Wednesday, September 10, 2014

To Permit a Sheltered Enjoyment of a View

Object: Pole Screen, c. 1770-1780
with late 19th –early 20th century needlepoint
Accession #: 1984.0051

Pole Screen in Wilton's Parlor
Eighteenth century fire screens provided protection from the intense heat of the fireplace and kept sparks from flying into the room. There is a type known as a ‘pole screen’ with a small panel and fixed to pole upon which it can be raised or lowered.  An example of one of these particular screens is in Wilton’s collection, a Philadelphia Chippendale mahogany pole screen with an adjustable rectangular frame holding a needlepoint figural scene.  In the scene is a man on his knees next to a woman with her arms stretched upwards and a castle in the proper left background.  The pole screen has a columnar support on tripod base and pad feet.  Fire screens would have helped shelter members of the Randolph family as they sat around the eight fireplaces at Wilton.  These would have especially been useful in rooms such as the parlor, study, and master bedchamber where people may have been sitting near a fire for long periods of time.

Earliest known screens occurred in China in the 2nd century B.C.E.and were made of mica or glass panels,and were used to “permit a sheltered enjoyment of a view.”  Some may have been carved and inlaid with jade, painted with landscapes, texts, memorable events or simple scenes of everyday activity.  Japanese screens were characteristically of six panels with a landscape spread across the whole instead of each frame being independent of the others like the Chinese screens.  Screens developed in Europe out of necessity to protect against drafts and the large fires of the Middle Ages.  Metal was avoided in the construction of these screens as the heat would make them too hot.  They were generally made of wood and covered with a variety of materials; wallpaper, textiles, and leather were among the most popular materials.

British Cheval Fire Screen, ca. 1730-1740
Metropolitan Museum of Art 
(acc#: 64.101.1154)
Not only were there the smaller screens on tripod feet like this Chippendale Mahogany pole screen but also ones known as “cheval screens” which stood on a pair of feet and four legged “horse” screens.  There were also larger standing screens with up to twelve leaves, which could be unfolded to cover a wide space or collapsed as necessary.  These were usually set up against a door for facilitating with the blocking of cold drafts and "provided the occupants of a room with a measure of privacy."  Smaller table top screens blocked drafts that made candles sputter and melt uneven.

By the 1860's, when heating stoves were used to warm rooms, the fire screen became a more decorative piece by placing it in front of an empty fireplace. However, during the 18th century when the Randolph family was living at Wilton, pole screens similar to this one were used for protecting those sitting near a fire from the extremity of the heat as well as the sparks that tended to fly out from these fires.  Guests and other occupants of the house would enjoy the warmth provided by the fire but not be sweltering.  Come to Wilton and see this fire screen as well as some of the other comforts enjoyed by the Randolphs and their guests at this elegant Georgian home.

Detail of needlework screen.

Anderson, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Furniture. Crown Publisher’s Inc. New York: 1965.

Prown, Jonathan and Ronald L. Hurst. Southern Furniture: 1680-1830, The Colonial
            Williamsburg Collection. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Williamsburg: 1997.

“Fire Screen”. Ingenious Inc. 8 August 2014. <>

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