1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fireback

FIREBACK, the name given to the ornamented slab of cast iron protecting the back of a fireplace. The date at which firebacks became common probably synchronizes with the removal of the fire from the centre to the side or end of a room. They never became universal, since the proximity of deposits of iron ore was essential to their use. In England they were confined chiefly to the iron districts of Sussex and Surrey, and appear to have ceased being made when the ore in those counties was exhausted. They are, however, occasionally found in other parts of the country, and it is reasonable to suppose that there was a certain commerce in an appliance which gradually assumed an interesting and even artistic form. The earlier examples were commonly rectangular, but a shaped or gabled top eventually became common. English firebacks may roughly be separated into four chronological divisions—those moulded from more than one movable stamp; armorial backs; allegorical, mythological and biblical slabs with an occasional portrait; and copies of 17th and 18th century continental designs, chiefly Netherlandish. The fleur-de-lys, the rosette, and other motives of detached ornament were much used before attempts were made to elaborate a homogeneous design, but by the middle of the 17th century firebacks of a very elaborate type were being produced. Thus we have representations of the Crucifixion, the death of Jacob, Hercules slaying the hydra, and the plague of serpents. Coats of arms were very frequent, the royal achievement being used extensively—many existing firebacks bear the arms of the Stuarts. About the time of Elizabeth the coats of private families began to be used, the earliest instances remaining bearing those of the Sackvilles, who were lords of a large portion of the forest of Anderida, which furnished the charcoal for the smelting operations in our ancient iron-fields. To the armorial shields the date was often added, together with the initials of the owner. The method of casting firebacks was to cut the design upon a thick slab of oak which was impressed face downwards upon a bed of sand, the molten metal being ladled into the impression. Firebacks were also common in the Netherlands and in parts of France, notably in Alsace. At Strassburg and Metz there are several private collections, and there are also many examples in public museums. The museum of the Porte de Hal at Brussels contains one of the finest examples in existence with an equestrian portrait of the emperor Charles V., accompanied by his arms and motto. When monarchy was first destroyed in France the possession of a plaque de cheminée bearing heraldic insignia was regarded as a mark of disaffection to the republic, and on the 13th of October 1793 the National Convention issued a decree giving the owners and tenants of houses a month in which to turn such firebacks with their face to the wall, pending the manufacture by the iron foundries of a sufficient number of backs less offensive to the instinct of equality. Very few of the old plaques were however removed, and to this day the old châteaux of France contain many with their backs outward. Reproductions of ancient chimney backs are now not infrequently made, and the old examples are much prized and collected.