Early 20th Century changes to historic fireplaces at Foxcombe Hall.
Despite the modern lighting, carpet and furniture, Earl Berkeley's Bedroom and Dressing Room of 1904, designed by Ernest George and Yeates, remain largely intact. Decorative relief plaster cornice and carved wood doors, the period fireplace with blue tiling. However, one thing I overlooked (until my recent meeting with Vale of the White Horse DC, conservation officer, Sally Straddling) was why were these precious tiles installed? ...and what the fireplace would have looked like originally? This was a good question, and on reflection is something that I have seen over and over again. Firstly at the Radcliffe Infirmary in 2011, and more recently at Somerville College.
The main period of tin-glazed pottery in the Netherlands was from 1640-1740. Delft - based on 14th Century Chinese Porcelain became incredibly popular as a result of Dutch trade with China. Despite the artistic process involved in the creation of Delft tiles, the tiles did not evolve into a luxury item, andinstead remained accessible to most of the middle class population in colonial Dutch society. As Dutch Delftware increased in popularity, the English began to incorporate the Dutch painting style into their tiles as well. As demand grew, the production of Delft tiles was manufactured in factories, the most famous of which were based in Bristol and Liverpool. Eventually the Dutch followed suit and began to produce their own tiles in factories. The tiles became popular after an embargo was imposed against the importation of goods into Britain
In the colonies, Delft tiles became an expensive item as authentic copies could only be imported from Britain.
It is not clear whether the tiles at Foxcombe were Dutch or a reproduction from England, nevertheless they appear to pre-date the 1904 Chimney.
Hilary Grainger's recent book 'The Architecture of Sir Ernest George and Yeates' predominately illustrates exteriors and therefore doesn't provide a clue to the typical George and Yeates designs. Gavin Stamp's book on Lutyen's (Pupil of Ernest George) has a number of fireplaces similar to the fireplace at Foxcombe, such as the fireplace at Sullingstead See fig 1. Given the grandeur of the interiors carried out by Ernest George and Yeates at Foxcombe It seems most likely that the fireplaces at Foxcombe would have reflected the architectural fashion of open fires, reflecting the designs of fireplaces from the medieval country house.
So why and when was it covered up?
During the Edwardian period 1901-1914, the preoccupation as far as fireplaces were concerned was to achieve greater efficiency with less fuel consumption. Slow combustion techniques were constantly being improved. The cheeks of the fireplace would be made from fire-brick, splayed at the sides and with the back sloping forward, so to project more heat into the room. Often the grate was ventilated directly from outdoors to the fire did not draw a draught across the room. Chimney pieces took many forms, with an increase in the use of glazed tiles more elegant than in the Victorian Period, and often set within older period frames.
So my assumption is that it was covered up by Albert Richardson as part of his 1935 alterations shortly after Rippon Hall purchased the House. The closing of the back would have improved the efficiency of the fire and the ancient tiles have proved a sympathetic and appropriate design solution of the time.
So what to do? it would be lovely to see what is behind the fire boarding, but perhaps the tiles have more relevance now that the building has been taken over by Peking University. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to find a suitable fire grate to install within the tiles - we shall have to wait and see.
Elements of Style, Calloway S. Octopus Publishing London 1992.
Edwin Lutyens Country Houses. Stamp G. Aurum Press, London 2001.
The Architecture of Sir Ernest George and Yeates, Grainger H. Spire Books, Reading 2011