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Lighting in the Victorian home


Gas lighting of buildings and streets began early in the 19th century, with most streets in London lit by gas as early as 1816. But for the first 50 years it was generally distrusted and few homes were lit. After gas fittings were introduced in the new Houses of Parliament in 1859 the tide turned. Fasionable town houses constructed in the 1860s often had a central pendant gas light (that is to say a gas light attached to the ceiling) in each of the principal rooms with a ventilation grille above, cunningly disguised in the deep recesses of the ceiling rose. Gas 'wall brackets' were used in place of the sconce, and some staircases were lit by newel lights attached to the newel post. The largest pendant fittings had several burners and were known as gasoliers.

Late 19th century paraffin lamp and gas wall brackets in the entrance hall of the Linley Sambourne House, London. (Victorian Society, Linley Sambourne House, London/Bridgeman Art Library) Before the advent of the incandescent mantle, gas lighting relied on a simple open flame. By the mid 19th century the most common burners produced fan-shaped flames like the Batswing and Fish Tail burners. The Argand burner, which was successfully adapted for gas, was the principal exception with its circular flame.

All these gas light fittings and the early incandescent mantles had to point upwards directing the light towards the ceiling and away from where the light was needed most, and it was not until 1897 that the gas mantle was adapted to burn downwards - a useful event to remember when dating gas fittings.

Simple gas lights incorporated a plain brass, copper or iron gas supply tube with a tap for switching the gas on and off, terminating in a burner shielded from direct view by a shade or globe to diffuse the light. Some burners such as the Argand also incorporated a glass tube or chimney, and around which could be placed a larger shade of glass or silk. Pendant lights could consist of little more than a vertical rod turned at right angles at the end to support the up-turned burner, but they were rarely that simple in the Victorian period. Every element of the gas light offered an opportunity for embellishment. Early pendant fittings often incorporated two or more arms forming a loop, gracefully curving down around the glass lamp shade, with the lamp cradled below. In another design scrolling arms radiated from a central baluster, a design echoed by the scrolling arms of the wall brackets.

The shades provided another opportunity for embellishment. Most glass shades were translucent, either frosted or coloured and were often extremely ornate, with cut glass decoration or etched patterns. The most elaborate shapes appeared at the end of the 19th century when designs reached their most opulent in the Louis XV revival. As well as ornate silk shades on lamps with chimneys, a variety of other more delicate devices were introduced at different times, such as shades of glass beads.

By 1890 main stream taste had begun to change dramatically. Although William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, had established Morris and Co almost 40 years earlier, it was the second generation of craftsmen who started to manufacture products on a larger scale, often adopting the industrial processes reviled by Morris. One of the greatest and most prolific designers of the new style was W A S Benson who, with the encouragement of William Morris, had set up his own workshop making light fittings and other metalwork. His fittings, like those of many of his contemporaries, were mass-produced, selling through Liberty's in London in particular.

The Arts and Crafts style swept out the clutter from the Victorian interior, leaving them lighter and brighter in every sense. Richly decorated surfaces were replaced by plain ones relying on the warmth of natural materials and simple craftsmanship for their interest. Those elements like the fireplaces and light fittings which remained as richly ornamented as ever before took on a new importance, focussing attention. Often the decoration of fittings can be described as 'Art Nouveau' for their graceful, flowing lines and lack of any clear historical influence, but revivalism remained common, and most homes at the turn of the 19th century borrowed heavily from the Tudor and Elizabethan periods in particular.

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