History of Fire Screens The decorated firescreen once took pride of place in the hearth throughout the year - in winter to lessen the heat, in summer to cover the fireplace. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Decorative Arts > Feature: Firescreens

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The History of Fire Screens


 The decorated firescreen once took pride of place in the hearth throughout the year - in winter to lessen the heat, in summer to cover the fireplace

 During Victorian times, in the cooler months of the year, open fires roared in virtually every house in the land. Real fires were the primary source of domestic heat. But though a crackling blaze was warm and cosy, the fierce heat given off did not suit everyone gathered around the fire - some roasted while others felt too cool. But this is where the firescreen came into its own. By placing the screen in front of the fire and opening and closing sliding panels, the heat from the fire could be controlled.

 When spring came, the fire would no longer be lit and the fender and the fire-irons would be put way. Yet the firescreen still had a role to play - it was placed close up against the chimney breast to cover the gaping hole and to hide the blackened grate.


 Firescreens have a long history, and by the 19th century several types of screen intended for use in front of the fire were available in wood, leather, wickerwork and papier mache. The most common types were horse, pole and banner screens, all of which were portable and often adjustable.

 The horse screen came into common use during the 18th century. It was so-called because of its shape - two end-frames each standing on two feet, sometimes linked by a stretcher , that supported the screen panel. The general form of the horse screen stayed fairly constant throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, though there were many stylistic variations along the way.

 In the late 18th century, screens tended to be fairly light and often had small, oval panels during the Regency and early Victorian years the horse screen was renamed the cheval screen - the French word for horse. By the mid- 19th century, the frames and feet of cheval frames had had become heavily and elaborately decorated. Later cheval screens were to become simpler. Within the carved and decorated frames, the panels - the screens themselves - were made from a variety of materials. Embroidered tapestry, painted wood, papier mache and even stained glass.

 Banner and pole screens consisted of tall poles bearing a solid sliding screen or fabric banner which could be moved up and down the pole as required. This type of screen usually stood in the room rather than in the fireplace and was used to keep fierce, direct heat off the faces of ladies sitting by the fire.

 Solid screens were usually of wood, either round, oval or square, and elaborately decorated or painted. Banners were made of silk or embroidery and hung in elegant pleats from a crossbar connected to the pole. The fabric was often unframed and was weighted with heavy tassels along its bottom edge. Although banner screens were only popular for a short time, they could still be found in late Victorian drawing rooms.

 Firescreens were in use year-round in the Victorian home. In the warmer months the screen would be used to hide the grate.


 Fire screens have been popular collectors' items for some time and, as such, relatively few fine examples turn up in junk shops though you may find simple, plain screens from the 20th century. These, however, though quite practical and sometimes attractively decorative, cannot compare as collectors' items with the finely crafted examples from the previous century and earlier. Specialist antique furniture shops are perhaps the best sources to buy from, and screens sometimes feature in lots at auction.

 In the early 19th century, when pole screens were enjoying a period of particular popularity, they became available in the widest selection of styles and materials. The tripod base of the pole screen was typical and was usually richly ornamented and lavishly carved. Mahogany, rosewood and satinwood were frequently used and decoration ranged from japanning to gilding and burnishing. Papier mache was used to make perhaps the most ornate screens of all.


 Panels of both cheval and pole screens appeared in a variety of shapes ranging from the simply rectangular to more elaborate scalloped shapes. Panel materials were equally diverse with tapestry, framed silk, gros-point or painted wood all being popular. Many panels were painted or embroidered at home as a hobby and the fineness of any such screen obviously depends on the skills of a particular home-decorator. A favourite pastime in the mid-Victorian period was to decorate panels with scraps of various materials - usually paper - to form a collage. Sometimes photographs were used, or postage stamps and paper cuttings; these were stuck on to wooden panels and then varnished over.

 Look out for fake pole screens which sometimes crop up in shops. These are often made up from the bases of old standard lamps. Though they may look attractive, they have no value as collectors' pieces.



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