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.