I’m never quite sure what to do with fireplaces in the summer time: just leave them alone, throw a potted fern in them, or a few of those old-fashioned fireplace fans? Books? The television? (I’d rather put the television in the fireplace than over it; I hate that television-over-the-mantle look) It seems like a wasted space and opportunity, as the fireplace remains the focal point of the room no matter what the season. Our ancestors had the solution to what was for them not just a decorating problem: they filled their damperless hearths with fireboards or chimney boards, decorated with flowers, street scenes, ships, or whatever caught their fancy. These boards would keep out (or hide) soot, dust, and birds and brighten up the dark and dusty cave in the room at the same time.
Here in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum has several fireboards from the early nineteenth century that I have long admired and which have inspired me to try to find my own period fireboard, but I’ve never been able to find one that was even remotely affordable and fit any of my fireplaces at the same time. But the hunt continues because it’s always nice to have a quest!
Here are some of my favorite fireboards from the PEM, beginning with a beautiful scene of upper Washington Street and the Samuel McIntire courthouse painted by George Washington Felt about 1810-20 and a view of Beverly from the same period, by an anonymous artist. Departing from street scenes and bird’s-eye views representing pride of place, the last two boards represent an historic gale which sank eleven Marblehead fishing boats in 1846 and the stately mansion of Chatsworth in England.
Fireboards from the Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem: View of Court House Square by George Washington Felt, c. 1810-20; View of Beverly by an anonymous American artist, c. 1800-20 (from the Safford House); The Great Gale of 1846 by William Thompson Bartoll; A Distant View of Chatsworth, Derbyshire, England by Michel Felice Corné, c. 1800 (from the Bertram K. Little and Nina Fletcher Little Collection auction at Sotheby’s, January 29, 1994).
Pieces such as these have fetched high prices at auction: most recently, a mid-eighteenth century board featuring the John Hancock House in Boston (below) went for over $600,000 at a Sotheby‘s auction (against an estimate of $150,000-$250,000), but this is a very early and apparently very special piece. The trompe l’oeil louvered fireboard depicting an idyllic landscape was probably made in Philadelphia around 1810-40: it sold for $60,000 in 2005 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The MFA example above features two motifs that often appear on fireboards: louvers and trompe l’oeil decoration. In fact, it combines them: some of the louvers are apparently real and some are fake. I’ve seen some other louvered boards around, which has made me wonder if something could be made of all the old and abandoned exterior shutters in my basement? A very literal trompe decoration is on the c. 1820 board below from a Skinner auction a few years ago. I wonder what the purpose was of replicating the bricks behind the board? A more charming example (to me) is the “watermelon” fireboard made in Salem, New York, about 1840, now in a private collection.
A variation on the fireboard is the dummy board or “silent companion”, which did not have to go before the hearth but certainly could and did. You could choose an iconic or period person to go before your fireplace, or you could place a pig there, like the eighteenth-century English example below. In my continuing search for a fireboard (or two), I’ve looked for new sources as well as old, and while most of the former are a bit too rustic for my taste and house, these blue and white pots by British decorative painter Lucinda Oakes look really beautiful.
Pig feeding from a Bowl Dummy Board, c. 1750-1800, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Blue and White Pots I fireboard by Lucinda Oakes.