By Michael Bidnell
Artificial light was a complex business in Georgian England and candles were something of a luxury............
Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan have a lot to answer for. They relegated the candle, once illuminator-in-chief to some of the world’s most famous interiors, to the cupboards and drawers of countless homes, only to be sought when the electric filament failed or a romantic moment required its presence.
Made from tallow or beeswax, fashioned in reds, greens, yellows, black and the more familiar ‘antique’-white, fabricated in different widths, scented and formed in an alarming range of different shapes, the candle is believed to have originated with the Ancient Egyptians, who used rushlights or torches made by soaking the pithy core of reeds in molten tallow, a hard animal fat gathered from cattle or sheet suet. But it is the Romans who are credited with developing the wick candle as we know it today. With their usual clear sighted approach to artefacts and technology, they simply heated tallow until it liquefied, poured it over a wick material, usually made from the pith of rushes suspended from a horizontal rod, and then shaped the cooling tallow with their hands until it was smooth.
Although most interiors in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries continued to be lit by rushlights and simple oil lamps, candles were kept in many homes to light the most important rooms for special occasions. Waste fat from kitchens would be used to produce dark yellowish candles that would do, with rush wicks, for the servants quarters; finer, waxen candles with cotton wicks would be used for the parlour and hall. In the eighteenth century, some great houses, such as Canons in Middlesex, continued to manufacture their own candles. The housekeeper at Canons kept 2,400 pounds of white, green and yellow wax in stock. But methods were changing. The Georgian period brought the first major advance in candlemaking since the introduction of beeswax in the middle ages. The growth of the whaling industry meant that spermaceti, a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil, became available in quantity. And unlike beeswax, it did not give off a repugnant odour when burned.
As for light fittings, it took until the middle of the seventeenth century for these to be other than rudimentary and for wall sconces for candles to begin to be seen as decorative and not simply functional. Until then, sconces we simply metal branches projecting from a plaque hanging from the wall and the majority of light fittings were plate candlesticks. Candle-stands for more than one candle were rare in England until around the 1650’s, when a few elaborate stands were imported from Paris. These might be in the form of black boys and were known as gueridons, the name of a popular black vaudeville actor working in Paris at that time. In 1651, a royal celebration was illuminated by Moors in the form of gueridons placed at equal distances around the room. French designers such as Jean Berain and Daniel Marot introduced into England decorative candle holders enhanced with brackets of symmetrical scrolls and lambrequins. These became increasingly popular and were manufactured here in brass, iron, gilded bronze and wood. At the same time, candle holders made of silver were becoming less fashionable, partly because they were often made from a thin silver and were prone to damage.
For the first half of the seventeenth century, candles continued, along with their multi-function counterpart, the fireplace, to be the main source of artificial light, such as it was: most homes were considerably underlit by today’s standards, Candles were a luxury, used sparingly even by the wealthy; they were placed in sconces and chandeliers only when they were about to be used and were removed afterwards. The light fittings themselves, though, could be extravagant. Wealthy houseowners might install multi-branched girandoles on the walls of their most important rooms and attach candles to mirrors, often positioned either side of a chimneybreast. Staircases, halls and corridors might be adorned with wall lanterns. At Houghton in Norfolk there are examples of carved and gilt wooden arms supporting glass bowls on the newels of the main staircase.
Around the 1740s, fashionable rococo tastes began to influence the design of light fittings. But the apogee of the candle came with its use in the elaborate chandeliers that graced the homes of the very wealthy in late eighteenth century England. Chandeliers, from the French chandelles (tallow candles), formed the focal point for some of the most important rooms, but in the same way that it is rare to find more than one Administer or Moorfields carpet in any but the most extravagant houses, it seems that just one chandelier was generally thought sufficient as a mark of status. When the Dowanger Duchess of Portland was visited by George III i 1779, she was reported by her friend Mrs Delaney ‘to have had the house lighted up in a most magnificent manner; the chandelier in the great hall was not lighted before for twenty years.’
But after this came the candle’s decline and fall. At first it was gradual, brought about by the intervention in 1783 of the Argand lamp (generally known in England as a colza-oil lamp, after the thick, greenish-yellow rapeseed oil it burned). In the early nineteenth century, gas arrived as a fuel for lighting, initially for public thoroughfares but later for countless homes throughout the country. Even then the candle spluttered on until 1879, when electric light finally relegated it to the second division of internal illumination.
The Georgian Group is the national charity dedicated to preserving Georgian buildings and gardens. Every year we are consulted on over 6,000 planning applications involving demolition or alterations. Our intervention has helped save many Georgian buildings and protect others from unsympathetic alterations. It is often through our influence that a better solution is found. There is a great deal to do and we need your support, so please consider joining us in 2009.
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17:16, Wednesday 21st July 2010
A good read!