John Knight’s fireback

Chawton House, Hampshire (photo: Charles D. P. Miller;

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The casting at Chawton, however, has two significant differences: firstly, the initials have been replaced by IK; secondly, the back has been extended to each side and below, with a saltire of twisted rope on each side.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.