This event also attracted some satirical verses, though this time they were anonymous. Sometime later an enterprising innkeeper re-erected the statue in his yard, until in 1779 the city corporation acceded to a request from Sir Robert Vyner’s great-nephew and namesake for its return. He had it transported to his seat at Gautby Hall in Lincolnshire, where it stood on an island in a lake until 1883, it then being removed to Yorkshire and installed in front of Newby Hall, near Ripon, which had come to the Vyner family by marriage, and where it remains to this day.

*In 1738 Britain was still using the Julian calendar in which New Years Day was 25th March, so 17th March in that year was regarded as still being in 1737.

Guns and Roses (and Crowns)

There is an established link between the casting of firebacks and of graveslabs, distinctive motifs or styles of lettering indicating that their production sometimes shared a common pattern-maker or location. Some of the artisans who made firebacks would have been skilled in other branches of the iron trade, and a significant specialism of some of the furnaces in the Weald of south-east England was gun founding. So it should be no surprise to find decorative elements associated with ordnance having a secondary use on firebacks.

This splendid fireback is in a house near Rolvenden in Kent. It is undated, and while the initials ‘ER’ in all probability refer to either King Edward VI or his sister, Queen Elizabeth, there is no clue as to who was represented by the initials IC, which are likely to be of the founder or the person for whom the fireback was cast. The thrice-stamped crowned rose within a Garter, however, bears a striking resemblance to the badges that adorned early bronze, and some iron, naval guns, notably those made for the armament of ships such as the Mary Rose, which sank so dramatically at Portsmouth in 1545. It is comparable in size with examples that adorn medium-sized guns such as sakers and, being over-pressed into the sand mould into which the iron for the fireback was poured, the backing of this stamp shows that it would have originated as a piece of carved woodwork. My guess is that this was a reuse of a pattern or model made to decorate a gun. A brief examination of the badges on a variety of guns belonging to the Royal Armouries and the National Army Museum shows that they are unique to the guns on which they are found, and that gun founders used a different pattern for each of the guns they made. The French founder, Peter Baude, the Arcanus family from Cesena in Italy, and the Owen and Mayo brothers from England all made bronze guns for the navy in the Tudor period. The chances of finding a gun with the identical rose and crown are remote but were it to happen it would establish a link between the founder of that gun and an iron furnace in the Weald.

A fireback of 1695 in the collection of Brighton Museum. Sussex

This fireback also has a rose and crown stamp. Although of a much later date and a smaller size, the stamp is of a style that was typical from the second half of the 16th century and could also have originated as the royal badge on pieces of artillery and then remained in the stock of stamps at the furnace where it was subsequently used to decorate firebacks. No less than seven firebacks, made between 1677 and 1699, bear the same stamp. As yet, no gun has been found with the identical rose and crown.

‘Made in Sussex by John Harvo’

This is that rarest of firebacks, on which the person who made it did not merely place their initials but identified themselves with their full name. The raised strip bearing the inscription had been carved on the original model or pattern from which it and several others have since been cast. John Harvo was an iron founder who lived in Sussex in the mid-sixteenth century and operated the iron furnace at Pounsley in the parish of Framfield. There he cast guns and round shot (i.e. cannon balls) for the Crown for which there are surviving records of payments he received in 1547 and 1550, even being referred to at the time as ‘the kinges gonnstone maker of Iron’. Perhaps somewhat late in life, he married Anne Bennys at Framfield in 1558. An official copy of John Harvo’s will, which he made in 1562, has survived. From it we can surmise that he had no children, or if he had they predeceased him, for his bequests went to his brothers or his nephews, and to colleagues and friends. To his wife he left the lease of his house and land, and his furnace and mill, though we know from other records that the furnace was subsequently operated by Robert Hodgson, who was both a beneficiary of, and a witness to, the will. John Harvo was buried at Framfield in 1562 but probate was not granted to his wife as executrix until January 1566. We do not know how old he was when he died but to have reached a position by 1547 of supplying guns for the royal service he is likely to have been at least in his thirties then, and possibly in his fifties by the time of his death.

The pattern or model for the fireback was evidently made specifically for John Harvo; why else would he have had his name carved on it? It was clearly not an afterthought as the strip bearing the inscription passes beneath the strap end of the Garter that encircles the royal shield. Had being a contractor to the Crown brought him a commission to cast some firebacks with the royal arms on them? The arms are actually those of Henry VII, with the quartered shield of France and England, in use since the time of Henry V, supported by a dragon and a greyhound. Henry VIII continued to use the same supporters during his reign, so the original pattern will have dated from then. The superior quality of the carving suggests that whoever made the pattern worked at a ‘professional’ level and was probably aware of the latest changes in royal heraldry, and would have avoided designing arms that were out of date.

The initials E and R would not have been part of the original pattern. It has been shown by their use on a couple of other firebacks that they were separate stamps, presumably added to later castings in an attempt, perhaps, to honour King Edward VI or, less probably, Queen Elizabeth, and they have been on copies ever since. No example of the fireback without those letters has been recorded.

Many examples of this fireback have extension panels to make the casting wider. John Starkie Gardner, the first to write about firebacks with some authority, recognised its importance but did not believe that it was intended as a fireback in its own right as it was not wider than it was high, which he saw as a prerequisite for backs of its period. Instead he assumed that it was always meant to have additional side panels, left blank for other decoration. He was not aware of John Harvo’s role as an iron founder so could not appreciate his deliberate intention implicit in identifying himself on the pattern.

Two more examples with extension panels of different designs.

To find out about a spurious example of this fireback, read the note, “O what a tangled web we weave…”

A pattern reused

This fireback came up for auction in 2019 and when I saw it I was intrigued by the design and by its distinctive grouping of shields. A Norfolk connection was indicated in the information provided by the auction house and I was able to identify three of the arms displayed as those of Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn. An email to the Norfolk Heraldry Society elicited an informative response: the other shields were of Thetford and, in the centre, those of Robert John Harvey, sometime Sheriff of Norfolk, whose shield was intended to represent the county (its official grant of arms was not received until 1904). Furthermore, they were in an arrangement that was on the ‘Norwich Gates’ at the Royal residence of Sandringham.

A picture postcard of the Norwich Gates at Sandringham; the panels can be seen at the bottom of each of the main pillars
The 1862 International Exhibition building at South Kensington

Sandringham had been purchased in 1863 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) as a residence for him and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and the grand gates had been a gift to them from the people of Norfolk on the occasion of their marriage that year. They had been designed by Thomas Jeckyll and made by the Norwich firm of iron founders, Barnard, Bishop and Barnard, with whom Jeckyll had a long association. They had been displayed the previous year at the International Exhibition at South Kensington An early photograph of the gates shows them without panels, they being added, it seems, soon after installation.

What evidently happened is that the pattern for the two panels – they were fitted into recesses in the main pedestals facing away from the house – was reused to cast the fireback, maybe several of them, as well as at least one separate plate, seen here painted with the appropriate colours for the shields, which was perhaps a spare gate panel. The panels remain on the gates to this day.

“England ruled by an Orange”*

William and Mary at the time of their coronation in 1689

Writing in Old Furniture in 1929, G. B. Hughes noted the absence of firebacks bearing the arms of King William III and Queen Mary II, a statement which my cataloguing of over 800 backs has failed to disprove. Together, and from 1694 William alone, they reigned for 14 years and the strong Dutch influence that William’s tenure of the throne stimulated saw the importation of a distinctive style of firebacks that had been popular in the Netherlands since that country gained its independence from Spain in 1648. Furthermore, English pastiches of the Dutch style were also being produced in some quantity, and continued to do so throughout the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

So this continental fireback with William and Mary’s arms is of great interest. It is a handsome casting, albeit a copy, but close examination reveals that, as might be expected, the arms displayed should be interpreted from a Dutch perspective, not an English one. The arms displayed are, in fact, those of William as Prince of Orange rather than as King of Great Britain, though they date from when he was king.

William and Mary’s arms as Prince and Princess of Orange 16858

When was the fireback made? As a princess, Mary’s arms will have been a variation of those of her father, James, Duke of York, the difference being a label across the top. When her father was crowned king in 1685, he had no sons so Mary became heir presumptive, and her coat of arms reflected this change in status with a simple label of three points. However, the arms on the fireback show William’s arms as Prince of Orange impaling (i.e. next to) Mary’s arms without the label, suggesting that it dates to the period between 1689, when Mary had become queen, and her death in 1694.

William and Mary’s arms as King and Queen of England 1689-94

As king and queen of England the combined arms of William and Mary were different. King William’s arms were the same as Mary’s save for the addition of an escutcheon of Nassau, the Dutch royal house, and as before they were impaled with Mary’s arms. The Scottish version of the arms was almost the same, though the red lion rampant was given precedence. It is a fireback with this combination of arms that seems never to have been made. Perhaps the intricacy of the carving made pattern makers baulk at the prospect of rendering the shield effectively, though their continental counterpart seems to have done a pretty good job.

*W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, 1066 and all that (London, Methuen, 1930), ch. 38.

“O what a tangled web we weave…”

This fireback was sold by a famous auction house in 2008, where it was described in the sale catalogue as ‘An Elizabethan Cast-Iron Fireback by John Harvo of Sussex, 16th century’. It fetched £1,375. When I saw this photograph of it a few years later I was struck by several details which suggested to me that its authenticity was unconvincing. There was something about the ‘chunkiness’ of the various stamps that adorned its side panels that did not seem right, yet its overall design was familiar.

There are several castings of the John Harvo fireback, most with side panels like this one, but some without, and the name by which it is known derives from the inscription below the arms which states ‘Made in Sussex by John Harvo’, clearly readable on early castings but less so on copies. Because the stamps used on the side panels would have to be re-arranged for each casting all the examples I had recorded differed to a greater or lesser extent, unless what I was looking at was a copy made from another fireback. Where I had seen this arrangement of stamps before was on a drawing of a badly damaged fireback from Chailey that Mark Antony Lower had included in his seminal article on the Wealden iron industry published in the Sussex Archaeological Collections in 1849, and shown here.

Of course, it would be a mistake to trust Lower’s drawing implicitly but there are other firebacks which use some of the same stamps with which direct comparisons can be made. The ‘rose-en-soleil’ stamp appears on another fireback in Hastings Museum but it has faint flowers around its edge which are absent on the one sold in 2008. The flower head (is it a rose?) on the same back is certainly very similar. And the same letter E is seen on a fireback in Lewes, though somewhat more delicate in its delineation. The ‘bird’s’ head on the side panel has not been recorded on another fireback, so no comparison is possible.

Where the 2008 fireback really betrays its fakery, though, is in the modelling of the dragon, the supporter on the left of the arms. On Lower’s drawing the top of it is missing altogether so whoever attempted to pass this fireback off as genuine needed to be able make a copy of the head of the dragon from another casting of John Harvo’s original. This never happened, as can be seen in the detail from an early casting also in Hastings. The 2008 version is quite different, there is no hint of the dragon’s wing and the dragon’s mouth extends further upwards and to the right.

It saddens me that the auction house was taken in by this fake, and that the purchaser paid so much for something that it was not.

To read more about John Harvo, follow this link

It’s not as old as it seems

The arms of Baker of Mayfield

This fireback is in Barbican House, next to the Castle in Lewes. At first glance it seems perfectly respectable with its coat of arms and date. But it is not; the date is spurious, and we know this because of whose arms they are. They are the arms of Baker quartering Farnden. John Baker (1643-1724) was a scion of an extensive family based around Mayfield in Sussex, and in 1668 he had inherited from his father the iron furnace to the north of the village. For reasons that I will come to later, though, it is unlikely that the fireback was cast there. The Bakers had been granted arms which were blazoned as Argent, a tower between three keys erect sable.

The arms of Farnden of Sedlescombe
Ruth Baker, née Farnden
© East Sussex Record Office (East Sussex County Council)

In 1663 John Baker married Ruth Farnden (1646-91) who was the youngest of the 11 daughters of Peter Farnden of Sedlescombe, a wealthy Sussex ironmaster who ran ironworks at Crowhurst, Brede, Westfield and Beckley. He had been granted arms in 1634, which were blazoned Purpure, between three leopard’s heads Or a chevron vairy Or and gules. Because Peter Farnden’s four sons had all predeceased him, his surviving daughters were co-heiresses. That led to the distribution of his estate being a very complicated business, but that need not concern us here.

The married arms of John Baker

Under the rules laid down by the heralds, following John and Ruth’s marriage the arms of the two families were marshalled so that the Farnden shield was placed as an escutcheon of pretence in front of the Baker shield. This arrangement endured until Ruth Baker, as she had become, died in June 1691, whereupon their families’ arms were quartered as they appear on the fireback. So a date of 1690 on a fireback with arms that did not apply until 1691 is clearly incorrect.

But the date is also spurious for another reason. The fireback is one of a small series of backs bearing a particular design of armorials of families of ironmasters. Undated castings of the Baker fireback are known, as are examples of the arms of the Fuller family of Brightling who operated Heathfield Furnace. And a clear casting of one of the latter reveals a date of 1747 that had been carved onto the original pattern in the four corners of the shield. Another casting, at Brightling Park where the Fullers lived, has the Fuller arms on the same shaped back as the Baker ones. So the strong probability is that this series of firebacks was produced in or around the 1740s and at Heathfield, as the Bakers’ furnace at Mayfield had ceased operation several decades earlier. The arms quartering Baker and Farnden remained unaltered for the next generations, but what occasioned the adding of the date 1690 to a casting of a fireback probably made 50 years later, or who was responsible, is a mystery.

What is a salamander?

The arms of the Ironmongers’ Company

The coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, one of the great twelve livery companies of London, has as both its supporters and its crest pairs of salamanders, amphibians related to newts. In folklore it was believed that they could survive in fire, which perhaps explains their presence in the Ironmongers’ arms. Heralds and woodcarvers in early modern England, however, had no concept of what a salamander looked like, the creatures not being indigenous to the British Isles. So in the few instances where they have been displayed on an English fireback they have been interpreted as dog-like creatures, as on the crest above the helmet in this representation of the arms of the Ironmonger’s Company.

It is highly probable that the pattern for the fireback was a painted armorial for it can be seen that the motto scroll below the shield is blank, suggesting that one of the Company’s mottoes, ‘God is Our Strength’ or ‘Assher Dure’ (from the French Acier Dur – Hard Steel), would have been merely painted lettering. If the arms had been carved specifically as the pattern for the fireback one would have expected the motto to stand out in relief. The same anomaly has been observed on a few other backs. Ascribing a probable date to the fireback was assisted by an illustration in Country Life in 1946 of another casting of the same back that had been discovered near Chichester in Sussex. Helpfully, it had been cast with the date 1660 added to it, as well as a pair of initials. I wonder where that fireback is now.

There is another fireback that has a salamander shown as a dog, this time with an arrow-like tongue and what appear to be hooves. It is shown as salamanders are traditionally portrayed, with flames rising around it. Used as a pattern, this same fireback, together with another one, was incorporated into a larger back which I recorded several years ago in a farmhouse at Ardingly in Sussex. In addition it has elements seen on other backs. There are a number of instances where smaller firebacks have been used as panels to decorate a larger casting and I call them composite firebacks. The practice was also frequently employed on French backs.

Salamander badge on a 16th century French cannon

A 17th-century English craftsman who evidently had a better idea of what a salamander looked like was the one whose initials, IM, appear on some of the firebacks whose patterns he carved. Clearly he was familiar with French royal iconography, for the salamander was the badge of King Francis I (reigned 1515-1547), and the creature this otherwise anonymous pattern-maker placed on the small fireback he designed in 1650 more closely resembles the French model.

There is a twist to this tale, however, for a casting of the same fireback is in the collection of the Sussex Archaeological Society at Anne of Cleves House, Lewes, in East Sussex, but on it the date is 1550, not 1650. The photograph shows that the first ‘5’, while exactly the same shape and size as the second one, is much more clearly defined and must have been substituted somehow at a much later date. In a short note written in 1957 Dr Hans Schubert, the historian of the British iron industry, quoted Professor William Lethaby who described this palimpsest as having been forged – in both senses of the word!

A royal badge

Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein (Royal Collection)

This fireback stands in a house in Woodchurch, in Kent. Its somewhat plain appearance belies a connection with one of the great dramas of Tudor England. For on its surface are three impressions of the badge of Anne Boleyn, which is first known from the Letters Patent raising Anne to the peerage as Lady Marquess of Pembroke in 1532, eight months before she married Henry VIII and became his second queen. Later, her daughter Queen Elizabeth I would also use it.

The badge shows a crowned falcon holding a sceptre and standing on an oak tree stump from which are issuing red and white roses. As with heraldic badges in general, Anne’s badge comprises several symbolic elements: the falcon represented the earldom of Ormonde to which her father, Thomas, was heir; the tree stump or ‘woodstock’ may refer to Henry VIII’s Plantagenet lineage, the manor of that name being a significant royal property for centuries; and the red and white roses signify the houses of Lancaster and York from which Henry was descended through his father, Henry VII, and his mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV.

Hever Castle, Kent

While the badges on the fireback had been placed carefully in the sand mould, the initials ‘T’ and ‘B’ appear to have been added as an afterthought, perhaps to a subsequent casting. The ‘B’ is a bit odd, and looks as though it could have been a pair of shackles were it not a mere 8.6cm high. Whatever was used it was certainly not from a traditional character set; other instances are known of objects being employed as a substitute for letters on firebacks. The obvious question is, whose initials were they? The ‘B’ invites the assumption that it stands for Boleyn, the ‘T’ perhaps for Anne’s father, and that this fireback once stood in the Boleyn family’s seat at Hever Castle, 40 miles from Woodchurch. But we will probably never know.

And finally the slots cut into the bottom of the fireback. They are seen in a variety of forms on a small number of backs, and are to accommodate andirons, or iron firedogs, on which burning logs would be placed.

A mystery solved

On their website Herefordshire Libraries have a black and white photograph of this fireback, which is at Fawley Court, Brockhampton. Taken in the early years of the last century by the antiquarian Alfred Watkins, it shows more clearly the crack across the lower part of the plate. Cracks across firebacks caused by temperature differentials are not uncommon. However this crack is more than it seems for it hides an entire missing portion of the fireback.

The arms on the fireback, which are of the Kyrle family of Much Marcle in the same county, are notable for their crest of the hedgehog, or urchin as it is sometimes called in heraldry. Sir John Kyrle may have operated an iron furnace at Whitchurch, between Monmouth and Ross, and so may have had this back cast there. The carver of the pattern for the fireback was also responsible for a couple of other firebacks that I have noted. The date on the fireback, however, is suspicious as the ‘2’ seems stylistically different to the other numbers and may indicate that it was changed, from a ‘1’ perhaps, before this casting was made.

Over to the east, in Gloucestershire, lies the village of Flaxley where there was another iron furnace that, in the late-17th century, was owned by William Boevey. He lived at Flaxley Abbey where there were a couple of firebacks that bear his initials (one was sold recently). Both have the date 1685 of which the ‘5’ is particularly distinctive, having a minimal curve at the bottom.

The same date with the curious number five turned up on a Kyrle fireback recently which solves the question of the missing portion of the one at Fawley Court. Trailing tassels from the heraldic mantling are missing from the Fawley Court casting, a cunning bit of blacksmithing having rejoined the broken parts. Evidently the original pattern for the Kyrle fireback, or more probably an existing fireback, was used to make another casting, but this time at Flaxley for it would have been at that furnace that the stock of numbers would have included the distinctive ‘5’.

“Call me Risley”

I first came across what I thought was this fireback in a scrapbook compiled by John Starkie Gardner, an early and well-informed writer on firebacks, who had been Keeper of Metalwork at what was then the South Kensington Museum but is now the Victoria and Albert Museum – the V&A. He had assembled hundreds of photographs, sketches and cuttings from publications and pasted them into several of these scrapbooks which were then at the Beecroft Gallery in Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex. They are now in the V&A Archive of Art and Design. The cutting gave no clue as to where it had been taken from. I saw the actual fireback when I visited a lovely house in Huddington, Worcestershire, to record an interesting collection there. I had no idea at the time whose elaborate arms were displayed on its surface and I feared it would be a difficult task trying to identify them given the indistinct detail on the casting. Its irregular shape also suggested it might have once been a larger fireback cut down, perhaps to fit in a smaller hearth.

The Wriothesley arms at South Warnborough church

As is so often the case when I have tried to identify arms on firebacks, luck played its part and I spotted the shield on a 17th century map of Hampshire. They were the arms of the Earls of Southampton, whose most distinguished member, and likely subject of the fireback, was Thomas Wriothesley, Lord Chancellor at the end of Henry VIII’s reign. In Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Bring up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, she has him announcing himself with “Call me Risley” to explain the pronunciation of his name. He was drawn and painted by Holbein, and his arms are displayed on his Garter stall plate in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and on a window in the parish church at South Warnborough, Hampshire.

As to the source of the fireback it was not until I had made the acquaintance of a collector at Wigmore in Herefordshire, who sent me photographs of the backs in his possession, that I was able to associate the Huddington fireback with a known series. As well as Wriothesley’s arms, on the Wigmore fireback are 13 little figures that are stamps frequently seen on what I have termed the ‘Royal’ series of firebacks. Some writers have described them as ‘mummers’ or ‘imps’, their postures suggesting mischief-making, and they can be seen in three forms on different backs in the series.

I subsequently discovered where Starkie Gardner had found the clipping that had alerted me to this fireback. It was in an article he had written on ‘Old Wealden Ironwork at Warnham Court’ in Country Life in 1907. Warnham Court in Sussex, then the property of Mr C. J. Lucas, had a collection of firebacks that appeared as illustrations in several of Starkie Gardner’s published works. But the fireback at Warnham was not the same one as I had seen at Huddington, for the twisted rope edging was different and the rope crosses below the shield, presumably apotropaic, or intended to avert evil, were a different shape too, although the overall shape of the back was very similar and presumably not trimmed, as I had previously thought. So there had been at least two similar castings with Wriothesley’s shield in addition to the Wigmore one. One never stops learning in the quest for firebacks!

The Wriothesley fireback at Warnham Court, Sussex (Country Life, 25 May 1907)

My Ashburnham fireback

If I remember correctly, my mother told me that, back in the 1950s, she and my father were driving through the village of Hooe, near where we lived in Bexhill, in Sussex, when they spotted an iron fireback amongst some builder’s rubble outside a cottage that was being renovated. They stopped and enquired of the builder what was to happen to the fireback and were told that it was no longer wanted. Asking if they could buy it, the builder let them have it for a couple of pounds. For years it stood in a rusted state in our garage until my father decided to have it cleaned up and painted. When, in the 1970s, they moved house, the fireback was brought indoors and displayed in front of a redundant chimney breast. After my parents died and their house was sold I inherited the fireback, and it is what sparked my interest in these, often enigmatic, domestic relics. What attracts me to this fireback, and I suspect attracted my father in particular, was the strong connection it had with the area where we lived for, almost uniquely, we know without any shadow of a doubt where it was made.

In 1883 passed away William Hobday who, as a ten-year-old boy, 70 years earlier, had been witness to the end of iron smelting in Sussex with the blowing out of Ashburnham Furnace. He had continued to live near where the old furnace had stood and had been custodian of two of the original wooden patterns, or models, that had been used at the furnace to form the moulds from which firebacks had been cast. Such patterns are very rare; I know of only five of British origin that have survived. Crucially, one of the patterns William Hobday kept had been used to make my fireback.

The fireback bears an image of the classical hero Herakles ready to slay the seven-headed Hydra, one of the twelve labours that he had been tasked with by his master, Eurystheus. The particular design on the fireback was probably derived from a book illustration or a set of engravings, but I have not been able to identify it yet. At the bottom of the casting, below the picture, is the monogram TAN, which will have been the initials of the pattern maker, as the same monogram appears on two other firebacks.

Being moulded from a pattern, it was, of course, a simple matter for any number of examples of the fireback to be made, and several castings are known to exist and have been illustrated in books and articles. At an exhibition of the Wealden iron industry that I helped to organise at the Priest House in West Hoathly in the 1980s, I included both the Herakles fireback and its pattern, which I borrowed from the Sussex Archaeological Society. Both of the patterns that William Hobday had kept had been presented to the society by their owner, The Earl of Ashburnham. So, fireback and pattern were reunited for the first time, I suspect, since the one was cast from the other maybe two centuries earlier.

One of Charles Tyler’s firebacks

Back in 2018 the Kent Archaeological Society published a short article that I had written in which I proposed that the initials seen on most dated examples of a group of firebacks bearing shields with the arms of the 16th century judge, William Ayloffe, and his wife Jane were those of a founder, Charles Tyler. Tyler’s working life almost exactly matched the date range of the firebacks and suggested they had been cast at a succession of furnaces where he worked in west Kent during the first three decades of the 17th century. With one exception, all the reported examples were large castings, in excess of 4ft, or 1.22m, wide and all but two had been decorated with at least 13 identical shields.

While smaller castings with fewer shields, but without dates or initials, are more frequently encountered, I regarded the likelihood of coming across other dated ones as remote. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my late wife and I called in for a lunchtime snack at The Crown Inn, in Horsted Keynes, recently re-opened after a disastrous fire, and what should I see in the fireplace but a small, dated Ayloffe fireback. Only 2ft 6ins wide and with a mere five shields, it nevertheless bore the initials, CT and a date of 1609. I made an appointment to go back a few days later and record its details. That was in February 2019.

The fireback I bought, as advertised

Since then the pandemic and other misfortunes have curtailed the search for firebacks, until a few weeks ago when vaccination began to give one a renewed sense of freedom. I was browsing the internet for firebacks, as I do from time to time, and I lighted upon one for sale on eBay. What excited me was that it was another dated Ayloffe back. The photograph was unprepossessing but it looked ‘period’ and in reasonable condition, and the price was good. Having a modern house without space for more than the one fireback I already owned, and which I had inherited from my parents, I had always resigned myself to not being a collector. But this was too good to miss. I paid the price without making an offer and arranged to collect it the following day; at 2ft 10ins wide it fitted comfortably on a pallet in the boot of my car (raising it on a pallet makes it easier to lift out). What I brought home after a 150 mile round trip was a 1612 casting with eight shields and, once again, Charles Tyler’s initials. After writing the article about him it only seemed right that I should own one of his creations.

Restoring it was a three-stage process. After a stiff brushing to remove all the surface particles I used a paint brush to apply a dose of a proprietary rust-remover called Scale-X (there are other products that will do the same job, I daresay), agitating the brush as I did so. Discolouration of the liquid as I applied it showed that it had begun to eat into the rust. After a while I washed the liquid off and reapplied it, repeating this several times. When I was satisfied that the bulk of the surface rust had been removed, I began work on the surface with a rotating wire brush attached to an electric drill. You can buy sets of wire brushes of different sizes and it is useful to have a range of shapes and sizes to work around the varied forms of the decorative relief on the fireback. This is laborious work and a disadvantage with modern battery-powered hand drills, compared with mains-powered ones, is that you exhaust the batteries faster than they recharge. This eventually brings the surface of the fireback to a clean polish. Finally, to protect it and to give it a pleasing metallic finish, I brushed on a blacklead product such as Stovax, working it in to all the corners and crevices, and rubbing it all over with a cloth to burnish it. Beware, this is dirty work, but the result is worth it.

Charles Dawson and a fireback

A woman sitting at a fireplace containing a fireback

On the home page of this website is the picture of a girl sitting in front of an inglenook in which there stands an impressive fireback with a motley collection of images upon its surface. The photograph appeared as the frontispiece of an article on ‘Sussex Iron Work and Pottery’ in volume 46 of the Sussex Archaeological Collections, published in 1903. The author of the article, and seemingly of the photograph, was Charles Dawson, who was later to achieve notoriety from the ‘scandal’ of the Piltdown Man. Dawson gave no clue as to the fireback’s whereabouts.

In 2000 I had given a couple of talks on the Wealden iron industry in the village of Waldron as part of their Millennium Festival, and the organisers kindly presented me with a copy of a recently published book on the village. I had not, at that time, begun in earnest my research into firebacks, so it was consigned to my bookcase without it being given much attention.

Several years later, when I had begun to leaf through the pages of books on Wealden villages in search of references to firebacks, I returned to it and found in its pages a different photograph of the same fireplace and with the same fireback, but this time with an elderly couple, Caleb and Philadelphia Newnham, sitting beside it. In the text it gave the location as Heronsdale, a farm within the parish. I duly contacted the owners of Heronsdale and arranged a visit, but I was disappointed to discover that the fireback was no longer there, and the then owners could not recall to where exactly it had been removed.

During the next year I had traced the fireback to Wickham Manor, a property belonging to the National Trust near Winchelsea. I arranged a visit and, sure enough, there it was but, frustratingly, a wood-burning stove had been placed in front of it so I was unable to photograph it for the database. What I was able to confirm, however, was that it bore decoration formed from a variety of stamps that I had recorded on other firebacks in several collections (see the Pounsley series in the database), including those in the museums at Hastings and Lewes, and one particular stamp I have yet to see on any other fireback – an image of a horned sheep.

The fireback in Charles Dawson’s Country Life article

About five years later, an Honorary Research Fellowship at Exeter University gave me access to a wide range of digital resources, among them the recently scanned copies of Country Life magazine, and I took the opportunity to seek out all the references to firebacks in its pages back to the last years of the 19th century. Among them was a 1901 article on ‘Sussex Iron’ by none other than Charles Dawson, and among his illustrations was one of the fireback then at Heronsdale, but it was not of the whole fireback. One thing seemed certain, though, several photographs of the fireback had been taken in 1901 or earlier. Would I ever find what I was seeking, a picture of the entire fireback?

I try to obtain copies of all books and articles written about British firebacks. In an article published in 1911, reference had been made to an earlier one, which I had not seen, written by Miller Christy but the precise citation was not quoted. After some lengthy detective work I tracked this down to the now-largely-forgotten The Crown, the Court and County Families’ Newspaper, and its penultimate issue in May 1908, in which there was the piece on firebacks by the aforementioned Mr Christy. More importantly, not only was one of the illustrations a different image of Mr and Mrs Newnham sitting in their fireplace, but there was a complete photograph of the elusive fireback, now here for all to see.