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.