It is doubtful if they were generally prevalent, but mantels probably existed in England before the first colonists set sail for America. There is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a mantel of the Jacobean period which was taken from an old house in Lime Street, London, and dates from early in the seventeenth century. During the Restoration, however, and down to the time of George I, Grinling Gibbons was master carver in wood to the crown, and his fine work, and that of his pupils, brought the mantel and over mantel into high favour as an architectural entity.
Incidentally, John Evelyn bears the distinction of having brought both Gibbons and his illustrious contemporary, Sir Christopher Wren, to royal notice and favour. Regarding the master carver this meticulous diarist wrote on January 18, 1671: "This day I first acquainted his Majesty with that incomparable young man Gibbon." On March 1, he again referred to Gibbons as "that incomparable artist," and added that "His Majesty's Surveyor, Mr. Wren, faithfully promised to employ him. I having also bespoke his Majesty for his work at Windsor, which my friend Mr. May, the architect, there was going to alter and repair universally."
Grinling Gibbons was born in 1648 and died in 1721. At the very time he was doing his finest work, first at Windsor Castle, and later at Hampton Court for William of Orange, house interiors in America were reflecting the changing fortunes of their owners. The panelling of the fireplace wall now took on more architectural proportions. Individual panels were beautifully shaped, and the whole was sometimes given a strongly classical flavour by the use of reeded pilasters and boldly executed mouldings. But the fireplace itself, although the most important functional feature, was dismissed with a framing of mouldings.
It is true that in isolated instances a mantelshelf would be found from 1700 on, but where it did occur it was part of the panelling that formed the room end. The eighteenth century was half over before even this rudimentary feature found general acceptance. Yet, the American architect-carpenters must have been thoroughly familiar with decorative fireplace details. They owned the various books on domestic architecture then current in England. In them were depicted numerous designs for mantels and corresponding over mantels, by which the balance of the chimney breast was decorated. But such elaboration was ignored in America until about 1750.
Then came the building of handsome town and country residences, in the best spirit of Georgian architecture, such as the Powell house in Philadelphia. In these, the main rooms were always provided with beautifully executed mantels and over-mantels. But still the chimney breast from hearth to ceiling was handled as a unit. It was only when Americans began to learn of the architectural accomplishments of the Brothers Adam in Adelphi Terrace that a distinct change took place. These gifted architects, and promoters of real estate, were partial to marble mantels richly decorated with classical motifs for framing fireplace openings. Many were carved for them in Italy.
These marble mantels caught American fancy, and during the decade before the American Revolution stopped commerce there was a ready market for them this side of the. Atlantic, if one can judge by the numerous newspaper advertisements which mention marble mantels just arrived on this or that ship, which the captain has for sale. They were expensive, and with characteristic ingenuity American wood carvers and carpenters soon began to make wooden mantels. When painted, the latter were equally decorative.
Today, wooden mantels executed in the Adam manner before the American Revolution are rare, and likely to be less elaborate than those dating after the close of this period of strife. In fact, the heyday of fine American mantels, decorated with carving or applied composition, was from about 1790 to 1820. During this period several sections of the country developed types that can now be recognized and distinguished.
In Salem, Massachusetts, the name of Samuel McIntyre is synonymous with fine carving and design, and at least some of the mantels originating there were from his hands. In Boston, Charles Bulfinch, the first man in America to practice architecture professionally, designed excellent mantels for houses like the Harrison Grey Otis house. In New York, on Long Island, and in New Jersey, the carpenter-carvers of Dutch descent produced their own distinctive mantels with finely executed sunbursts in gouge carving. From Philadelphia came those with applied decorations of composition. Of the latter, profile heads of Washington and Franklin and patriotic scenes were most popular. R. Wellford was the foremost producer or this type of decoration. And in Baltimore the artistic characteristics peculiar to that town left their impress on the mantels produced there.
With the Adam period, the decorative over mantel passed from use, especially as an architectural unit. In some cases it was replaced by an elaborately carved and gilded mirror. This, also, held through the various style periods that followed. The mantel, of course, reflected the various decorative characteristics of each. The classic influence introduced by the Brothers Adam held over into the Empire years; but with the latter, elaborate sunburst carvings forming a central panel were usual.
The Neo-Grecian revival brought in a wide use of marble mantels. Some were white with fine supporting columns or reeded pilasters; others were of richly veined coloured marble. Veined black, mottled green, and grey marbles were popular. Victorian mantels showed the rococo French influence with arched fireplace opening. Also, the basket grate and surrounding frame of black iron testified to the growing competition between wood and coal as fuel. It is hardly necessary to state that fruit, foliage, and the like were the principal motifs for the carving that served as decoration, or that there was plenty of it. Many of us have lived with ornate examples of white marble, and sometimes there would be a pair of elaborately carved alabaster vases on either end of the marble mantelshelf, reminding one faintly of a tombstone.
So far had public taste drifted from the marble mantels of the Adam period. Probably the finest imported one to grace an American house is now in the banquet hall at Mount Vernon. It has a most interesting history. The London merchant, Samuel Vaughan, was a great admirer of George Washington. In fact the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, known as the Vaughan type, and now in the Mellon Collection, was executed for him. As a present for Washington, Vaughan bought this mantel from the Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova. It was packed in a number of cases and loaded on an English ship destined for the Potomac. Unfortunately, the ship was overhauled on the high seas by a French privateer and looted. But Washington's reputation was held in great respect even by rogues, for when the Frenchmen saw his name on the cases they arranged, at no little risk to themselves, to have this gift transferred to another ship. So it proceeded safely to Alexandria.
Washington's letter of thanks, dated Mount Vernon, February 5, 1785, tells of the difficulties he, in turn, encountered in getting the gift to his mansion. His diary contains several references to the trouble he had finding a workman skilful enough to unpack and set it in the place it still occupies.