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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Fire-back

Object 43 - Fire-backs formed a set of objects for cooking and heating; this one shows a connection to Stratford's local government and the rise of civic identity.

Peter Hewitt

Today’s 100 Objects post was written by Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

SBT 1993-31/261, Fire-back
An iron fire-back, dated 1585 (SBT 1993-31/261)

This week’s object is a cast-iron fire-back made in 1585. The design consists of three classical columns, which sprout foliage and flowers.  Beneath is the letter ‘W’, and to the right is an eroded coat-of-arms.  At the top, beneath the raised edging, a feline face peers out at us.  The ‘wings’ have curled scroll patterns and are dotted with small bunches of fruit; the whole design scheme is typical of Hans Vriedman de Vries’ Renaissance pattern books which were popular with English craftsmen in the sixteenth century.

Fire-backs formed a set of objects for cooking and heating, which included andirons, racks, pot-hooks etc., sometimes collectively called gobertes.  The structural elements were also important:  brick hearths and chimneys allowed chambers to be built over the ground floor, as the smoke was channelled upwards rather than wafting into the roof-space from the open fire.  Iron fire-backs like this helped radiate heat into the room, and also protected the expensive brickwork.

Despite the wealth and status a fire-back implied, they were relatively cheap to make.  A carved wooden replica of the design was pressed into a tray of damp sand, leaving a mould into which molten iron was poured, producing the finished slab with designs protruding from the face.  The ‘W’ on this object could be the initial of the maker, or a reference to the Sussex or Wealden iron industry, where many of these early plates originate.

lead impression of the Borough seal
A lead impression of the Borough seal, c. 1558, with a strap-work shield, three leopards and chevron

However, the coat-of-arms gives us a more important clue:  surrounding the chevron, three leopard heads can just be seen protruding from the shield.  These are the arms of the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon, which from 1553, were imprinted upon the common seal used by the Stratford Corporation.

Fire-backs were often cast with religious themes (such as this fire-back in the V&A collections), but this is probably a ‘civic’ fire-back, which belonged either to the Corporation itself, gracing the hearth of the chamber in the Guild hall, or it belonged to an individual who used the Corporation’s coat-of-arms to decorate his own iron plate.  It is, in both cases, an expression of civic identity that was flowering in Stratford after the Reformation, as commoners and tradesmen, rather than clergy and petty gentry, became increasingly involved in local government.

Detail of fireback
Detail of fire-back; leopard head at top and chevron arms can be clearly seen

So what is the significance of the ‘W’, and of the date, 1585?  We cannot be absolutely certain, but there are several possibilities.  Dates were included on items to commemorate specific events, such as a birth or marriage, but given the inclusion of the arms, the ‘W’ could allude to William Tyler’s election to the office of bailiff in 1585, although it is more likely that his surname would have been used.  Could this be the ‘barre of iron’ which sat in the hearth of George Whateley, a wealthy draper and three times alderman of the Corporation?  The Italianate designs and the proud adoption of the Corporate arms would not have been out of place in his lavish house in Henley Street, with its ‘lyttell carpett’ before the fire, expensive cushions of down, and painted cloths hanging in the hall.*  Whoever used this fire-back, the object is an expression of the pride, honour, and new found wealth, that came with public service and membership of Stratford’s governing elite.

* George Whateley’s inventory can be read in Jeanne Jones (ed.), Stratford-upon-Avon Inventories, 1538-1699, Vol. I (Bristol: 2002), pp. 123-129.