Many of the large, wide fireplaces of old country houses and cottages did not have a mantelpiece, they were fronted with a large supporting beam which lay flat in the brickwork. But there were some houses with beautiful Adam mantelpieces—a good, wide, well proportioned shelf with plenty of space, suitable not only for the usual candlesticks or precious ornaments but also for a vase. But it is difficult to say with any certainty that when mantelpieces were first installed,were in general usage for decoration on them.
The Victorians, in contrast, went in for mantelpieces in a big way. Solidly built perhaps of dark, shining mahogany or grey and white marble, they were wide, capacious and able to accommodate all kinds of decorations, including. Mr. Shirley Hibberd, in his book Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (published in 1865), illustrates what he likes to describe as a ‘simple fireplace decoration’. In the middle of the mantelpiece there is a large pedestal bowl supporting a heavy leafed plant. There are four other vases all containing flowers, and below, in the fireplace itself, are three large vases, one full of foliage, one full of flowers, and one full of grasses, flowers and . In a later publication entitled British Floral Decoration (published in 1910), there is an illustration of a heavily decorated Georgian fireplace. This has a clock in the centre with a vase on each side filled with carnations and greenery, some of these being doubled in effect due to their being reflected in the large mirror.
Now I should like to discuss mantelpieces and their decoration with reference to our own times. The mantelpiece is usually the focal point of the room, and the wall or mirror behind it will give any group arranged thereon an added importance and emphasis. This kind of arrangement depends on its surroundings and its relationships to other objects for its effectiveness. Thus the line of a mantelpiece arrangement is determined by whatever else is standing nearby and by the picture hung above it.
The surrounding ornaments, pieces of porcelain or glass, may suggest a certain colour scheme. But one must remember that if the floral arrangement is sited directly underneath a painting, it must not be allowed to overpower the painting for if harmony is to be achieved, the flowers must be subsidiary and complementary in every way. Another factor to take into consideration is the texture and colour of the mantelpiece — some may be made of wood, others of wood painted over, and others of marble.
If there are any candelabra or other methods of close lighting, it would be as well to turn them on, since colour changes in artificial light.
In winter the mantelpiece decoration depends to a large extent in the way in which a room is heated. The answer then, if there is a fire in the hearth or some other form of heating below the mantelpiece is a dried arrangement. Few fresh flowers will put up with waves of heat coming from underneath them. If the shelf is a wide one and the flowers stand well to the back there is more of a chance for them, but it is essential to choose hardy flowers. One of the winterI remember as being most successful is spurge (Euphorbia fulgens) with its long sprays of bright orange flowers. are usually rather long suffering as are the spray .
Summer time obviously presents no such difficulties and greet use can be made of the centralof the mantelpiece. The empty grate will also make an ideal background for large containers filled with , grasses etc. standing inside the fender, and if big enough will take a suitably sized vase, full of flowers coming up over the front iron bars. I have seen an electric fitment arranged so that the flowers in this are illuminated from inside the chimney and this can be most effective.
It may be difficult to do the flowers in position and if this is the case they should be arranged elsewhere but at the same height from the ground. Otherwise they have to be altered considerably when they reach their destination.
Certain flowers and branches are more suitable than others for this type of arrangement, depending, of course, on theyou have selected (One ought to try out the vase in position first).
A small amount of material will show off well in a tall, narrow necked vase like a decanter or an attractively shaped bottle, and a few flowers arranged in an attractive piece of old porcelain can be placed in a prominent position.
A certain type of mantelpiece may call for a central arrangement, whilst another one may cn out for the flowers to be placed at one end. Whatever is decided it is usually better to have a simple vase of flowers than an over elaborate concoction_ From this sort of position a group may easily seem top heavy or over decorative.