Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Fireplace Archaeology II !

Following on from my previous blog entry, I finally started scraping away at the layers of paint on the reclaimed fireplace I had bought on eBay. The aim was to find out its history. The fact that sections of an expensive red marble lay under a layer of black paint was puzzling and indicated that it had a more flamboyant and more expensive past. :-)

Anyhow I chose two flat sections of the fireplace to start scraping. One was on the left hand jamb, and the other was in the corresponding position on the right-hand jamb. Removing an initial square centimetre of black paint from each, showed both had the same red marble underneath. I couldn't resist completing the sections. At least if revealing all the marble proved too much work,  working on these two smaller sections would result in a symmetric end result.

The section on the left jamb revealed the expected and attractive speckled marble pattern.

section of expensive marble revealed on left-hand jamb

The section on the right jamb revealed a much plainer patch of an orange/red colour. I did not expect this. Perhaps there were variations in the marble's patterning? The odd thing was that two layers of paint seemed to have come off this jamb. The black layer on top, and then a browny layer underneath. In fact, the brown layer had half stayed on and half come off, so I scraped away vigorously at the remaining brown areas, but all the colour seemed to disappear and I ended up with the grey of .... slate! Was the expensive marble just a paint effect - surely not - it was so hard, glossy and authentic looking.

something not quite right is revealed in same area on right-hand jamb

The only solution was to start scraping at a hidden surface, where I could do no damage, at an area that was unambiguously the expensive marble. To my shock a top "pock-marked" purple layer came off, and then an underlying bright red layer came off, before I finally came to the slate.

revealed - marble is actually a sophisticated multi-layered paint effect!

This was nothing less than an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layer and convincing marble effect. A red coat was applied, then the piece was dipped, I would suggest, in a purple oil-based paint laced with water droplets - in a similar manner to marbling paper. The resulting effect was a myriad of red splodges showing through, just like a naturally occurring mineral.

I have seen sections of various painted marbles in the V&A from Victorian times and they are utterly convincing. In fact there was even a society of marble painters. And this paint effect marble on my own fireplace had me totally fooled until I did the scraping.

This begs the question of what do I do now to the fireplace? I am quite tempted to leave these red sections to show the history. Should I try to reveal any more? The grey painted marble roundel in the cross piece is so obviously wrong that I will definitely return this to the original black, so the gold painted carvings will show up advantageously. Apart from this and just restoring a deep black where required, I may just leave alone. 

However, the mystery of its past has been solved. Much of the fireplace had been originally painted in a vivid red faux marble that would have contrasted marvellously with the black slate and gold-inlaid carvings. It would have been simply stunning, and if only I had the ability to do this paint effect again. These Victorian skills, I fear, are now largely lost to us. 

However, tastes change and a later generation must have considered the bold Victorian effect vulgar, and the whole thing was toned down, but with considerably less art and much less skill. The red marble was painted over because, one presumes, it was known to be "just" a paint effect. There is much Philistinism, where the destruction of art and beauty masquerades as improvement.


  1. A really fascinating post. Thank you!

  2. My grandmother used to 'marble' her brick fireplace every couple of years with a seagull feather and some handmade lace ( yes! ), we used to joke that if she put any more paint on the fireplace it would take up all the room ! There must have been a 100 layers of paint over what had been a plain brick fireplace ! Victorians were champions of paint effects.