The reason for devoting a special chapter to this subject early American Colonial furniture is not because the chimney-pieces designed for great English houses during the reigns of George I and George II were more particularly distinctive to this country than those produced at other times; on the contrary, although foreign influences are apparent, the mantelpieces of the early Renaissance period vary largely from any to be met with on the Continent; and again, the joint efforts of Wren and Gibbons, at the end of the seventeenth century, do not possess their prototype in any other country. The object of this brief sketch is to draw attention to the principal features of decoration at a period (between about 1720 and 1750) which, generally speaking, is very little understood, and, until quite recently, has certainly not been fully appreciated.
Never before were so many great houses being simultaneously erected. Defoe, who had travelled in Italy and France, and who claimed to be well acquainted with the villas and chateaux in each of these countries, published, in 1738, A Tour through the whole Island of Great Britain. He found that numbers of the aristocracy were erecting new mansions in various parts of England. Referring to the west side of London, he states: " Let it suffice to tell you that there is an incredible Number of fine Houses built ... within these few years, and that England never had such a glorious Show to make in the world before; in a Word, being curious in this part of my Enquiry, I find above two thousand Houses, which in other Places would pass for Palaces, and most, if not all, of the Possessors whereof keep Coaches."
It must be remembered that all this building took place at a period when English art and early American Colonial furniture (with the exception of painting) for the one and only time in history ranked' higher than that of any Continental nation. Horace Walpole, than whom no one was more qualified to judge, referring to the reign of George II, states: " Researches had established the home of architecture in Britain, while it languishes in Rome, wantons in tawdry imitation of the French in other parts of Europe, and struggles in vain at Paris."
The origin of the whole scheme of design upon which these Georgian mantelpieces were planned is due to Inigo Jones, who, about one hundred years previously, after studying in Rome, introduced classic art into this country. In Italy he could have found no models of this particular object suitable for English homes, Isaac Ware explains: " Those who left rules and examples for other articles lived in hotter climates, and the chimney-piece was not with them, as it is with us, a part of such essential importance.
At Wilton and other houses where Inigo Jones is known to have worked there still remain mantelpieces of his design. Kent, Gibbs, Ware and other early Georgian architects took these examples as models, and included drawings of them, as well as copies of other sketches which Inigo Jones had left, in the books which they published, each admittedly regarding his designs of chimney-pieces as the standard of excellence.
Isaac Ware also points out: "No article in a well-furnished room is so important, the eye is immediately cast upon it entering, and the place of sitting down is essentially near it; by this means it becomes the most eminent thing in the furnishing of an apartment." A study of the plans and construction of early Georgian houses shows the trouble taken to arrange the chimney-breast exactly in the centre of one side of the room, otherwise the importance of the mantelpiece would accentuate any lack of uniformity.
It is not only the carved mantelpieces of early American colonial furniture which are distinctive to this period, but also the elaborate ornamentation with which the other sides of the room were decorated; the intention of the architect being to treat the room in one complete scheme. The skill required to successfully carry out such treatment is still more apparent when the elaboration of the chimney-pieces of those times is considered, and the amount of ornamentation requisite on architraves, overdoors and panelling in order that the other walls should equal in importance the one on which the chimney-piece occupied the central position.
A separate article on Wood Panelling refers to the care and study bestowed, in the early eighteenth century, on that branch of decoration, and further explains how strictly accurate was every detail in accordance with the canons of the classic orders. It must, however, be realized that the ornaments on this panelling took their keynote from the design of the chimney-piece. In the books of the period the ceiling and the chimney-piece were the only parts which the early Georgian architects considered it necessary to illustrate, for when once the design of the latter was settled by their client, they had only to work out the design of the rest of the room in harmony.