Visiting England in the 1820s, Prince Puckler-Muskau went to Guy’s Cliffe in Warwickshire. He noted that:
‘the interior is fitted up with equal attention to taste and comfort … The rooms itself sparkled a cheerful fire; choice pictures adorned the walls, and several sofas of various forms, tables covered with curiosities and furniture standing about in agreeable disorder, gave it the most inviting and home-like air’.
The centre of attention here is the fire. This is an obvious source of physical comfort, which makes it unsurprising that the technical improvements represented by Rumford stoves drew considerable interest from contemporaries, most famously in James Gilray’s ‘The Comforts of a Rumford Stove’ (1800).
However, fires could not be enjoyed properly without an array of furnishings and other objects – quote apart from the sofas and tables noted by Puckler-Mustau. In Francois Boucher’s 1742 painting La Toilette, tongs stand ready by a log fire held in andirons with brass fender and there are bellows on the floor. The marble surround is elegant and above hangs a large mirror – a combination which was important in making the fireplace a showpiece in more public rooms. A small fire screen with a floral design is placed close to the fire and a larger chinoiserie screen stands behind the lady’s chair, providing privacy but also reducing draughts, as its French name, paravent, suggests. The floor is surprisingly bare, but curtains hang in the window at the back of the picture. The warmth of the fire is thus augmented by the assemblage of related furnishings to make this room a sensuous and welcoming environment.
An idea of the cost of creating this assemblage of fireside furnishings in the early nineteenth century can be had from James Henry Leigh’s refitting of Stoneleigh Abbey in the 1810s. He inherited the house from his uncle, the Rev Thomas Leigh in 1813, the latter having occupied a house left largely untouched since a major refurbishment in the 1760s. James Henry was not shy in spending to improve his newly acquired home, laying out over £13,000 on furniture, pictures, plate and china – a sum equivalent to perhaps £800,000 today.
Amongst a large number of big-ticket items were many mundane objects, including twelve ‘painted coal boxes with covers’, for which he paid 10s. 6d. apiece. Hearth rugs were also functional items, offering wooden floors and carpets some protection against sparks. They became almost ubiquitous in English country houses in the early nineteenth century, in part replacing an earlier trend for patent floor cloths. Whilst they were often relatively cheap items, their aesthetic qualities were important: house sales and inventories frequently referred to them as handsome or noted their type. Amongst a variety of others, James Henry Leigh bought three Imperial hearth rugs and two ‘Extra large Superfine Hearth Rugs Leopard Pattern’ from Henry Watson of Old Bond Street, London, at a combined cost of £18 17s.
He also purchased a variety of fire screens. Some were small and designed to offer those sitting by the fire some protection from the fierce heat of the fire; others were much larger and, when placed between the sitter and the door, helping to reduce drafts, as Boucher’s painting shows. Descriptions of both in the bills presented to James Henry Leigh note their design, showing the importance of their decorative qualities. For example, in 1813 Jonathan Johnstone supplied a pair of ‘handsome carved and ornamented pole fire screens finished in burnished and mat gold and filled with your crimson silk’ costing £16 16s. and ‘an elegant 3 leaf folding fire screen neatly carved and finished in burnished a mat gold … the panels filled with your crimson silk with richly carved ad gilt ornaments in the bottom panels’ at a cost of £45.
Much the same was true of window curtains, on which James Henry Leigh spent handsomely. Four pairs of curtains for the music room, also bought from Johnstone and again made from silk already purchased, cost a total of £160 17s for the calico lining, silk lace, tassels and rope and ‘gold coloured Parisian fringe’. The wooden cornice, carved with scroll foliage, cost a further £100. Of course, these were primarily decorative and displayed the owner’s wealth, but they would also have served to make the music room a cosy and comfortable space in which to entertain guests. In this, they were augmented by the wooden shutters fitted to all the windows in these rooms and others across the west range of Stoneleigh Abbey. They offered some security against intruders, both at night and when the family was away, but they also helped to reduce draughts by forming an extra layer over what were sometimes ill-fitting windows.
Finally, there were carpets, which were also important in reducing drafts and in offering a warm as well as decorative covering to what were usually bare oak floorboards. From Thomas Little of Tottenham Court Road, by then an important centre for the furnishing trade, James Henry acquired two green and brown Brussels carpets and five superfine Kidderminster carpets at a combined cost of £129 15s 6d. The latter were thinner ingrain carpets, suitable for a wide variety of rooms. The former were much more expensive (James Henry’s cost him over £40 apiece); their close pile allowed for intricate patterns and offered a much softer and more luxurious feel. Their ability to augment both the design and warmth of the room was heightened by the fact that many were fitted, rather than being placed centrally in the room as had been the fashion in the eighteenth century.
Much of what James Henry Leigh sought to create at Stoneleigh Abbey was a modern and fashionable décor. However, it is apparent both that his spending made for a more comfortable home and that enjoyment of a warming fire depended on a wide range of other objects: rugs and carpets, window curtains and shutters, fire screens and fire irons. Of course, he also needed suitable furniture in the shape of sofas and easy chairs, but that is another story….
Manchester Metropolitan University