Object of the Month - September 2018

Object of the Month - September 2018

A fireback is a piece of cast iron, often decorated, which sat behind the fire and beneath the chimney. Its function was to reflect heat out into the room, heat which might otherwise be lost up the chimney. It also protected the fireplace itself from the intense heat of the fire. As the nights drew in, and with little light around, the roaring fire illuminated the fireback and it became the central focus of a room.

To make a fireback, an open mould was created with sand and clay. The mould may have been a simple shape, such as a rectangle, and decoration could be added by pressing shapes into the mould. Decoration depended on what was available. Examples include firebacks where rope edging was pressed into the mould, numbers often show the date of manufacture, and even the hands of the man who made it were sometimes used to form an impression. Complex fireback patterns, as can be seen in this example, were probably carved into a single piece of wood and then pressed into the sand to form the mould.

Some firebacks are dated and the earliest surviving examples date from the mid-16th century. The need for such a piece of equipment remained for hundreds of years as most households had at least one open fire. This fireback from the early 18th century is heavily damaged with the base corroded away through use, and a significant break winds its way from the base over to the right hand side. This sort of damage is common in firebacks of this date which were made thinner than earlier examples. Originally this fireback may have had the pattern maker’s initials of SHR around the base. We know this because this is one of a series of firebacks that were made in the early 18th century based on a set of prints illustrating the planets. They are very similar in design and almost certainly designed by the same pattern maker.

The pattern can still be clearly seen. It shows Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, holding a lightning bolt whilst sat in a chariot. Jupiter and his chariot are pulled by two eagles as they travel across the heavens. The print, on which the fireback was based, is from a series titled The Seven Planets. The prints were published by Johann Sadeler (after Maerten de Vos) in 1585, and then used as the design for firebacks over 100 years later. The use of historic prints, particularly reflecting classical mythology, was a common source for decoration of firebacks at this time, and helps to demonstrate the things pattern makers were influenced by at the time.

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Above left: the Selly Manor fireback. Above right: The Seven Planets by Johann Sadeler (after Maeten de Vos), 1585. One of a series of eight planets, this print heavily influenced the design of the Selly Manor fireback.

The fireback is part of the Laurence Cadbury Collection at Selly Manor Museum. A detailed and richly illustrated book about the collection is available from the museum shop.