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.

Dedisham Manor, Slinfold, Sussex

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.

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.

‘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. Probate was not granted to his wife as executrix until January 1566 which is likely to mean that John Harvo did not die until just before. We do not know how old he was then 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, putting him 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 the first part of his reign, and certainly into the 1530s, so the original pattern could 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.

Fireback with the same letter ‘E’ repeated (Anne of Cleves House, Lewes)

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.

John Harvo fireback with extension panels; a copy of a fireback in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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.

John Harvo fireback from Mayfield, Sussex
John Harvo fireback at Plaistow, Sussex

Two more examples with extension panels of different designs.

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

“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