Rob's Choice

"I have developed a love/hate relationship with this fireplace! It can be difficult to light and requires close supervision to avoid smoke coming into the room, but on a crisp winter’s day with a roaring log fire there are few more cosy places to be. If I had time it would be lovely to choose a book and enjoy the fire from the comfort of the chesterfield!"

More About the Fireplace

The fireplace in West Horsley Place’s library, in keeping with much of the manor house, presents a balance between the impressively artistic and the more homely comforts to be found in such a country retreat. Blended with the rich, dark tones of the surrounding bookshelves and bound volumes, and highlighted only by its somewhat slender white marble surround and lintel, it is a feature of the space that does not grab the attention of the viewer but rather settles them into their comfortable surroundings with a subtle reminder of the wealth amongst which they find themselves. It is not a large fireplace, and neither is it a focal point. Instead one can imagine the residents of West Horsley Place sat enjoying its warmth, but with their attention on their selection of reading material from the house’s varied collection.

The mantelpiece is at approximate chin height for many of our visitors, and because of this diminished stature the fireplace does not command the room. There is an impression of intimacy here that distinguishes the space from the adjoining Stone Hall and Grand Staircase, in which more monumental features proliferate. The library is not a place for parties or ostentatious hosting, but rather a place for personal contemplation, study or quiet conversation.

Despite this change in the character of the room, the neoclassical features that dominate the Stone Hall can also be found here. The mantelpiece is evocative of cornice design of the Roman order, and despite its relatively small dimensions it adds a certain bold finish to an otherwise fairly delicate design. Beneath the mantelpiece is a horizontal frieze of egg and dart decoration, a feature revived with the re-adoption of decorative schemes from the ancient world in the late 18th century. This pattern is formed by repeating ovular shapes, interspersed with narrow tapered or ‘v’ shaped sections. Such decoration can be seen on ancient ruins and archaeological sites such as the arch of Titus, grand public buildings in the Roman forum and the Pantheon. The neoclassical saw a replacement of the curves of rococo with the straight and symmetrical, and was pioneered and exploited to great success in England by individuals such as James Stuart, Robert Adam and Josiah Wedgwood. The library fireplace reflects this desire for balanced order in design, part of a very long architectural tradition. We do not yet know exactly when the fireplace was constructed, but its design is rooted in a far distant time made modern by a western European obsession.

The fireplace and chimney breast above it form an integrated composition, with a repeating oak leaf and acorn decorative scheme, carved into the appearance of bound bundles of foliage. Oak leaves appear widely across various decorative art schemes, such as the pastel ceramics of 18th century Wedgwoood and the glittering gilding of the regency. They have been said to carry a range of connotations including resistance, durability, immortality, force, power, vigour, courage, protection, healing, money, health, fertility and good luck. All good attributes to possess, though it is not known what particular significance they may have held for the residents of West Horsley Place.

They are perhaps the most notable element of the fireplace’s design. Above the mantelpiece these bundles frame a field of red 18th century silk damask, which although torn and frayed in places, still helps to create an atmosphere of sumptuous comfort in this space. The oak bundles are significantly more robust beneath the mantlepiece, and spread laterally from a panel carved with the letters ‘MC.’ Perched atop elaborate, naturalistically captured boughs of foliage, these letters refer to Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, the first Marquess of Crewe. The Duchess of Roxburghe’s father and one of the three last private owners of West Horsley Place, it was he that was responsible for significant works to the house after its purchase in 1931. The construction of the library in which this fireplace now stands from what had been the house’s dining room is a 20th century innovation, and is fitting for a family that possessed so many books.

The classical features continue at the border of the fireplace surround and lintel. As is the case with many features of classical design, this border is decorated by a repeating pattern of stylised acanthus leaves in low relief. This fireplace is an excellent example of certain objects becoming increasingly complex under scrutiny, and despite the homogeneity of the colour scheme with the surrounding panelling and bookshelves, tying the fireplace into the interior as a whole, it offers a delightful opportunity to appreciate revived ancient decorative schemes and the means by which they have been integrated into a more modern world.

Like several of the fireplaces in the manor house, a fire is occasionally lit here. It casts a warm and gently flickering glow over our walls of books, and those who see it all agree that it brings the house to life.