Sunday, 12 October 2014

Fireplace Archaeology!

fireplace arrives home - note cats-cradle strapping!
Every so often, I check though eBay for replacement architectural antiques for Balintore Castle. The wise advice I was given, early on, was to collect slowly and cheaply, for surely if you want a grand Victorian fireplace in a hurry it's going to cost you an arm and a leg. There is a huge difference in price between a polished-up antique marble fireplace in a high-end dealer's showroom, and one that is a little worse for wear, and that someone wants rid of quickly during building works to their home. In short don't pass up any opportunity, it may not occur later.

Anyhow, a fireplace turned up on eBay recently. The pictures showed that although the bits of the fireplace were covered in pigeon poo, there was something intriguing about it. The seller was unable to say whether the fireplace was slate or marble. The scale of the fireplace (it is a bit of a beast) suggested it should be marble. Slate fireplaces are for the less well-off, so are generally smaller. The principle goes that if someone could afford a large fireplace, then they could afford marble. However, the grey marble panels looked painted on because the marbling pattern was a little "soft". There was a limit to what I could discern from the low-res photos, but for £100 it was worth a punt. :-) The original fireplaces at Balintore were marble rather than slate, but the design of this fireplace was something special that I had not seen before, so on the principle of going for quality items I felt that it was immaterial whether slate or marble.

After winning the item, I turned up with my pick-up at the village of Great Alne. The seller Steve was really friendly and explained the fireplace was found lying in his old mill building. The previous owner of the mill had never gone through with his plan to restore the building, but had left architectural antiques lying around. Steve and a friend kindly loaded the fireplace onto my pick-up and wouldn't let me help. I had explained previously that I am recovering from back surgery and shouldn't lift more than 5 lbs!  Steve's family plied me with two cups of tea and three Kit-Kats while this was going on. Having been through nightmares with some individuals on eBay, it makes encountering genuinely lovely people a real pleasure.

I had a brief examination of the mantle shelf with Steve, and concluded that it was slate rather than marble. There was a shiny black coating that was coming off in parts, revealing a matt grey finish underneath. The wall side of the mantle shelf was also a slate grey colour. There would be no coating on a marble fireplace - just polish! Steve handed me one piece that had come detached from the fireplace - the "cushion support" a flat piece that goes on top of the leg, directly under the mantle shelf. Suddenly I was in shock, a surface that would have been hidden revealed a beautiful bright red marble. The bright colours of marble are the most expensive and most posh "rouge marble" is actually just a shade of brown. Yet, this was an unmistakable and vivid red. The pattern even suggested porphyry: a stone even more expensive than marble beloved by the ancient Romans. What was going on? Was the red marble simply an off-cut being used: carved and then painted black by the stonemason? Or perhaps the fireplace once looked totally different with a red, black and gold colour scheme: a colour combination that makes total sense? Sometime in its life perhaps it had been "dulled-down" to fit in with a drab room or someone with drab taste? The rather poor painted grey marbling could support this hypothesis.

hidden surfaces reveal expensive marble underneath
further evidence of expensive red marble

Anyhow, the mystery has not been solved yet. I will do some test-scrapings on the fireplace to reveal what is underneath. If I do find symmetrically placed slabs of red marble on the left and right jambs, then I will be enormously temped to reveal these. In any case it will be a delight to either restore the shiny black finish to the fireplace, or to reveal its former high-class true colours. So far I have just done my best to remove the ground-on pigeon poo as shown in the photographs below.

left jamb before cleaning
left jamb after cleaning
right jamb before cleaning
right jamb after cleaning
mantle and cross-piece before cleaning
mantle and cross-piece after cleaning

just before unloading - only a panorama could fit everything in! 


  1. That already looks a bit classy to me!

  2. It almost looks a little Egyptian!

    1. Well spotted! It looks like the common ancient Egyptian lotus motif - see column (a) here: