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Fireplace

  • Place of origin:

    Tula (Fire surround, fender and mantel ornaments, made)
    Birmingham (Fire tools and stand (probably), made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1800 (made)
    1800-20 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Russian Imperial Arms Factory, Tula (made)
    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Forged, blued and cut steel with facetted steel and gilt brass ornaments

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Thomas Harris

  • Museum number:

    M.49-1953

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 3, case CA11 []

This fireplace was made in the Imperial Arms Factory in Tula, Russia, about 80 miles south of Moscow, in about 1805. The factory was founded by Peter the Great after he visited Tula in 1712, primarily to supply his armies with weapons. Later in the 18th century it became famous for the production of steel furniture and other domestic items that were distinguished by their high quality workmanship and decorative detailing. Made using similar techniques as the weapons, these products, such as vases, inkstands and candlesticks, were embellished with gilding, 'bluing' and inlays of metals of contrasting colours. This made them expensive and affordable only by an aristocratic clientele. A fireplace of this form was rare in Russia, where indoor heat was supplied more commonly by stoves. Its production can be seen as serving western taste.

This fireplace was designed to be ornamental rather than functional as the fireplace and tools would have been too hot to touch when the fire was lit. It is likely that the fireplace was a gift in around 1805 to Edward Wilmot, Port Surveyor of Cork, from Princess Dashkova, a leading figure in Russian intellectual life and loyal supporter of Cathering the Great. Edward's daughter, Martha, lived with the princess for five years. Her letters and diaries contain many references to Tula and the family's possessions of Tula wares extended beyond the fireplace. As only two western-style fireplaces are known to have been produced at Tula, any historical references to such items create the possibility that they may refer to this example. What makes the link between this fireplace and the Wilmots of greater likelihood is the fact that on the mantelpiece stands a perfume burner flanked by two urns both of Tula work. A letter Martha posted to her parents on 13 December 1806 included, 'Have you found out that the Curiosity from Tula, is a machine for perfuming the rooms! Charcoal is placed in it, & perfumes burn'd, which fume through the Suites of apartments, as the little machine is whisk'd about ... Its office I suppose will now be to lie quietly on the steel chimneypiece, to match which K is to take over a pair of steel Candlesticks, of Tula manufacture likewise.' The rarity of the fireplace and the surviving perfume burner associated with it suggest that the Wilmots' fireplace and the one at the V&A may well be one and the same.

Physical description

Fireplace with fender, fire-irons and ornaments, of burnished and blued steel with applied decoration of etched foliage, gilt copper and brass mounts and cut steel studs.

Place of Origin

Tula (Fire surround, fender and mantel ornaments, made)
Birmingham (Fire tools and stand (probably), made)

Date

ca. 1800 (made)
1800-20 (made)

Artist/maker

Russian Imperial Arms Factory, Tula (made)
Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Forged, blued and cut steel with facetted steel and gilt brass ornaments

Object history note

This fireplace is one of the most spectacular items ever produced in the workshops of the Russian Imperial Arms Factory in Tula, about 80 miles south of Moscow. The fireplace was made in around 1800. It bears no signature or inscriptions, but documentary evidence suggests it may have been a gift to Edward Wilmot, Port Surveyor of Cork in south-western Ireland, either from the celebrated Russian intellectual and loyal supporter of Catherine the Great, Princess Dashkova (1743-1810), or from Wilmot's daughter, Martha (1774-1873), who lived with the Princess at Troitskoe for five years

Tula

The Imperial Arms Factory was founded by Peter the Great after he visited Tula in 1712, primarily to supply his armies with weapons. Later in the 18th century it became famous for the production of steel furniture and other domestic items that were distinguished by their high quality workmanship and decorative detailing. Made using similar techniques as the weapons, these products, such as vases, inkstands and candlesticks, were embellished with gilding, 'bluing' and inlays of metals of contrasting colours. This made them expensive and affordable only by an aristocratic clientele.

Construction and Decoration

Both in construction and decoration, the fireplace represents a merging of Russian and British influences that exemplify the relationship between the two countries at the end of the eighteenth century. The fire surround is composed of steel rods and plates screwed together and embellished with acid-etched decoration of flowers and foliage, along with portait medallions of Diana, Goddess of Hunting. It also has applied steel and gilt bronze mounts, some of which are pierced. Two oval panels at the top of the uprights, along with a series of rounded half-cylinders in the centre beneath the mantle, are etched with foliage, gilded in the recesses and blued.

The acid-etched decoration on the inner panels of the surround adds a delicacy to the hard steel that the Tula armourers would have long been comfortable applying to sword hilts and guns. Before the fireplace arrived at the V&A it had been over-cleaned which destroyed some areas of the decoration, but parts survive in clear detail. The vertical panels show sequences of stretched vases, scrolling foliage and sprays of flowers rising and twisting towards the mantelpiece. Slithering through the foliage are open-mouthed snakes. Perched on branches are eagles and storks. Contained within medallions are dancing cupids and medallion portraits of Diana, Goddess of Hunting.

A Link to Charles Cameron?

These may well be the work of Charles Cameron (1745-1812), architect at the court of Catherine the Great. Cameron claimed aristocratic Scottish ancestry but was in fact a Londoner. His passion for Roman architecture led him to Italy in the late 1760s where he studied the remains of Roman baths, most notably the Baths of Titus. His 'The Baths of the Romans', first published in 1772, supplied much of the inspiration when he was engaged by Catherine, from 1779, to work on the Palaces of Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk.

Cameron's style was an individual take on the architectural styles of Robert Adam. He was not fully constrained by the rules of neoclassicism and his designs rarely repeat themselves. He employed many of the techniques for unifying designs that Adam used, particularly his layers of running foliage and stacks of classical vases but his style is more illusory and less governed by structural outlines. The etching on the fire surround shows many of his characteristics. The faces of Diana and the two masks supporting foliage bear similarities with his hand, as do the beaded medallions in which they are shown. Dancing cupids similar to the ones on the fire surround appear throughout his work, including the ceiling of the Agate Room at Tsarskoye Selo. The intertwining foliage inside the top corners recalls the top frieze of his draft design for the dining room at Tsarskoye Selo.

Moreover, the composition of the fireplace also has qualities redolent of Cameron's work in Russia. The arrangement of the oval, blued-steel plaques in the capitals is very similar to the layout of the fireplaces in the Central Hall of the Agate Pavilion. The clusters of very thin, fluted columns, broken with diagonal lines, recall the columns in the Grand Ducal Bedroom.

If the fireplace is not the work of Cameron directly, then it attests to his powerful influence on Russian design at the end of the 18th-century. Indeed there were few architects designing fireplaces in Russia, a land of stoves, and its commission should be seen as reflecting western taste. Only one other example of this style is known to have been produced at Tula. It was sold at Christies, King St. London in 2003 and had significant later restorations. Cameron designed fireplaces in a number of rooms for Catherine at Tsarskoye Selo. They were ineffective against the Russian winters and were retained as ornaments, their function replaced by traditional Russian stoves installed in the rooms.

Alterations to Fire Surround and Fender

With the fire surround is a fender of far more intricate ornamentation. It was common for Tula craftsmen to work relatively independently of each other even on the same commission. This may account for differences in the design. Research undertaken in 2015 in conjunction with the State Historical Museum in Moscow suggests the fender is contemporaneous with the surround and both have been altered slightly. The surround has been raised onto 19th-century, gilt bronze mouldings, lifting it about 5 cm higher than originally. The top plate of the mantelpiece once supported a larger plate which is now lost.

The fender has also had a moulded plate inserted behind it which inhibits the effect of the pierced ornament by providing a black backdrop. This moulding has a rectangular section cut out to take a smaller grate, an alteration that may have been made to adapt the fireplace when it was sold later in its life. This moulding also suggests that this adaptation confirmed the fireplace's role as an item for display only. Drilled into it in the centre and at each end are holes for mounting stands for the fire tools that accompany the fireplace: a poker, tongs and shovel. Mounting a fire tool directly in front of the flames would render it unusable. The stands for the fire tools date from the late 19th century and were probably made in Birmingham, giving an indication of when the alteration is likely to have occurred.

The Fireplace at the V&A

The V&A acquired the Tula fireplace in 1953. It first came to the attention of the Museum in 1934, when Charles Oman, Keeper of Metalwork, saw it in a warehouse in London. At Christmas in the same year, Connoisseur Magazine, published a full-page advertisement for the antiques dealer, Frank Partridge & Sons Ltd. of King Street, London, featuring the fireplace with the claim that it had been, 'made to the order of George III'. The advertisement supplied no evidence for this. Oman observed that on the mantelshelf there was a perfume burner flanked by 'a pair of candlestick-like ornaments' and a pair of urns, all 'in the same style', features evident in the advertisement. Oman was told that fireplace and ornaments had come from Hinton Manor, near Faringdon, Berkshire. Writing about it later, he said that the fireplace was sold and eventually became the property of a dealer who gave it to the V&A in 1953. By then, the candle-like ornaments had disappeared, possibly sold separately, but the perfume burner and urns remained. The same year, Lady Violet Page wrote to the Museum: 'Apparently it was not my grandfather in the Imperial Russian Guards, who brought the grate over to England. It was bought by my grandfather on the other side (paternal) at Christies. My father inherited the property in 1880 and the fireplace was installed in the drawing room at that date.' Her grandfather, Frederick Cleave Loder-Symonds, inherited Hinton in 1881.

The Wilmot Family of Cork

Prior to this date there is a gap in the provenance of the fireplace but it is likely that it was a gift in around 1805 to Edward Wilmot, Port Surveyor of Cork, from Princess Dashkova, a leading figure in Russian intellectual life and loyal supporter of Cathering the Great. Edward's daughter, Martha, lived with the princess for five years. Her letters and diaries contain many references to Tula and the family's possessions of Tula wares extended beyond the fireplace. On Thursday October 24th Martha wrote: 'Today arrived 3 iron bedsteads, which have been made at Tula, which the dear Princess is to send to my Father & Mother & to Robt & Eliza ... Tula is the Birmingham of Russia - tis there that iron is manufactured into every description of thing to which it can be apply'd.'

As only two western-style fireplaces are known to have been produced at Tula, any historical references to such items create the possibility that they may refer to this example. What makes the link between this fireplace and the Wilmots of greater likelihood is a letter Martha posted to her parents on 13 December 1806:

'Have you found out that the Curiosity from Tula, is a machine for perfuming the rooms! Charcoal is placed in it, & perfumes burn'd, which fume through the Suites of apartments, as the little machine is whisk'd about .. Its office I suppose will now be to lie quietly on the steel chimneypiece, to match which K is to take over a pair of steel Candlesticks, of Tula manufacture likewise.'

On the mantlepiece of the V&A fireplace is the perfume burner flanked by two urns all of Tula work. The rarity of the fireplace and the surviving perfume burner associated with it suggest that the Wilmots' fireplace and the one at the V&A are most likely the same.

Descriptive line

Fireplace with fender, mantel ornaments, and fire-irons, of burnished steel with applied decoration of gilt copper and brass and cut steel. The fireplace and ornaments by the Russian Imperial Arms Factory, Tula, ca. 1800; the fire tools possibly Birmingham, 1800-1820.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Campbell, Marian, Decorative Ironwork, London, V&A Publications, 1997, p.74. ill. ISBN. 1851771964
pl.15
Campbell, Marian. An Introduction to Ironwork. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1985. 48 p., ill. ISBN 0112904157
Melville, J. Cold steel, warm art. Antiques Weekly. Oct. 6th 1973, pp.33-5.
Malchenko, M. ed. Art Objects in Steel by Tula Craftsmen. Leningrad, 1974.
Loukomski, G.L. Mobilier et Decorations des Anciens Palais Imperiaux Russes. Paris and Brussels, 1951.
Angus Patterson and Lucy Trench, 'The Tula Fireplace at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London' in Ludmila Dementieva ed., 18th-19th Century Tula Artistic Steel, Exhibition Catalogue, State Historical Museum, Moscow, December 2015 to February 2016
C.C. Oman, 'The Romance of the Fireplace', Apollo, June 1961, p. 178-80
The Marchioness of Londonderry and H.M. Hyde, The Russian Journals of the Martha and Catherine Wilmot - 1803-1808, London 1934, p. 273

Labels and date

Fireplace with perfume burner and urns
About 1800

Fireplaces were uncommon in Russia. This rare example of a Tula fireplace was probably a gift from Princess Dashkova, a leading figure in Russian intellectual life, to the Wilmot family in Cork, Ireland. Martha Wilmot lived with the princess for five years, and her letters and diaries contain many references to Tula steel.

Russia (Tula)
Made at the Russian Imperial Arms Factory
Burnished steel; applied decoration in gilded copper alloy, gilded copper and cut steel
The etched decoration after designs by Charles Cameron
Given by Thomas Harris
[09/12/2015]
FIREPLACE
Steel with gilded copper, brass and steel
Russia; c. 1770-1800

The fireplace was made in the Imperial Arms Factory at Tula, near Moscow, of burnished steel with applied gilded copper, brass and cut steel decorations. The ornaments on the mantelpiece include, in the centre, a perfume-burner. A letter dated 1806 from an English girl in Moscow to her father reads 'have you found out that the Curiosity from Tula is a machine for perfuming rooms? Its office I suppose will now be to lie quietly on the steel chimney piece.' More information on Tula steelwork can be found on the panel nearby.

Gift of Thomas Harris
Museum No. M.49-1953 [07/1994]

Materials

Steel; Brass; Gold

Techniques

Forging; Cut-steel; Gilding; Piercing; Bluing; Acid etching

Categories

Metalwork; Ironwork; Household objects; Architectural fittings

Production Type

Unique

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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