Georgian and Early Victorian Interiors
century glass chandeliers and a wall sconce at Draper's Hall,
it is difficult to imagine how dark houses were in the past, not only
at night but also, in the gloomy British winter, for much of the day.
Despite the significant improvements made to oil lamps in the late 18th
century and the increasing use of gas lighting in the late 19th, few houses
had a level of lighting that we would consider to be adequate until electricity
became generally available after the First World War.
choice of new light fittings for an historic interior therefore presents
a dilemma. Few elements strike a more discordant note than fluorescent
strip lights and modern plastic pendant fittings, and yet a return to
candlelight or even gas fittings alone would be unacceptable for any building
in normal use. If the character of the interior is to be respected, some
element of compromise between historic authenticity and function is clearly
CANDLESTICKS AND CHANDELIERS
the 17th century and for much of the 18th our ancestors relied almost entirely
on the light of the fireside and either candles or, in the poorest houses,
rushlights made from the pith (of rushes) and tallow (a type of animal fat).
Candles were used sparingly. Even in the homes of the wealthy, when the
family was not entertaining guests, only the minimum number of candles were
used in a room at any one time, and these were positioned close to where
the light was most needed. A single candle was carried to light the way
from one room to another. Everyday lighting was therefore moveable, and
not part of the architectural design of the interior.
the larger houses of the time, fixed light fittings included sconces,
hall lights and chandeliers. Sconces (wall fittings) often had a mirror
behind them to reflect more light, and were often on either side of the
chimney breast. Hall lights, which might be pendant or wall fittings,
consisted of a candle in a glass case to protect it from the draught when
the door was opened. Chandeliers (suspended fittings with radiating arms)
were hung in the most important rooms only and were often designed to
light these rooms in a most spectacular fashion. However, keeping the
many arms of the most impressive chandeliers alight was an extravagance
reserved for special events, such as weddings. After George III visited
the Dowager Duchess of Portland at Balustrode in 1779, her friend Mrs
Delaney wrote: 'Her Grace had the house lighted up in a most magnificent
manner; the chandelier in the great hall was not lighted before for twenty
years.' (From Lighting in the Country House).
Simple oil lamps consisting of a wick partly immersed in oil were used
in some houses but they smoked badly and smelt even worse than the cheap
tallow candles commonly used. However, major improvements were made in
the late 18th century when the 'Argand' or 'colza' lamp was introduced.
Designed by Aimé Argand in Switzerland and patented in this country in
1784 by Matthew Boulton the Birmingham silversmith, the Argand oil lamp
was the first in a series of developments which revolutionised lighting.
Its success was due to the use of concentric cylinders which sandwiched
the wick in a circle, with air channelled through it and around it, so
that the oil burnt most efficiently. Air was drawn in through the middle
of the wick and its oil-filled holder from a vent below, and from the
sides through a 'gallery'. The draught was further improved by the use
of a glass chimney which caused rising air above the flame to draw air
in from below, fanning the flame.
LIGHT FITTINGS FROM A LATE 18TH CENTURY HOUSE IN LONDON. Top: a crystal
chandelier. Middle: a colza oil lamp with a central resevoir. Bottom:
A gilt wood candelabra converted to electric.
early lamps burnt colza oil, a thick heavy oil made from rape-seed which
was stored in a separate vessel to one side, above the level of the wick,
and the flow of oil to the wick was controlled by a valve. This configuration
gave the lamp its distinctive form.
Argand and Boulton had the misfortune to lose their patent two years later,
other manufacturers took the opportunity to introduce their own colza
lamps. A wide variety of different designs soon emerged. In elaborate
examples the reservoir was often disguised as a classical urn at the centre
of a table lamp or chandelier, with one or more lamps bracketed off it.
There were also simple, functional designs, such as wall lights with the
reservoir designed to reflect the light downwards to light the floor or
work surface, and elegant but functional brass reading lamps, as well
as many other variations.
reservoir presented a problem for single lamps, casting a shadow over
much of the room. In later variations this problem was overcome by introducing
a pump to carry the oil up to the wick as in the moderator lamp. The Sinumbra
lamp which appeared in the 1820s resolved the problem more simply, by
disguising the reservoir as a hollow ring inside the rim of the light
shade above. Oil was fed to the lamp below through the brackets supporting
the moderator and the Sinumbra resulted in simple pedestal-shaped oil
lamps. This form was established as the one with which we are most familiar
today by the introduction of paraffin in the 1860s. Made from petroleum,
paraffin was the ideal fuel as it was much lighter than colza oil, more
volatile and not at all viscous, enabling the oil to be drawn up a simple
wick from a container below. As a result, the complex system of pumps
and valves was swept away, producing the flat wick burners with which
we are most familiar today. Some lamps, such as the Duplex, had two flat
wicks placed close together to give more light.
EARLY GAS LIGHTING
When first introduced towards the end of the 18th Century, gas lighting
was viewed with suspicion. By 1816, 26 miles of gas mains had been laid
in London for factory and street lighting but few houses adopted gas lighting
before the second half of the 19th Century. Notable exceptions included
Abbotsford, the Scottish country seat of Sir Walter Scott, which was first
lit by gas in 1892.
to Dan Cruikshank and Neil Burton in Life in the Georgian City,
the use of gas lighting in the new House of Commons in 1852 must have
reassured many people of its safety, and perhaps marked the turning point
in public perception. In the cities where gas mains supply was available,
many houses adopted gas lighting from the 1860s.
early fittings used 'fishtail' and 'batwing' burners, which were relatively
inefficient. The flame smoked badly and in the more impressive houses
built at this time, huge ceiling roses were designed to conceal ventilation
grilles which conducted the fumes to a vent in the outside wall.
early gas burners all sat on top of the gas pipe with light emitted by
the flame itself. It was not until 1886 that Carl Auer von Wesbach developed
the Wesbach gas mantle which, when placed over the flame, glowed incandescently
with the brilliance of a light bulb. This subject, and the development
of the electric lighting in the late 1870s and early '80s, is discussed
by the author in Lighting in
the Victorian Home (The Building Conservation Directory,
the introduction of improved forms of lighting, candles remained the principal
source of light in most houses throughout the 19th century and continued
to be popular in houses where gas lighting had been installed for special
occasions. Lighting with oil or gas cost around twice as much as tallow
THE CONSERVATION STRATEGY
colza oil lamp of the early 18th century, with seperate resevoirs,
being repaired in the workshops of Denmans Montrose Ltd.
Most Georgian and early Victorian buildings in use today will have had
new light fittings installed when their electric supply was first introduced,
and these in their turn will have been updated many times since then.
Where original chandeliers and wall sconces have survived unaltered, there
is considerable scope for using them as originally intended for special
occasions, such as a candle lit dinner. However, those fine oil lamps
that occasionally survive (mainly in large public buildings and stately
homes) are more likely to have been converted to electric. In most cases
the loss of the original burner will rule out any possibility of restoring
old oil or gas fittings to their original form, but they may be rewired
requirement for a high level of lighting which can be easily controlled
rules out the use of early forms of lighting such as chandeliers and oil
lamps as the principal source of light in all but the most exceptional
museum conditions. This is not to say that original fittings cannot be
used as originally designed; nor does it mean that every room must have
fluorescent strip lights and plastic pendants. The question is how to
introduce new fittings to provide the lighting level required, without
detracting from the character of any surviving fittings and the character
of the interior. If the new fittings are to be seen, should they look
modern or should they be in the style of the period? The options are summarised
craftsman at Denmans Montrose Ltd cleaning the 'flashing' or mould
lines from a cast replacement for the 'gallery' of a light fitting.
Originally stamped from very thin metal, the cost of making a new
stamp for individual repairs is prohibitive, and individual replacements
have to be cast from moulds made from the original component.
Alterations may be expressed 'honestly' so that it is immediately obvious
which elements of the interior are modern and which are old. Advantages:
spot lights, up lights and other modern fittings can be freely used to
display the interior in the manner desired; and free-standing fittings
can be used to avoid the need to chase in electric wires. Disadvantages:
unless highly skilled designers are used, modern schemes can be distracting,
and even the best schemes may soon look dated.
New fittings may be introduced discretely, for example by hiding them
behind existing features such as pelmets. Advantages: the technique
minimises the impact of new forms of lighting on the character of the
interior. Disadvantages: in many interiors it may not be possible
to achieve a satisfactory scheme without making damaging alterations to
The impact of new fittings can be softened by using replica and reproduction
fittings such as chandeliers and sconces supporting genuine candles, with
free standing electrical light sources providing the main light source.
Replicas may also include contemporary fittings which have been converted
for electricity and later fittings such as gasoliers, gas wall brackets
or even early electric fittings. Advantages: where new designs
accurately replicate original fittings, the appearance of the interior
retains a degree of authenticity, and the alterations are less distracting.
Disadvantages: the use of replicas confuses the history of the
interior, making it difficult to tell what is original and what is new;
poor copies and imitations which try too hard to look old such as fake
patination and flickering flames not only look contrived, but they also
cast doubt on the authenticity of original fabric.
most cases successful solutions will involve a combination of one or more
of the above options. In each case the choice of design approach will
need to be considered according to the function of the interior and the
amount of light required for the activities; the historic interest of
the interior and the extent to which it has been altered in the past;
the availability of power points and the ease with which new wiring circuits
can be introduced; the need to conserve historic fabric and fittings;
and last but not least, the taste of the owner.
LISTED BUILDING CONSENT
In most cases light fittings are unlikely to be considered as 'fixtures'
of a building so listed building consent may not be required for their
alteration. However exceptions arise where the fittings form part of the
architecture of the interior or are in any way built in to the fabric
of the building. If there is any doubt it would be advisable to check
with the conservation officer of the local authority, as mistakes may
not only be damaging to the character of the building, but they may also
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1998
JONATHAN TAYLOR, is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He would like
to acknowledge the help of James Hall of JH Chandeliers Ltd and
Peter Hall of Denmans Montrose Ltd in preparing this article
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