Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Fireboards of Darlington House

When Darlington House was built in 1817, burning wood in fireplaces was the primary method for heating houses in this country.  Not surprisingly, there are a lot of fireplaces at Darlington--six of them inside the house, and another one in an outbuilding.  Within a decade from when the house was built, iron stoves supplanted fireplaces as the preferred source of heating in America, and all of Darlington's fireplaces were refitted with stoves.  It was not until 1931, when the Proctors bought the house, that central heating was installed.

One of Darlington's fireplaces, with fireboard

When we bought Darlington in the late 1990s, only three of its fireplaces were operable, and only one of them was safe to use.  We have since opened up and lined all six of the fireplaces' chimneys, and today all of them are in working order and up to code.  It was a monumental, lengthy, dirty, and very expensive undertaking.  But now we have the pleasure of six working fireplaces.  And we use them when the weather is cold, as can be seen here, here, and here.

One of Darlington's chimneys, open and awaiting
its new clay tile lining and damper, circa 2003

While a fireplace is attractive when a fire is burning within it, or dressed with logs when one is not, it is not so fair when it is empty.  During the winter we lay logs in the fireplaces when they are not in use, to be ready for the next time we light a fire, but during warmer weather we leave our fireplaces empty and swept clean of ashes.

But our bare hearths and empty andirons looked rather forlorn during the summer months, so I thought it would be a good idea to cover them during the off-season with fireboards, as was customary when Darlington House was built.  The question was, what kind?

This antique American fireboard sold at auction for $82,250
Image courtesy of Skinner Auctions

I wasn't of the mind to have ones made and painted with naive scenes of country villages or hunters on horseback.  While I like living in an antique house, furnished sympathetically, I don't aspire to living in a folk-art collection or a house museum, which is what such fireboards bring to mind, at least to me.  Furthermore, modern-day painted fireboards done in a naive, folk-art manner can very quickly devolve into the realm of country cute.  Far better to have one's fireboards painted in the more modern, albeit classic, manner of Graham Rust, the very talented English artist:

A Graham Rust rendering of a painted chimney board
Image from The Painted House, by Graham Rust

But such talent is not easy to come by, and is very dear, and, besides, Reggie wasn't keen on introducing too much of a statement into the rooms at Darlington House.  It's one thing to cover one's upholstered furniture with smart summer slipcovers, as we do during the summer months, but it is another matter to also introduce a different painted scene into each room's fireplace opening.

But Reggie does admit that he wouldn't have minded having at least one fireboard covered with antique scenic wallpaper, which was a popular decorative conceit in the early nineteenth century.  But antique wallpaper-covered fireboards are difficult to find, and maddeningly expensive when found.  And then there's the pesky issue of finding ones that actually fit one's fireboxes.

A fire surround with scenic wallpaper fireboard
Collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art
Image from Classical Taste in America, 1800-1840, by Wendy A. Cooper

In the early nineteenth century, many of the papers used to cover fireboards in America were printed in France, and the panels were specifically made to use either on fireboards or as overdoor panels.

Antique wallpaper panel of Amphitrite born across the waves
Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York
Image from Wallpaper in America, by Catherine Lynn

The estimable Adelphi Paper Hangings recently introduced two wallpaper panels in a document pattern, Cupid and Psyche, circa 1795-1810, that may be used for papering fireboards.  However, that falls short of our needs, as we have six fireplaces at Darlington, not two, that beg for fireboards.

Adelphi's Cupid and Psyche wallpaper panel
Image courtesy of Adelphi Paper Hangings

Considering the number of fireplaces at Darlington, I reasoned it was best to wait until the perfect fireboard solution appeared, rather than rush into an unsatisfactory and costly custom fireboard project.

So the fireplaces of Darlington House sat empty during the warm-weather months for the better part of ten years, with narry a fireboard within them.  But Reggie was not exactly inconsolable in his grief, as there were other, more pressing claims on his resources at Darlington House, the list of which was so long as to defy imagination.

Our early fireboards

Several years ago, while visiting the Rhinebeck Antiques Fair, in Rhinebeck, New York, I came across two Federal-era, louvered shutter fireboards.  Made in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when Darlington House was built, the fireboards were in their original green-paint finish.  It took me all of ten seconds to cry "Sold!"  I was thrilled, when we brought them home, to find that they required only minimal adjustments to fit two of our fireplaces.

One of our early-19th-century fireboards
in Darlington's original kitchen fireplace

But what to do about the other, empty fireplaces?

After much deliberation, research, and discussion, I decided that the best solution was to have the same type of louvered shutter fireboards made as we bought at the antiques fair.  That way, the fireboards of Darlington House would be consistent throughout the house and not call too much attention to themselves, yet still provide a pleasing architectural and decorative addition to the rooms during the warm weather months.

Three new fireboards, awaiting notching and painting

This past winter, during active fireplace season, I arranged with our architectural historian, Isaiah Cornini, to have three new louvered shutter fireboards made.  Isaiah used the shutters that hang on our exterior windows as the template for the new fireboards.

One of our early fireboards required some patching and extending to fit its designated fireplace more snuggly.

The extended and patched early fireboard

Once the panel was patched, Isaiah had a decorative painter inpaint the extensions on the fireboard to match the original paint.  We decided to paint all of the new fireboards the same grassy green that we used on the exterior shutters on Darlington.

The new fireboards have been notched for andirons
and have received their first coat of paint

I am quite pleased with the way the new fireboards came out and with how handsome they look in our rooms.  Here is one of them installed in our drawing room's fireplace.  I think it looks marvelous.

If you live in such a house as Darlington, or in any house or apartment with fireplaces, for that matter, I encourage you to have fireboards made for use during warm weather.  Not only do fireboards cover the fireplaces' unsightly empty openings when not in use, but they mark a pleasing seasonal change to one's interiors, particularly when done in concert with the covering of one's upholstered furniture with summer slipcovers, as we do at Darlington.

Tell me, how do you dress your fireplaces during the summer?

All photographs, except where noted, by Reggie Darling and Boy Fenwick


  1. We've used an ornate Victorian mirror as a fireboard for our single fireplace in a parlor level Brownstone apartment, but must say that yours are lovely. They unify the interior design beautifully. Bravo!

  2. I used a silk screen which I had made - a stretcher with plain (saffron) Thai silk over it, resting on gilded feet with a stylised single flower decoration for one in the dining room. (It appears in one of my posts). Of course we don't have them here, but in our flat in Edinburgh we had them in all eight rooms, but the bedroom ones were boarded up with plain paint decoration, and those that were used were fitted with "living flame" gas. It is impractical to have real fires in a flat, (and I'm sure you don't in NYC). I like your "racing green" boards, and the idea of uniformity throughout appeals to my sense of order, enhanced by their authenticity. Graham Rust's painting is fun; I met him in Hong Kong a couple of times when he was visiting and holding an exhibition of his paintings.

  3. A brilliant solution. (I confess, I've never seen louvered fireboards before. And given your decorating preferences for the house, they seem particularly appropriate.)

    BTW, assuming that each fits snugly into the fireplace, how do you keep them upright? Is it the notches for the andirons or something else?

  4. What a tasteful and clever solution. I have never seen louvered fireboards either. I really enjoy these glimpses into your clearly beloved Darlington.

  5. Nice blog! I had never seen shuttered style fireboards. I only have one fireplace in my home. I don't use fireboards but I have a American classical mahogany fire screen in front of my fireplace. It's not a working fireplace so I keep the screen up year around. In the past I have used large 18th century European landscapes to cover the fireplace opening.

  6. What a wonderfully written post.
    Six fireplaces! That's gorgeous.
    Our fireplace was coal burning and we have yet to refurbish it. It has an ornate cast iron front.
    It is an autumn project for us this year to see if we can get it in working order. You've inspired me to get going.

  7. Excellent idea! I made one of my sisters a fireboard from a nice old chinese wallpaper fragment. It fit the space perfectly and was great for the long months when the fireplace wasn't in use.

  8. I pile my fireplace with wood during the summer- in anticipation of the first chilly evening in the fall when I can light it again. Nevertheless, I am really intrigued by your solution. I think that it is sheer perfection for Darlington Hall.

    By the way, I am pleased, though not at all surprised, to see that your brass fireplace equipment is polished to a mirror shine. Nothing speaks more to good housekeeping than highly polished brass, and nothing gives a room a deader, more uncared for look than tarnished metal (I'll add a dusty chandelier to that). And don't think about lacquering it either- it makes even the finest antique pieces look cheap and tinny. Suck it in, get some Brasso and a rag and go to work.

  9. Your shuttered fireboards are the perfect solution. You have exquisite taste, Reggie, and this is a grand idea. You are kind to share it with us.

  10. Love the louvered version (especially in that delicious green!) even better than the painted and more ornamental ones. A lovely addition to a lovely house!

  11. Fantastic post on a much neglected topic. As of now, I have some hydrangeas drying in arrangements in our dormant fireplaces but have been looking for some screens. I may have to invest in the simply stunning Adelphi panels for our 2 downstairs fireplaces. Love what you did with the shutters and many thanks for the fabulous links!

  12. Voicetalk and Columnist: Your options sound like excellent ones.

    Ancient: Thank you. The boards are held in place by the andirons, which prevent them from toppling over.

  13. Like any good southern boy exiled to Hollywood, I have a dried palm frond placed up right like a fan ready to be lit. By the way is that black wedgwood I see before me. Oh Reggie Darling, first the Old Paris now this. Do you need a aging pretty boy to dust? I'll work for free.---- by the way the green color is so right on the mark.

  14. This was one of those slap-my-forehead-and-cry-'DUH' moments. There is a pretty federal mantel in my sitting room, the large chimney that formerly fed four fireplaces gone since the late 19th century, leaving this one a blank opening. Such a fireboard---which I used to see regularly at antiques shows, but no longer----would be exactly the ticket to restore some depth. Duh. And I'm a sucker for louvers. When I was a child (and Eisenhower was president), there were still half a dozen federal houses in town with louvered summer doors----now there is but one sporting that lovely feature.

    I once had in inventory one of those goddess in chariot fireboards, and still regret that it isn't hanging on the wall of the same sitting room.

  15. Very nice. But we need a shot of Pompey in front of one.

  16. Andrew 1860: Thank you for your comment, I have enjoyed looking at your blog; you are a talented artist and a font of information of interest to Reggie.

    DaniBP: Years ago I spent many happy winter afternoons and evenings in front of a coal fire. While the smell of it burning takes some time to adjust to, once accomplished it becomes delightful, and a sense memory indeed.

    P-D: It must be a lovely fireboard!

    Magnus: Don't look too closely at the brass, as some of it isn't up to snuff. Why, just the other day I thought it could use a polishing.

    Anon 9:09 and Architect Design: You are too kind, thank you.

    Quintessence: Happy to oblige.

    HFK: The palm frond sounds wonderful. Yes it is basalt, some--but not all--of which is Wedgwood. As you know, we require those who dust for us to wear a uniform...

    DED: Sorry to stir up such troublesome memories. Stay tuned as I shall be posting another story at some point on just such a door.

    Lucindaville: Patience will be rewarded soon, I am sure.


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