CHIMNEYPIECE, the term given to the projecting hood which in medieval times was built over a fireplace to catch the smoke, and at a later date to the decorative framework, often carried up to the ceiling. "Chimneypiece" or "mantelpiece" is now the general term for the jambs, mantelshelf and external accessories of a fireplace. For many centuries the chimneypiece was the most ornamental and most artistic feature of a room, but as fireplaces have become smaller, and modern methods of heating have been introduced, its artistic as well as its practical significance has grown less.
Up to the 12th century rooms were warmed entirely by a hypocaust, or with braziers, or by fires on the hearth, the smoke finding its way up to a lantern in the roof. The earliest chimneypiece known is that in the King's House at Southampton, with Norman shafts in the joints carrying a segmental arch, which is attributed to the first half of the 12th century. At a later date, in consequence of the greater width of the fireplace, flat or segmental arches were thrown across and constructed with voussoirs, sometimes joggled, the thrust of the arch being resisted by bars of iron at the back. In domestic work of the 14th century the chimneypiece was greatly increased in order to allow of the members of the family sitting on either side of the fire on the hearth, and in these cases great beams of timber were employed to carry the hood; in such cases the fireplace was so deeply recessed as to become externally an important architectural feature, as at Haddon Hall. The largest chimneypiece existing is in the great hall of the Palais des Comtes at Poitiers, which is nearly 30 ft. wide, having two intermediate supports to carry the hood; the stone flues are carried up between the tracery of an immense window above. In the early Renaissance style, the chimneypiece of the Palais de Justice at Bruges is a magnificent example; the upper portion, carved in oak, extends the whole width of the room, with statues of nearly life size of Charles V. and others of the royal family of Spain. The most prolific modern designer of chimneypieces was J.B. Piranesi, who in 1765 published a large series, on which at a later date the Empire style in France was based. In France the finest work of the early Renaissance period is to be found in the chimneypieces, which are of infinite variety of design.
The English chimneypieces of the early 17th century, when the purer Italian style was introduced by Inigo Jones, were extremely simple in design, sometimes consisting only of the ordinary mantelpiece, with classic architraves and shelf, the upper part of the chimney breast being panelled like the rest of the room. In the latter part of the century the classic architrave was abandoned in favour of a much bolder and more effective moulding, as in the chimneypieces at Hampton Court, and the shelf was omitted.
In the 18th century the architects returned to the Inigo Jones classic type, but influenced by the French work of Louis XIV. and XV. Figure sculpture, generally represented by graceful figures on each side, which assisted to carry the shelf, was introduced, and the overmantel developed into an elaborate frame for the family portrait over the chimneypiece. Towards the close of the 18th century the designs of the brothers Adam superseded all others, and a century later they came again into fashion. The Adam mantels are in wood enriched with ornament, cast in moulds, sometimes copied from the carved wood decoration of old times.
(R. P. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)