By Sophie Towne
You are a refined and well-mannered lady quietly sewing by the fireside contemplating the latest family scandal, but you find your face is turning a rather un-dignified shade of pink because of the heat of the fire. So what do you need? A fire screen of course!
We have many fire screens within Norfolk Museums Service and several excellent examples live at the Norfolk Museums Collection Centre. These objects are the quintessential showcase piece for domestic history. They are beautiful objects and it’s not hard to imagine the gentle lady of the house reclining in front of the fire with the screen to protect her delicate skin.
These objects are at once practical and decorative. They range from simple wicker screens to sumptuous embroidered spectacles. They sit proudly but quietly in every country house. So when you watch Downton Abbey next week take a moment to observe the surroundings of Lady Mary and Lord Grantham, I guarantee you’ll see a fire screen silently surveying the drama.
It is easy to picture a young lady taking an afternoon nap in the early 1900s bedroom scene from Strangers’ Hall seen in the postcard below. Here the fire screen provides decoration but is also functional. In fact, we have this exact fire screen at The Norfolk Museums Collection Centre.
The screen is a cross stitched image of a finely dressed gentleman relaxing during a hunt, his rifle is propped against the bank and he and his dog share a moment of calm. The screen is mounted on an adjustable mahogany stand and it is positioned to face the viewer of the postcard. It is the cherry on top of an ornate room.
We also have the fireplace seen in the postcard of Strangers’ Hall so we can almost recreate part of the postcard here at The Norfolk Museums Collection Centre. Even this useful object is embellished with floral and foliage motifs intertwined with ribbons swirling across the metal.
Although the bed dominates the room in the postcard, the fireplace and fire screen are essential and important requirements for the space. They may not be as big a showstopper as the elaborate bed but Lady Mary couldn’t live without the fireplace or the fire screen. The landscape of domestic history would be incomplete without them.