Hearth and soul: the most fabulous fireplaces
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I can still vividly recall my grandfather’s evening fire-lighting routine at his home many moons ago. He’d sit beside the hearth to clean out the grate, ignite the kindling and wait for the first spark of life, rubbing his hands with delight as the flames lit up the room. It was one of “his jobs” in the house. Times, of course, have changed and modern conveniences such as central heating have taken over, but there is little as heartening as the thought of sitting by a roaring fire when the chill of winter sets in.
Fireplaces – both traditional and contemporary – provide a focal point for a room and, even if they are no longer in use, bring character to a space that would otherwise feel cold. In period properties, they are integral to the home’s architecture and a simple update can be transformative both aesthetically and financially – helping to add perceived value to a space. According to the property site Zoopla, restoring period features in general can add £4,731 to a house’s value.
Preparing to give such a dominant fixture a new look can be daunting, but as most fireplaces are essentially decorative, it can be relatively simple. The first step, of course, is to consult an expert, the majority of whom will tell you to invest in quality – and that the most sought-after fireplaces today are usually antiques.
But where do you go to hunt for a vintage treasure? Architectural-salvage and fireplace specialists are troves for everything from clean-fronted Queen Annes to carved Italian Renaissance marbles. Established London outposts such as Jamb, Chesneys and Renaissance (all of which ship pieces internationally) are worth a visit, as is the Paris-based emporium Marc Maison.
The cost of an antique, of course, depends on the style and rarity of a design, but good marble bullseyes (you will recognise them by the carved concentric circles at each corner, even if you’re not familiar with the name) can be picked up for £1,300 to £2,000. “Antiques have always been popular as you’re buying something that’s not much more expensive than a reproduction in the knowledge that it’s a piece of history, or at least something with historical value,” says Paul Chesney of Battersea-based specialist Chesneys.
Owen Pacey of Renaissance in the East End has fitted fireplaces for Ralph Lauren and Gilbert & George, as well as sourcing antiques for Soho and Babington House, but reveals that all his clients are alike in that most want to invest in quality and provenance. “It makes total sense as these fireplaces can sell a home,” he says. “If your property is on the market, you need to stand out, and buyers will remember the one with the lovely original fireplace.”
Pacey sources antique fireplaces from historical houses, auctions and the vintage markets of Paris. He advises people not to write off an old unloved fireplace at home before they’ve considered restoration – it could be a hidden gem. “When I’m on a site visit, 50 per cent of the time there’s a fireplace that the owners assumed was damaged and would need to be replaced, but could be restored,” he says. And his team – Benji, one of the guys hammering away in the workshop, has been honing his skills for 30 years – can restore a fireplace in as little as one day.
“We’ll get two guys who will spend all day on it,” Pacey says as he shows me a late-18th-century bullseye that has just been “smoke-stripped” – they use a poultice (a mixture of powdered whiting and a secret ingredient that he asks me not to disclose). He pulls out a picture of the piece taken the day before: the surface is stained brown. The piece before me looks as good as new.
“Let me show you the kind of thing we find covered in white paint,” Pacey says, taking me over to a stunning black fossil fireplace (I’m looking at a hunk of £5k marble). I stare open-mouthed as he flicks through his phone to show me evidence of the atrocity that had been inflicted upon it. “We were able to take this out of a Grade I-listed mews house in Holborn,” he continues. “You see this a lot. They used to paint over everything in the 1970s.”
There’s another striking design propped beside the fossil – a pure white piece of statuary with carved floral corners (which retails for a cool £12k). “This is your typical Notting Hill fireplace,” Pacey says. “The fireplaces in west London are always whiter and posher because historically smoke from the factories used to blow east. So those people would instead have Carrara fireplaces – like this East End Victorian corbel.” He points to a rather elegant fireplace in the corner, greyer in tone, but no less handsome.
Of course, one of the main benefits of restoration is cost. “If someone wants to buy antique Carrara, it’s a good £3,000, plus the insert (which for an original is £1,000). Then you have the hearth and the fitting, so you’re probably looking at £5,000,” Pacey says. “But we’d charge £800 to £1,500 for restoration, depending on the state of the piece and whether it needed welding.” When possible in a home renovation, he explains, an original fireplace will be restored by his team and moved to an auxiliary room such as a bedroom, and a new showstopping piece sourced for the main reception room. “The point is to keep the original in the house. Why would you want to remove it?” he says.
But there are practicalities to consider first. “People should have a full site visit before installation if they want a working fireplace, in order to check the chimney lining, the flue and the suitability of a stove or fire,” says Chesney. Aesthetics – scale and proportion, for instance – are also important. “A chimneypiece will need to work in its setting. It’s then all about following the aesthetic journey to decide whether you choose a historically compatible piece, or break from tradition and go for something else,” says Will Fisher of Jamb, a Belgravia store that could easily be mistaken for a homely offshoot of the V&A. His co-founder Charlotte Freemantle agrees: “As houses evolve with their owners, each generation imposes their own aesthetic. If your house is listed, you need to present your sympathetic choices to the planning officer for approval.”
As antiques are not suitable for every project, Jamb (like Chesneys and Renaissance) offers reproduction pieces. “While it would be wonderful to always install an antique mantle, either the cost or the size can make it prohibitive,” says Fisher, who argues that his “faithful facsimiles can be adapted to fit individual homes and varying budgets”. Installation is also a benefit, according to Chesney: “As they come in separate pieces, they are easier to install.”
Following one’s aesthetic preferences, of course, might mean that sleek and contemporary tick the boxes. Interior designers Staffan and Monique Tollgard view fireplaces as functional sculptures that become the focal point – and starting point – of their interiors. Contemporary fireplaces are typically clean-lined, but the designers add interest around a piece with unexpected materials. “We have clad a fireplace in a London apartment with beautiful brass panels and another in tactile slate,” says Tollgard, while several of their projects feature wide horizontal fireplaces that are minimal yet visually striking. They have even used fireplaces as simple and functional room dividers when the brief permits, installing a double-faced model warming the room on either side.
Meanwhile, the smartest gardens are currently being transformed into outdoor living spaces, stylishly furnished to mirror the home inside. If you’re down with the next big trend, and have any plans to entertain this winter, this means a statement fireplace – be it a contemporary heater or a traditional antique mantel – as increasingly we’re moving outside.
“We’re doing more and more outdoor fireplaces – 10 at the last count – and we’re in the process of putting a line together,” says Pacey. “People are spending time in their gardens, especially during lockdown. You can create one with Calor gas but that can be tricky, so we suggest that if you’re doing a building project, it’s worth running a 20mm gas line to the end of the garden. As long as you have a wall – which is not your neighbours’ – we can do it.” It is worth the effort, he concludes. “It’s great – you can sit on the patio drink in hand all through the winter.”
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