Between 1760 and 1790, approximately twenty blue john fire surrounds were made, although only about a dozen are known to exist today. The first recorded chimney-piece incorporating blue john stone was designed by Robert Adam for Lord Scarsdale at Kedleston Hall, Derby. It was made by Joseph Hall of Derby and installed in Kedleston’s Music Room in 1761. It is the earliest known object made using blue john to which a definite date can be assigned. Other chimney-pieces incorporating blue john may be found in the drawing room of Dunsany Castle in Ireland (J. O’ Brien and D. Guinness, Great Irish Houses and Castles, pp. 30-31) and at Dr Erasmus Darwin’s house, Sydnope Hall, near Derby. The chimney-piece at Sydnope Hall has been dated to 1782 which supports the dating and origin of this surround. The rarity of surviving chimney-pieces with blue john and their impressive provenance make this Mallett example an exciting discovery.

The Music Room at Kedlesdon Hall, Derby.

George Hill and Arthur Darley were cousins and members of a distinguished family of stone cutters, who began work in Dublin in the 17th century. Ann Martha Rowan, of the Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin has compiled fascinating material on this family. The term, stonecutter, also covered the work of marble masons. They were a highly successful firm, although their aristocratic clients became less active after the Act of Union in 1800. This Act removed political power from Dublin to Westminster and resulted in a considerable reduction of wealthy patronage in the city. Examples of their work are to be found at the residence of the Italian Ambassador, Lucan House, and in the Architectural Archive’s photographic records. Examples in England are at Shropham Hall, Norfolk, which were probably brought there, circa 1900, via a marriage to Henry D’Hesterre Harmsworth from Co. Tipperary. These derive from drawings in the Royal Irish Academy, though they almost certainly came from a Dublin town house. The design for this chimney-piece relates to two drawings by Hill and Darley, Mercer Street, Dublin. They are among a group of some seventy watercolours of chimneypieces in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy of Dublin. The delicate treatment of the husk arabesques on the central panel appear on two of these drawings, while the unusual tall torchère topped by an urn appears on another drawing. The oval shaped panel at the top of the jamb on the chimney-piece offered by Mallett results in a shorter and better proportioned torchère. The drawings may have formed part of a larger portfolio of from which the client could choose different elements. Insight into the workmanship of the craftmen at the time is recorded in the Hill and Darley, Mercer Street, Dublin manuscript: This chimneypiece or either of them I can have finished three weeks from the time the drawings are returned. The price of such a chimneypiece in 1790 was £50 – a great deal of money at that time.

Italian white marble and Derbyshire blue john stone, together with a binding agent of shellac resin found on this example support a date of manufacture between 1760-1790. Blue john, a fluorspar found only at Treak Cliff near Castleton in Derbyshire, was utilised by the Romans and then again from 1760. The name comes from the French, bleu-jaune. “It has a radiating crystalline structure, with cubic crystals, and contains bands of blue and purple intersected with other bands which vary in colour from white or yellow to lighter blue... Its colour can be lightened by the application of heat, and it can be turned and polished until its crystals are shown off to the best effect” (Nicholas Goodison, Ormolu, the work of Matthew Boulton, pp. 75-6). Matthew Boulton recognised the extremely decorative qualities of blue john and how it could be used in conjunction with ormolu mounts. He wrote to his friend John Whitehurst: “I beg you will be quite secret as to my intentions and, never let M. Boulton and John Blue be named in the same sentence”. Towards the end of 1768, Boulton investigated the possibility of buying the lease of the blue john mines but he was not successful. In 1769 he purchased fourteen tons of blue john from John Platt and later, from 1771 onwards he purchased shaped and polished stone from Robert Bradbury. Blue john, being a semi-precious fluorspar, was used infrequently in chimneypieces on both sides of the Irish Sea, since the process of adding lustre to its crystalline formation required heat and considerable skill to achieve. Although there is no confirmed provenance for this chimney-piece, it must have been commissioned for a great room in a substantial house.

William Chambers, in his Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759), specified that “The chimney should always be situated so as to be immediately seen by those who enter, that they may not have the persons already in the room, who are generally seated about the fire, to search for”. He went on to stipulate that the ornamentation of the chimneypiece should reflect the nature of the room in which it was to be situated: “chimney-pieces for drawing rooms, dressing-rooms, bed-chambers and such like, may be of a more delicate and complicated composition. The workmanship of all chimney-pieces must be perfectly well finished, like all other objects liable to close inspection”. The construction of this chimney-piece is distinctively Irish. Friezes and jambs are frequently intersected by carved paterae, as the drawings show. A chimney-piece from Castle Upton, Co. Antrim, made for the 1st. Viscount Templeton, partially to designs by Robert Adam, shows just such an arrangement in the frieze, though with a Darley centre tablet identical to another drawing in the archive. This chimney-piece is now in a private Irish collection; a sale of the contents took place in the 1950’s, when the interiors were stripped. This, too, was inlaid with blue john flutes either side of the paterae. Another Irish feature of this chimney-piece is the distinctive band of blue john inlay on the inner edge with small carved rosettes at the corners. The discovery of Pompeii in 1748 was the main influence on the popularity of neoclassical ornament in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. Sections of the wall decorations, together with those discovered in vaults and catacombs near Rome provided a new vocabulary of classical design for the cognoscenti. The delicacy of the arabeque ornament and attenuated torchères found on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum derive from these excavations.

A report on this fire surround was conducted using a spectral analysing unit and both infrared and ultraviolet filters. A small sample of marble was tested in-situ by way of spectrum analysis to determine the chemical composition and ascertain the most likely origin. Although absolute accuracy of information cannot be guaranteed, all information given in this report has been cross-referenced with existing census records, historical data, shipping and mine records. The verification of this information is important as in recent times, several chimney-pieces have come on to the market claiming to be original blue john designs. In fact these objects are have had the marble inlay removed and re-fitted with blue john at a later date. The inlaying of small individual pieces of blue john in this fire surround to form flutes and stringing has been done with great skill and to striking effect. Various “veins” or seams of blue john have been fitted throughout the design and each seam comes from its own area of the mine workings. Each working was operated between specific dates which allows for accurate dating for when the stone was extracted. Certain types of blue john were preferred by craftsmen for particular applications, owing to the individual characteristics of each vein. Darker varieties of the stone tended to be used for inlaying on white marble as it was generally cut thin and allowed the white background to be transmitted, showing the banding and colour to best effect, as is the case in this particular application. Techniques for treating, working and inlaying the stone were used at specific points in history. The normal practice during the 18th century was to inlay the blue john into the marble before the final carving, grinding and finishing was done. Once inlaid, both marble and blue john would be ground down and polished as a whole, to form a uniform surface. There is strong evidence to suggest that this method was used in the construction of this piece.

Extreme close-up of blue john on this fire surround showing grinding marks on the surface. This indicates that the stone was inlaid prior to final grinding and polishing.

Blue john stone is found in various named varieties, each with it’s own unique banding and colour. Although there are many variants of each, they are grouped into 14 named veins. It is not known how and why some of these names came about, but some were used by the miners and craftsmen as early as 1730. By the mid 18th century, it was often common for a craftsman or designer to request stone from a particular vein, owing to it’s banding, colour or properties. Matthew Boulton for instance, preferred stone from the “Millers” or “Bull Beef ” veins for use in his ornamental vases. The identification of each vein is important, as there were 18 separate mines obtaining blue john. Knowing the vein used can identify the mine from which it came, and an approximate date can then be obtained from the mine records. Detailed analysis of this chimney-piece reveals that the blue john stone used has come from three separate veins - New Cavern vein, Twelve vein and Organ Room vein. All three of these veins are found within the blue john cavern, at Castleton, Derbyshire, first recorded in 1709 and known then as “Waterhole mine”. Records show all three veins were being worked simultaneously, in a period from 1767 to 1780. This gives a maximum age for the installation of blue john in the chimneypiece as no earlier than 1767. Allowing for extraction, transportation and working of the stone, in conjunction with the designing and working of the marble, a likely date for manufacture would be between 1770-1780.

A detail of the blue john on the frieze of this fire surround.

The main frieze is decorated with four panels of inlaid blue john. Each panel comprising of eight flutes, and each flute inlaid with several individual pieces of blue john. Close inspection and examination under ultraviolet light reveals that the blue john was inlaid into the marble by chasing out the marble, setting the stone into the prepared slot, using shellac resin, and then grinding down the stone to a uniform finish before polishing. The blue john stone was carefully chosen and inlaid in such a way as to look like continuous strips of alternating bands. Due to the complex construction of the panels, a numbered plate with a corresponding key has been used below to identify each particular piece of stone and the seam from which it came. Panel one, far left:

Sections 1-15: “New Cavern” vein Sections 16-36: The bottom half of “Twelve vein” with the exception of piece 32, which is a top section of the vein. Sections 1-13: “New Cavern” vein Sections 14-15: “Organ room” vein with the exception of pieces 30 and 31, which are top sections of the vein. Sections 16-33: “Twelve vein”

Panel two, centre left:

Sections 1-16: “New Cavern” vein Sections 16-32: Bottom half of “Twelve vein”, with the exception of pieces 30 and 31, which are top sections of the vein. Panel three, centre right:

Sections 1-15 : “New Cavern” vein Sections 16-24 : Top sections and 25-30 are bottom sections of “Twelve vein”

Panel four, far right:

Sections 1-13 : “New Cavern” vein Sections 14-15 : “Organ room” vein with the exception of pieces 30 and 31, these are top sections of the vein. Sections 16-33 : “Twelve vein” The inlay work on the frieze is all original and in good condition. A couple of pieces show a little decomposition of resins used to set the stone in, and prolonged heat has caused a small amount of yellow-brown discolouration of the pine resin impregnated into the blue john. Neither is serious enough to warrant restoration or replacement and is entirely normal for a piece of this age. Both the marble and blue john surfaces of the frieze have very faint, circular surface scratches, visible only on close inspection. These are grinding and polishing marks that have been there since manufacture and are not a sign of poor quality, simply the result of the techniques and materials available and in use at the time of manufacture. The second blue john feature of the surround is it’s use in the stringing around the aperture. Again small pieces have been inlaid and dove tailed to create the appearance of three continuous strips. All the blue john used in these strips is of the “Organ room” variety with the exception of the bottom 25 centimetres or so, on each of the jambs. The reason for the variation is unknown but it appears that this may have be an early replacement of the original stone.

Being at the bottom of the jambs and around the aperture, this area is most prone to damage from both heat and general use of the fireplace. It is also possible the installation of a grate or fireguard could have caused damage to the original stone. The marble in this area also has a few small chips that correspond to this belief. The repair is of good quality and has been applied by someone skilled in the working of blue john. The second repair has been done to a very small section of the stringing on the left hand side, about 40 centimetres from the bottom. The repair shows up clearly under short wave ultraviolet light, as illustrated below.

This phenomena is only seen in fluorites from the Weardale area, County Durham and from some localities in Ireland. It is only a tiny repair and probably did not warrant the ordering of a suitable piece of blue john, probably at considerable expense, so a locally available stone was used. The repair is very effective, skillfully done and invisible under normal lighting.

In order to establish the materials used, full mineralogy test and spectrum analysis was performed. A small sample “scrape” was taken from the rear of the chimney-piece and this sample was place in an analysing mass spectrometer. The results showed composition as (CaCo3)+(CaMg(Co3)2. Calcium carbonate content of 87% and Dolomite content of 13%. This is consistent with European statuary marbles mined in Italy from the Carrara and Massa regions of Tuscany. A test of the binding agents used in fixing the blue john stone was conducted using ultraviolet light. The yellow-green fluorescence shown indicates the substance used known to the trade as ‘stucco’. This is a clarified mixture of tallow, pine resin and sometimes shellac. This material was popular amongst craftsman during the 18th and 19th centuries and is often indicative of production date. Often these early binding agents were the craftsman’s own mixture and included animal glues and sometimes powdered glass for clear applications. In order to verify the origin of the blue john, its reaction to ultraviolet light was tested. As expected, no reaction was seen. Almost every other variety of fluorite will show a reaction to ultraviolet light, with the exception of fluorite originating from the Peak district of Derbyshire. This test confirms that genuine Derbyshire blue john has been used.

Primary Sources: Drawings at the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street, Dublin. Photographic records at the Irish Architectural Archive, Merrion Square, Dublin. Photographic Records at the National Library of Ireland. Literature: Georgian Society Records, Published 1912, reprinted 1969. Goodison, Nicholas, Matthew Boulton: Ormolu, London, Christie’s Books Ltd., 2002. Desmond Guinness and Jacqueline O’Brien, Great Irish Houses and Castles, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1992. Desmond Guinness and Jacqueline O’Brien, Dublin, A Grand Tour, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1994. Jeremy Musson, ‘Shropham Hall’, Country Life, 24 February 2005, p 77-81. References for the Report compiled by Richard Matthew Haw and Patrick Pilkington T.D. Ford, Derbyshire Blue John, Landmark Publishing, 2000. William Adam, The Gem of the Peak 1840. First-5th editions. William Bray, Sketch of a Tour, B. White, 1777. John Royse, Ancient Castleton Caves, Swinburn & Co. Ltd, 1943. M.E.A Martel, Irlande et Caverns Anglaises, Bishop & Sons, 1914. J.A. Croston, On Foot Through the Peak, John Heywood, 1877. J. Mawe, Mineralogy of Derbyshire, Phillips London, 1802. J.H. Rieuwerts, An Abortive early 18th century Trial Seeking Lead, Tray-Cliff Castleton, 1996. R.Haw, Compiled mine records of the Treak-Cliff spar operation, 2004. A.E. Ollerenshawe, The History of Blue John Stone, 1960.

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