It is not often that an opportunity to study six fireplaces in one home is presented to us. To explore and understand what the combination of personal taste and availability of construction materials was – at one particular period in time – is a rare occurrence.
Jolimont is an architect-designed home in Victoria, B.C., Canada. William H. Bainbridge, a mining engineer and businessman, built the house in 1892 for his family. He asked Samuel C. Burris, an architect and business associate, to design the house. Situated on a hill and overlooking the ocean five streets away, the house was described in 1894 as “commanding one of the best and most extensive views in British Columbia”
The large house was slated for demolition in 1984, but was saved and has been carefully restored since then. The six fireplaces have received particular attention, as they are such features in the main rooms, and they have retained almost all of their original tiles from 1892.
The main fireplace of Jolimont was the focal point of the 1892 Drawing Room. With a mantel and overmantel made of western red cedar, this massive piece of woodwork dominates the room. The rare feature of this fireplace is the stained glass window that penetrates the chimney over the firebox. A bit of architectural whimsy and Victorian cleverness, it poses the question: “Where does the smoke go?”. The chimney flue actually goes up to the right on an angle, and then straight to the top of the very high chimney, one of four chimneys of the house.
The Fleur de Lis design in the stained glass window – with a green jewel in the centre – harkens to the French name of the house given to it by the Bainbridge family – Jolimont.
The wallpaper surrounding the fireplace is William Morris’ Vine wallpaper, which he designed in 1873. It is available in three colourways, including this one with a rich gold background from www.CharlesRupertDesigns.com.
The tiles of the fireplace were made by Minton Hollins and Co. in England. This company was huge, with a workforce of over 1,000 in the 1890’s, and they exported tiles all over the world, including to western Canada. A rich design of green and brown majolica tiles surrounds the cast-iron fireplace insert, providing extra non-flammable fire separation between the firebox and the wooden mantelpiece.
Majolica tiles are distinguished by their molded surfaces and colorful clear lead glazes. Minton’s introduced Majolica ware, including dishes, jugs and ornaments, at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and it gained great popularity and commercial success with the public. By 1900, the fashion for Majolica had faded, and majolica tiles are now rare and collectable. Victorian majolica tiles in fireplaces are worth preserving intact.
Cast iron fireboxes were clever, prefabricated units that slid into an existing opening in a chimney. They were already supplied with a fire chamber, two rear dampers opening into the chimney, and two front grills that could be opened to control the amount of air getting to the fire itself. The inserts were designed to burn coal, but they also can burn wood or, more effectively, pressed sawdust logs, providing good heat from a small opening.
The cast iron fireboxes came in several widths. 24” and 30” were two common sizes, and it appears that the three main floor mantelpieces of “Jolimont” were each designed to take a 30” wide fireplace insert, but only a 24” wide insert was installed in each opening, as there are two non-matching, but original, strips of 3” wide tiles down each side of the inserts, filling in the space that would be the difference between the two sizes of inserts.
The filler tile strips of Fireplace 1 feature a Fleur de Lis design, complementing the design of the stained glass window above.
Questions are posed. Were there no 30” wide inserts when the house was under construction? Or were the larger grates more expensive, and it was cheaper to add tiles, rather than a wider insert? Or were the 24” inserts a more pleasing design? We will never know.
The hearth of Fireplace 1 – seen below – was made of 3” x 3” tiles set on a 45 degree angle, combining three different tiles: green mottled; olive textured, and amber plain tiles. All have shiny glazes. All of the three main floor fireplaces have a black ceramic fender surrounding the hearth.