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Interior Decorating - Mantel Decoration and Garniture

( Originally Published 1919 )

THE mantel began as architecture and ended, in its final development, as furniture. This is unqualifiedly true, so far as the historic styles of decoration, with which we have to do, are concerned. In modern practice the mantel is treated sometimes as one, sometimes as the other, with rather a leaning, perhaps, to the architectural interpretation. For the sake of brevity, in the present discussion we shall use the term mantel in its broadest acceptation, that is to say as including both the fireplace with its surrounding members and also the chimney-piece or overmantel. A mantel without a fireplace (a phenomenon one sometimes encounters) is an anomaly and has no more significance or use than a waggon without wheels or a plum pudding without plums. When such a case exists, common honesty, as well as common-sense, demands that a fireplace be made or else that the mantel be altogether eliminated. The fireplace-less mantel, therefore, requires no consideration whatever.

Whether we choose to regard the mantel as architecture or as furniture, there are two facts we cannot dodge. (1) By its very position and the space it occupies it is usually a dominating factor in the composition of a room. (2) As a focal point and important item of the fixed decoration, it naturally serves as an intermediate link between background and furniture and affords a point of departure from which to attack the composition. The different methods of mantel treatment, ranging all the way from the strictly architectural conception of the Renaissance period when the overmantel structure extended either all or most of the way to the ceiling, to the mantel's treatment as little else than furniture in certain aspects of the Neo-Classic style, are duly set forth in the first part of the book and may be studied in the illustrations.

When the mantel with its attendant chimney-piece or overmantel decoration is wholly architectural in character, there is less opportunity for the injudicious to treat it with contumely and spoil its effect. It is when there is no fixed overmantel or chimney-piece that the greatest care must be exercised. It is perfectly obvious that the overmantel space demands a suitable decorative handling. That decoration may consist of a picture, preferably a portrait, or else a subject of distinctly decorative character such, for instance, as some of the eighteenth century fruit or flower pieces ; a mirror, which is generally a legitimate substitute for a picture and is susceptible of considerable engaging embellishment; a bas-relief or a carving, perhaps one of the old Japanese polychrome carvings or one of the curious Chinese carved and inlaid shop signs ; a decorative map or, perhaps, a decorative treatment of a plot of the grounds on the estate adjoining the house; an eighteenth century wall clock, such as one of the "sunburst" clocks of English or French design or one of the old Dutch clocks with ornate case and free hanging weights; an Oriental screen of proper size with panels laid back flat and fastened against the wall; even a well-designed and mellow but full-coloured poster—the writers have in mind a wonderful bird's-eye view of London poster got out by the tramways corporation—mounted on canvas, shellacked and set in a suitable flat frame; or any one of the various other devices that afford a suitable decorative emphasis and a point of central interest.

If the object selected as the overmantel adornment is not of sufficient size to create a proper balance, a hanging of some sort—a piece of tapestry or an old Italian, Chinese or Japanese brocade, for example—may be placed back of it or else some appropriate subsidiary decorations, such as sconces, may be used to flank the central object and complete the composition of the grouping.

Due contrast is a desirable quality to impart emphasis in the overmantel scheme. Such contrast may be attained, for example, by using a pre-Raphaelite picture in a Florentine frame against a background of dull, greenish, loose-woven old brocade, or by a Chinese painting in reverse on glass in a teak-wood frame against a rough grey plaster wall. The mantel shelf is one of the chief sources of decorative peril. It is almost as seductive a temptation to decorative indiscretions and overloading as the broad top of a side-board. Only the firmest resolve and devotion to the in-valuable principle of restraint will save it from a cluttering accumulation of things that had far better be elsewhere. Sedulously shun a number of small, trifling gimcracks and refrain from displaying photographs thereon.

When there is no mantel shelf the danger is entirely obviated. When there is a shelf, one must carefully study the nature of the overmantel treatment before venturing to place any movable garniture on it. Some overmantel treatments demand that very little be placed in front of or beneath them—such as the Stuart overmantel in Plate 3 or Plate 4, and the intrusion of conspicuous garniture would be an unpardonable impertinence; others, again, admit of more latitude in the disposition of movable garniture. In any event, six unalterable principles must be faithfully observed —Restraint, Suitability, from which Dignity follows as a corollary; Propriety of Scale, Symmetry, Concentration and Contrast.

(1) Restraint must be most scrupulously exercised in determining the number and nature of the objects of which the mantel garniture is to consist. Have but few things on the mantel, but let each one of them be deserving of attention. Don't choke the legitimate garniture with a weed growth of trivial things and don't be afraid of empty spaces; they are restful and dignified and act as foils to lend appropriate emphasis to objects of decorative worth.

(2) Suitability demands that the garniture comport with the character of the overmantel decoration and the general structural environment. Good taste, for example, will forbid elaborate Louis Quinze ormolu candelabra upon an early Georgian mantel with its severely architectural overmantel background; the fundamental conceptions of the use of line are utterly at variance in the two styles which mix just about as well as oil and water. There is no reason, however, why garniture of contemporary date or of obviously close stylistic affinities should be chosen. It is enough if there be some common point of contact, some harmony by either analogy or contrast of design, some basic affinity between the lines of the background and the lines of the garniture, to put garniture and back-ground in the same or in a related decorative key.

(3) Propriety of Scale means that the size of the objects composing the garniture must be of a scale to accord with the whole mantel- and overmantel composition—neither too large nor too small. In other words, upon a large mantel do not put small, attenuated candlesticks, vases or the like, nor above it hang a small and insufficient mirror or picture. In extreme violations of the scale principle, whatever merit the individual pieces of garniture may have in themselves is wholly lost and the dignity of the mantel, which, under the circumstances, looks about as foolish as a very large fat man with a little pee-wee head, is destroyed. Conversely, do not overpower a small mantel with things too large for it. This principle ought not to need special insistence, and yet flagrant disregard of it offends the eye daily.

(4) Symmetry must be maintained in disposing the different objects both with respect to each other and with respect to the overmantel behind them which is symmetrical in its architectural or decorative expression and which also ordinarily divides the whole wall space symmetrically. If the balance is broken, a one-sided, incoherent effect follows. Symmetry does not necessarily imply stiffness, but it does imply a decorous and agreeable formality. It is plainly necessary, therefore, if there be a central object, that the arrangement of the garniture be triple—candlesticks, candelabra, vases or jars at the ends, with incense burner, porcelain bowl, bronze or other single object in the middle—or, again, in the case of a long mantel, that it be quintuple as, for instance, in using one of the old Lowestoft garnitures consisting of three jars and two vases or vice versa. In any event, the use of a central unit requires for the whole composition an odd number of reciprocally balancing units ; when there is no central unit the total number of units is even. A quadruple arrangement, for instance, may consist of four similar, equidistant, balancing objects or of two pairs of ornaments. The character of the overmantel decoration will largely determine the appropriate number, placing and spacing of the garniture units, but, as a rule, the triple scheme works well and, on general principle, it is safe to place the larger units—candlesticks, candelabra, jars, figures, vases, or whatever else —at the ends as flanking elements. The value of pairs in mantel garnishing is plain to be seen.

(5) Concentration as a principle applied to mantel treatment focuses the chief interest at one point. The interest should be centred either in the overmantel decoration or else in the mantel garniture. It is a mistake and a waste of decorative ammunition to make the overmantel decoration a feature of dominating interest and then detract from its emphasis by the character of the mantel garniture which, under the circumstances, ought really to be an auxiliary factor. The gilt sun-burst wall clock, previously alluded to, is a good ex-ample of overmantel decorative interest. If, on the other hand, the overmantel treatment is in the nature of an intensified background and plays the part of a foil, then the garniture must have sufficient force of harmonious contrast (v. Plate 56) to make it interesting. Always beware of scattering interest too much. Settle upon the one or two points to be emphasised and make everything else play up to them. Too much diffusion perplexes the eye and muddles or even destroys the character of the decoration which, so far as ability to enjoy it is concerned, might just as well consist of a congeries of the incoherent convolutions of old Maya temple carvings.

(6) The principle of Contrast requires that the effect of the mantel garniture be direct and not muddled in its appeal to the eye. And remember that an effect may be direct and distinct without being abrupt.

There must be enough contrast in colour, material, texture or contour (v. Plate 120) between the background and the garniture or else the effect will be diminished and one-half of it sink into the wall. Jangling, riotous contrasts that squall aloud are neither desirable nor necessary, but one can always secure an agreeable result like one of the following : a small carved oak dole cupboard, flanked by plain silver candlesticks, against a full-coloured old brocade, embroidery or bit of verdure tapestry; or, again, bronzes, against a dull, grey plaster wall.

Do not attempt to have any kind of draperies attached to the mantel shelf. The principle is bad. They are unnecessary; they are cluttering and fussy; and they are impracticable when there is a fire going in the fireplace. The utmost that is permissible in that direction is to have a narrow piece of material as a foil when its colour and texture are necessary to produce desirable definition of contour or contrast of hue. The one glimmer of intelligence displayed by the Victorian mantel designers was when they shaped their mantel shelves so that draperies became difficult, and in this they were probably blindly following the precedent of eighteenth century French practice.

With reference to the movable furniture in the room, the mantel and fireplace should serve as a centre or focus for the formation of an interesting and logical group arrangement either at the sides of or in front of it. The importance alone of the mantel with its chimney-piece decoration requires that it be the centre of a grouping, and the fascination of the fire suggests the convenient disposition of comfortable seating furniture with a suitable accompaniment of tables and lights.

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