A Guide to Choosing the Perfect Antique Fireplace for Your Home

As the world embraces sustainability, recyclability and timeless style, there’s a renewed focus on antique fireplaces as the centrepiece of the living room, the talking point, the comforter and warmth provider.

The twenty-first-century homemaker, vintage lover and interior designer has salvage emporiums, careful homeowners of past generations and specialist curators to thank for preserving and protecting these versatile decorative surrounds that are beautiful, memory-making and functional.

What does the label ‘antique’ really mean? Generally, the word ‘antique’ is associated with an item that’s at least 100 years old and has value due to its aesthetic or historical significance. And what of its well-being credentials?

This is where the vintage hunter is spoiled, as each cultural period without exception is recognisable by its fireplaces. And without going as far back as the Neanderthal cave dwellers, there are several standout periods. 

Neanderthal, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau?

Cave dwellers aside, the more ostentatious, the more figurative or artistic your fireplace, it represented – or at least gave – the impression of wealth and community status.  Universally, it projected a warm welcome. 

The Neo-Gothic or Gothic revival phase, which started circa the 1740s, is an eclectic one for fireplaces that were slightly austere and robust, created from materials, including cool marbles and Bath limestone. 

Simultaneously, Neo-Gothic had its romantic side with fireplaces hand-carved from walnut and oak with scenes of troubadours and courtly love. The gargoyles seen on top of churches had almost relocated to get warm by or on the fireplace.

The cast-iron Art Nouveau fireplaces of the 1930s, too, provided a familial feeling. Many are garlanded with side panels straight from the sketchbook of the time’s trendsetter Charles Rennie Mackintosh. They are in vogue now just as much as they were 90 years ago.

Size Matters

With any centrepiece, size does matter. Even when unlit, a fireplace is making a statement, as it’s a major unmovable feature in your room. It determines the seating plan with furnishings typically gathered in a semi-circle towards the fire. And on winter nights, chairs inexplicably migrate closer, either in search of warmth or the relaxation provided by flame and embers watching.

Chimney Breast

If your home already has an existing chimney breast, available space might determine the size of the fireplace you wish to install. There may be the option to modify and enlarge the existing breast, though it’s recommended that industry-registered heating engineers are involved with adaptations, particularly if the fireplace is going to be used and is not purely aesthetic.

Real Estate

Think about the width and height of the antique fireplace, as you don’t want the fireplace to protrude and stand proud of the wall taking up too much of the host room’s ‘real estate’.  

Neither do you want it too high, or it will be less a decorative feature and more of an imposition on the wall and the comfort you seek will be replaced by ‘crowding.’ The saying ‘small is beautiful’ is just as relevant to fireplace finding.

Other than the purpose of heat generation, there are practical extras. 

Do you require a mantle to display ornaments, clocks, photographs, and seasonal decorations? Or be an elbow rest when someone comes closer for warmth, wants to shuffle keepsakes or score brownie points by dusting?

Short-List Contenders

Now that you’ve identified the correct size of the fireplace, you might still be overwhelmed with the variety of antique fireplaces available. 

The origin or heritage of the fireplace and the cost implications might eradicate a few contenders from your shortlist. But this next question will definitely assist in the selection of the right fireplace for your space.  

It’s what type of fuel is going to be burned in or inhabit your antique fireplace?  

Historically, the solid fuels of wood and coking coal are the combustibles associated with fireplaces and the accompanying fire grates, fireguards, vintage bellows and log holders that are practical and pretty.

However, in the contemporary age of mix and match, and individual style, the alternatives of gas and electricity fires can be blended with antique fireplaces in an old-meets-new narrative. 

As before, with the installation of any heat-generating appliance of the real or pretend flame variety, seek the advice of an industry professional who knows about air circulation and regulations.

Selection, installation and care of antique fireplaces require time and thoughtfulness.  This initial investment results in wellbeing in perpetuity as penned by author Gladys Taber who wrote quite simply: “A house with no fireplace is a house without a heart.”