Before the 15th century houses had an open hearth in the centre of main living room. Logs were burnt resting on the bar between two “fire dogs”. The introduction of canopies to guide the smoke away led to Fireplaces being moved to the wall where the canopies were easier to support.
The Fireplaces in medieval kitchens were extremely wide to accommodate large logs and cooking spits. The opening was spanned by an oak beam or Fireplace Mantel and there was room to sit by the fire, the ingle-nook (from the scots word aingeal meaning fire and nook meaning a corner)
The early 16th Century saw the introduction of the enclosed wall Fireplace with the chimneystack containing the flue running up from the hearth. Most hearth openings were rectangular and spanned by a stone or wood lintel. The Fireplace was treated as part of the wall but soon became a dominant feature of most rooms with the development of the fire surround or Fireplace Mantelpiece.
The fire surround was devised during the renaissance in Italy and was inspired by classical Greek and Roman architecture. The surround took the form of a pair of legs on either side of the hearth linked by an entablature. The legs were columns, pilasters, carved figures or simple architectural mouldings. The entablature was a decorative frieze. The surface of the chimneybreast was also decorated with a wooden or stone over Fireplace Mantel
When much of England’s woodland disappeared due to the demands of shipbuilding it led to widespread coal burning and the introduction of baskets to hold the coal.
The first coal burning fire baskets with a small fireback and bars all around developed into the heavy dog grate raised above the hearth. Another way of providing a small fire basket was the hob grate. With shelves on either side of the fire, it was the first grate to be permanently built in. To prevent cinders falling on the floor, fenders were introduced.
Over the centuries many technical and decorative changes were made to the Fireplace. Canting of the sides of the hearth was introduced to reflect heat into the room. There were reductions in the size of the hearth and flue to increase the draw of air.
The excesses of Jacobean decoration were followed by a return to classical style. Fireplace recesses were usually square with simple moulding in wood, stone, marble or painted plaster. The recess could be lined with cast iron or have an ornamented fireback to reflect heat into the room. 17th century classicism was followed by first baroque and then rococo style before reverting to classicism with the Adams brothers. Their marble Fireplaces set a style, which continues to this day.
The areas between the legs and the hearth or grate were lined with marble, slate or ceramic tiles. Picture panels were incorporated. The over Fireplace Mantel was dispensed with and picture or mirrors were hung on the chimneybreast.
The Victorian period saw a number of changes in style. The High Victorian Style was a natural progression, begun in the Regency period, towards excessive embellishment leading to the ornate or cluttered look that most of us associate with the term "Victorian”. Victorian England was the first mass consumer society. Wealth grew rapidly with industrialisation as did the range and variety of mass-produced goods available. Fireplaces were made from cast iron, marble chimney pieces were prefabricated and pieced together. Fireplace Mantel-shelves became wider to accommodate clocks, candles and ornaments.
The Gothic Revival was a reaction to the high style based on the medieval Gothic style. It developed partly from the severe Neo-Classicism of Palladian architecture, and partly from a romantic interest in the Middle Ages.
The Aesthetic movement of the 1870s and 1880s rejected unnecessary ornamentation. It relied on simple designs with little unnecessary ornamentation. In the 1890s the Aesthetic movement gave way to the Arts and Crafts movement.