KO hails from the Jersey Shore in a charming town called Ship Bottom, and has a childhood friend here in Santa Barbara who reads my column.
KO sends me a photo of a fireplace screen. He wrote he has lived with it for 65 years. He is curious to know who owned it. Perhaps the family was noble?
The material of the screen itself is copper, pounded to create a relief from the back through a technique called repousse. The design is heraldic, meaning that the figures are in the style of family crest.
The school of the study of heraldry includes related disciplines, such as the study of rank, pedigree, armory and vexillology, the study of flags.
There’s a pair of lions, standing for strength. The language of heraldry is unique. When we see a lion, standing up, paws out, we call that beast a “Lion Rampant.”
Thus, KO’s screen shows two lions rampant, holding, between them, a double eagle, head turned to the side with wings spread open. This is also a common motif. Russia and Prussia both feature that double eagle on their coats of arms.
Above the eagle’s head is a large crown. The copper relief is framed by a cast iron surround with a cartouche in cast iron at the top of two additional “lions passant.” In other words, these lions are partially reclining, referencing the language of heraldry. These figures are called supporters. This screen is meant to look noble, reminding us of a family armorial bearing, also called “achievement.”
The characters on a crest and features such as shields and colors are called “devices.”
For this screen, KO, I can’t tell you what family name was associated with these devices because MANY crests bear lions rampant centered by a double eagle. But this screen is interesting because it is a great example of an object that is designed to reference “status.” This screen references a noble origin, but in fact, it is designed for an upper middle-class English home, one that may have aspired to nobility.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, in the growing middle and upper middle class of England, a cult of the manor house was born.
If a family had no rank, no peerage station, a family could “look” noble by adding features to their decoration scheme. I have seen many decorative features, like this screen, that are meant to convey privilege, and in fact, the interior of a house that was designed to “look” noble might also reference a noble style of architecture on the outside.
The house might have a turret, or crenelated battlements, all very castle-like, but in a smaller scale.
The upper middle classes also named their houses, following the British manor house tradition. My ex-husband, who was Scottish, had a stone house with a turret, built in 1870. It was named “Strathmore.”
But such features are not grand enough in scale, old enough, nor hand wrought, as befits a real manor house, which may date from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
Such an example is this screen. I compare KO’s screen with the real thing. A fire screen from the 18th century or earlier would be much larger, much taller, wider and would be hand-wrought. In fact, most screens of the 18th century or earlier were not metal at all, perhaps embroidered fabric in a frame of wood.
KO’s is the size of screen made for a 19th century. middle class fireplace, which was smaller, because it had less area to heat.
Old grand houses had fireplaces with much taller fireboxes, and older screens are raised on pedestals, with movable screens that can be raised or lowered depending on the ferocity of the fire.
KO’s screen is designed for a fireplace that burned coal, not wood. Other grand manor house fireplace screens wrapped around the opening of the firebox, because the master hall in a manor house, had a huge fireplace. No, this is clearly late 19th century “set design.” This screen shows us the power of the object to convey the culture of a generation.
If, in the late 19th to the early 20th century, you were an English person of the aspiring upper middle class, you would have coveted such a screen. This lordly design, the shorthand of the heraldry, and the scale point to an upper middle-class market in the England of the late 19th to early 20th century.
The value of KO’s screen is $100.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears every week in the Salon & Style section. Her new book, “Collect Value Divest: The Savvy Appraiser,” is available at local bookstores and at amazon.com. Send questions and photos to Ask the Gold Digger, c/o News-Press, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359, or email ElizabethApprasals@gmail.com