Garnishing the Mantel in the English Interior
On the English Design History Field Study, we frequently encountered beautiful mantelpieces ornamented with ceramics and other objects. I began to wonder if these arrangements were merely a curatorial choice, or if the art of mantelpiece decorating had deeper roots. Before long, I found my answer and a project idea.
Derived from the French term meaning ‘to garnish,’ garnitures are decorative arrangements of ceramics placed atop mantelpieces or other interior architectural surfaces.
From historic house museums to grand palaces, garnitures became a way for us to understand different levels of taste, social status, cultural influence, and wealth in the English interiors we visited.
At Hampton Court Palace, the interiors of William III contained exquisite examples of Chinaware placed atop mantelpieces carved by craftsmen such as Grinling Gibbons. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, only the wealthy and powerful could afford porcelain from China. Displaying them on the mantel demonstrated the owner’s economic power and global connections.
Both of the above images: The garnitures at Hampton Court Palace, comprising of singular rather than matching sets of porcelain, were placed in reception rooms to impress visiting dignitaries and State officials.
The development of European hard-paste porcelain by the mid-eighteenth century affected the range and types of garnitures available. The French Sèvres manufactory cornered the market on high-end ceramics, and produced lavish sets for royalty and the nobility of Europe. The commercial availability of such princely items attracted wealthy English consumers (and some princes among them), who displayed Sèvres on their mantels to project an aristocratic identity.
The Wallace Collection displayed all manner of Sèvres porcelain, including garniture sets favored by the factory’s early patron, King Louis XV, and later all the rage with 19th and early 20th c. collectors in England.
Meanwhile, in England the work of architect Robert Adam began influencing the design of homes and their interiors. Adam advocated a style based on rationality, proportion and symmetry. Accordingly, appropriate mantelpiece ornamentation included odd-numbered sets of ceramics, sometimes varying in size or form, laid out symmetrically along the mantel at eye-level with the room’s occupant. These garniture sets communicated a household’s conformity to good taste, and many clients stuck with the typical blue-and-white scheme.
Whether one was a merchant or a part of the landed gentry, no parlor or public room was complete without a garniture set by the late eighteenth century. At the World of Wedgwood, the fellows learned that Wedgwood frequently manufactured sets of pottery for the sole purpose of decorating the mantel. As the company began marketing to the middle class, purchasing garnitures became a relatively simple way for his clients to display their fashionableness.
The Victorian craze for the collecting and display of “bric-a-brac” significantly altered the way mantelpieces functioned. Backed by designers like Charles Eastlake who critiqued the boring and typical arrangement of blue-and-white, asymmetrical and subjective arrangements of ceramics became the new model for garnitures, Eastlake advocated for ornamenting the mantel with unique and rare artifacts, such as fossils, minerals or antiquities. Most middle class families couldn’t afford to do such a thing, but many did gravitate towards the contemporaneous Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement. Featuring art pottery in rustic hues applied with glazes derived from nature or Far Eastern-inspired decorative motifs, the range of available options for ceramics meant that the mantelpiece could be individualized, and even tell a story about the owner’s passions and interests.
Visits to Leighton House (middle image, above) and the home of a private collector (directly above) demonstrated examples of garniture display in line with the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic Movement. Additionally, these examples show changes made to the mantelpiece itself, with more complex shelving units and mirrors.
Garnitures reflected and responded to changing ideologies in design from the early modern period into the twentieth century. For scholars of material culture, they allow us to make connections between taste, status and aspiration in the domestic sphere. At each of the sites we visited, my eyes automatically traveled to the mantelpiece to see what clues I might find about who the former occupants of the house were, or how curators chose to interpret a distinct period in English design history. By the end of our trip, a mantelpiece without some kind of garniture just seemed naked by comparison!
Below are a few examples of garnitures here at Winterthur.
By Erica Lome, PhD student, American Civilization Program, University of Delaware