ANTIQUE LIGHTING HISTORY
Antique lighting is often considered a bit of a misnomer, as not much remains prior to the gas lighting of the Victorian era with, of course, the very notable exception of some spectacular Georgian crystal chandeliers.
The truth of early domestic lighting is that there wasn’t much for many centuries. From prehistoric times to the Middle Ages, the central hearth was the hub of family life in both humble homes and grand halls. The warmth and light given off was relied upon for centuries to work and socialise by and an open fire still holds emotional appeal today. The smoke, however, was rather less appealing.
Early lamps were made by filling a stone or shell with animal fat or fish oil and immersing a fibrous wick which could be lit. From this the Romans developed hand lamps which, in turn, gave rise to the candle. Yet, preceding the candle, was the most common form of early domestic lighting, which remained popular for centuries; the rush light.
Rush lights were made by dipping the rush into animal fat, normally bacon or mutton grease and clamping it onto an iron holder to be burnt. Introduction of the 1709 tallow candle tax lead to the introduction of the familiar expression, ‘Burning the candle at both ends’ which, contrary to our use of the phrase today referred to the extravagant practise of lighting both ends of the rush light to create extra light which, of course, made the rush light burn twice as fast.
The craft of making tallow candles began in England in the 13th Century and tallow chandlers were granted a Royal Charter by Edward IV, in 1462. A good quality tallow candle was made from sheep’s and cow’s tallow, whereas the cheaper pig fat candles used by the poor, smelt foul and gave off thick black smoke.
Decorative Lighting Influences
The first decorative light fittings appeared in the Netherlands in C12th. The style, which is still popular today and known as Dutch chandeliers, featured a solid brass ball in the centre with ‘S’-scroll candle arms. They were initially used in churches but made their way into wealthy homes in C14th. The 17th century saw an expansion in designs for candle burning chandeliers and sconces with pewter and silver the metal of choice, most notably the Haddon Hall chandelier (c1660) and the Knole House chandelier (c1670), both very popular designs which were much reproduced during the early C20th.
During the Georgian era household’s use of candles gave a revealing insight into its prosperity. A wealthy Georgian homeowner would use an extravagant abundance of wax candles to demonstrate their wealth whilst entertaining. However, the same gentleman may well be found working by the combined light of the hearth and a tallow candle once the guests were not expected.
Reflective surfaces were the solution for improving light, but glass was also expensive and heavily taxed, meaning mirrors, large windows and, the most magical light fitting of them all; the cut-glass chandelier were only an option for the very rich.
The late 18th to early 19th centuries saw a rush of domestic lighting inventions, which significantly improved domestic lighting for the wealthy – the poor were to rely on fire and rush lights until Victorian times when gas lighting was gradually introduced.