Alison Sofield, Collections Volunteer
As Winter advances, our thoughts turn to keeping ourselves warm safely. Since early man and woman discovered fire, no doubt through the natural phenomena of lightning strikes or volcanic activity, a whole history of fire management and containment has evolved. Today’s focus is on fire screens, in particular an interesting screen held by the Whangārei Museum.
This lovely stained glass screen in the Art Nouveau style was donated to the Museum sometime prior to 1982. Little is known of its history and at first glance it would seem glass was an impractical material to use as a fire screen. Research indicated that these types of glass screens were largely used to hide an empty fireplace or to conceal the fact that the ashes had not been removed, so it would seem their purpose was largely decorative. However, if such a glass screen were used to moderate the heat from an open fireplace or to prevent sparks falling on the carpet, care would have been taken not to position it too close to the flames.
The Art Nouveau period covered the time roughly between 1890 and 1910. The style is characterized by long, sinuous flowing lines, often based on nature and was used in architecture, interior design, jewellery and glass. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new design and to move away from the restrictions of the Victorian era. The glass screen featured above shows a flower, a favourite subject in the Art Nouveau period. Famous glass artists such as Louis Tiffany (well known for his amazing glass lampshades) Emile Galle, and Rene Lalique all demonstrated the Art Nouveau style in their work.
Stained glass has been in evidence since the 7th century where it was mostly used in churches and monasteries. Customarily found in flat panel forms, it was much later, to be used in 3 dimensional objects such as Tiffany’s lampshades. The vibrant colours are achieved by adding metallic salts to the glass during manufacture.
Copper oxide produces a green or bluish green colour, cobalt a deep blue, and copper a vibrant red.The pieces of glass are then held together by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. The screen shown here is supported by an iron frame with feet at each corner and an ornate handle across the top to allow the screen to be moved. Another method of colouring the glass was to paint the glass then fuse it with heat in a kiln.
The function of stained glass in buildings was twofold, firstly to let light into the interior and secondly to provide an image of the world outside, through the colours of the glass.
Our glass screen with its jewel colours thrown into relief when lit from behind would have graced quite a grand parlour.
During my research I found a picture of an identical screen, but with the flower petal design pointing upwards. Could the glass have been removed for repair and put back upside down? Another intriguing puzzle.